Perception of culture divides moderates, conservatives, historian says
February 23 2001 by Mark Wingfield , Texas Baptist Standard

Perception of culture divides moderates, conservatives, historian says | Friday, Feb. 23, 2001

Friday, Feb. 23, 2001

Perception of culture divides moderates, conservatives, historian says

By Mark Wingfield Texas Baptist Standard AUSTIN, Texas - Differences between Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) conservatives and moderates on church-state issues stem largely from different perceptions of culture, according to a Baylor University historian. "The differences between SBC moderates and conservatives on church-state issues are even more intractable than one might think precisely because the deepest areas of disagreement rest at the level of perception," said Barry Hankins, assistant professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor.

Hankins offered the assessment during the annual conference of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, held at Tarrytown Baptist Church in Austin Feb. 12-13.

His presentation was based on face-to-face interviews with a number of leaders of the SBC's conservative movement, interviews intended to help identify what SBC conservatives really believe about church-state issues. While admitting he does not share the viewpoint of these conservative leaders, Hankins said he believes many moderate Baptist leaders have misrepresented what conservatives actually do believe.

When questioned closely, both moderate and conservative Southern Baptist leaders claim adherence to the same set of historic Baptist beliefs on church-state separation, Hankins said.

However, the conservatives are driven by a perception of culture that changes the entire landscape, he said. This is the perception that the United States today is hostile toward any expression of religion or faith.

Hunkered down in what they call a "culture war," conservatives today are willing to downplay concerns about the possible government establishment of religion in order to achieve the greater good of ensuring free exercise of religion, Hankins said.

"Far from believing there was any danger of the establishment of religion in America, conservatives became convinced that a decadent culture was being stripped clean of religious influences with the help of a secularizing state that was hostile to religion," he said. "Conservatives, therefore, low rate the danger of establishment and instead turn all church-state issues into matters of religious liberty."

An example is found in the debate over school prayer, Hankins said. "Because of their perception of a hostile and discriminatory American culture and state, conservatives have turned what we all consider an establishment violation into a free-exercise right."

On the other hand, Southern Baptist conservatives as a group are not advocates of a theocracy or Christian reconstructionist movement as some moderates have alleged, Hankins said. Such charges are "patently erroneous," he said.

One way the historian gained perspective on this matter was by asking conservative SBC leaders to evaluate a much-quoted 1984 statement by W.A. Criswell, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. In a nationally televised interview, Criswell said, "I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel's imagination."

While it is easy to assume Criswell spoke for all Southern Baptist conservatives, that actually is not the case, Hankins said. In fact, the only SBC leader he interviewed who expressed any sympathy for Criswell's statement was Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Mohler told Hankins he is "very sympathetic" to statements like Criswell's, "but I would be very reluctant to throw them out in the public square where I wouldn't be understood. I think the phrase 'separation of church and state' is a very unfortunate statement."

While Mohler explained he does not believe government has a right to establish a state church or take on a priestly function, "on issues of morality, it is ridiculous to believe that you can disestablish Christian morality without fundamentally undoing the American experiment."

All other SBC leaders interviewed by Hankins - including Jimmy Draper, Adrian Rogers, Richard Land and Paige Patterson - disavowed any sympathy for Criswell's statement. One called it "bizarre," and another said it was "not one of Criswell's finer hours."

"All the SBC conservatives I've talked to argue that people of all faiths should worship freely in America and that the state should coerce no one in matters of religion," Hankins said. "Still, this leaves a puzzling question. If SBC conservatives espouse the same religious liberty principles as moderates, why are they on the other side of moderates on so many church-state issues?"

The answer, he said, "has to do with the conservatives' perceptions of American culture. ... SBC conservatives believe American culture has turned hostile toward evangelicals. America, in their view, is now discriminatory toward nearly all positions of faith.

"This is the language of culture war, and it drives the SBC conservative movement on issues ranging from church-state, to abortion, to the roles of women," Hankins said. "In fact, I believe perceptions of American culture serve as the glue that holds together Calvinist theologians like Mohler with revivalist preachers like Rogers, evangelistic expositors like Patterson and public advocates like Land.

"On church-state issues, this perception of culture not only shapes their positions on religious liberty but also leads them to virtually disregard the danger of the establishment of religion," he said.

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2/23/2001 12:00:00 AM by Mark Wingfield , Texas Baptist Standard | with 0 comments
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