Yesterday, I posted a review of Baptists in America: A History, recently published by Oxford University Press. Today, the authors — Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins — join me for a discussion about their book. Kidd and Hankins both teach history at Baylor University.
Trevin Wax: Baptists started out as outsiders to American culture, and only later did they grow in number and national influence. How did their origin as “outlaws” or as you describe them “double outsiders to the established and dominant churches” impact their view of themselves and their understanding of faithful Christianity?
Thomas Kidd & Barry Hankins: Baptists have outsider status coded into their spiritual DNA. While other Americans were preparing to fight the Revolution against Britain, Baptists were being horsewhipped and jailed for illegal preaching. Sometimes the Baptists’ persecutors were also leaders of the Patriot movement. Thus, there’s a way in which Baptists have never felt quite at home in America.
Nevertheless, by the post-World War II era Baptists had also become the largest Protestant cohort in America, with accompanying political power and cultural influence. Especially since the Moral Majority’s role in electing Ronald Reagan in 1980 (unseating Baptist president Jimmy Carter), many Baptists have struggled to find the right approach to American culture. Are they caretakers of that culture, or marginalized prophets speaking against it? Should they seek more political influence, or avoid politics because of the way that it distracts from the work of God’s Kingdom?
Trevin Wax: “Baptist” may be almost as slippery of a word as “evangelical.” There are so many ways you can define the term. How did you determine what makes a “Baptist” a Baptist and who to cover in this history of Baptists in America?
Thomas Kidd & Barry Hankins: The easiest definition is self-identification: if a person says they’re a Baptist, then they’re a Baptist. Historically, “Baptists” would presumably practice believer’s baptism, rather than infant baptism, although many Christians (especially evangelicals) practice believer’s baptism without being Baptists. Beyond those general definitions, you see a broad spectrum of views among Baptists on social, political and theological issues.
Still, the historical roots of Baptist churches in America, across the ethnic spectrum, are evangelical. Virtually all of today’s Baptist churches originated from the zealous evangelism, and the view of an individual’s relationship with God, that emerged in the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The greatest fights among Baptists today, especially in the Southern Baptist Convention, focus on theological boundary-setting. In this sense, the real question in the SBC has been not so much who is a Baptist, but who is an orthodox Baptist? Different answers to that question on issues such as the inerrancy of the Bible have precipitated ferocious struggles for denominational control.
Trevin Wax: Baptists have been fierce proponents of the separation between church and state, as well as the right of individual conscience. Some people may be surprised at just how established the church was at the dawn of America’s founding. What role did Baptists play in the disestablishment of American religion?
Thomas Kidd & Barry Hankins: Without the Baptists, there would have been no disestablishment. Although skeptics and liberal Christians such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison get headlines in this story, the Baptists’ persecution by state church authorities in the pre-Revolutionary era highlighted the importance of religious liberty for the Founding Fathers. Legions of Baptists clamored for disestablishment, or the end of tax support for any Christian denomination, at the state and national levels. Politicians like Jefferson and Madison utterly depended on the Baptists’ support.
The greatest triumph came in the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty, and ban on a national established church (“an establishment of religion”), a development at which Baptists and many other evangelicals rejoiced. In the new free market of religion fostered by disestablishment, Baptists, Methodists and other evangelical denominations would overwhelm the old established churches (Congregationalist and Episcopal) and put their defining mark on Americans’ faith.
Trevin Wax: It’s interesting to see how the “insider/outsider” identity has played out in some of America’s biggest controversies, particularly the American Revolution, slavery, and the Civil Rights movement. You can find passionate Baptists on both sides of all those issues. What surprised you in your research of those tumultuous times?
Thomas Kidd & Barry Hankins: Baptists have generally been at their best when they have adopted a prophetic stance against the powers that be. This was certainly the case when Baptists campaigned at great personal risk for full religious liberty, for an end to slavery, or for Civil Rights.
In the latter two cases, there were some white Baptists who also adopted the prophetic mode against power, but too often white Baptists found themselves well behind, or opposing, the courageous pace set by African Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and other ethnic Baptists. We found it striking how difficult it is, in the moment, to discern when you are operating in the biblical, prophetic mode, and when you’ve really been co-opted by the established political powers.
Trevin Wax: You devote an entire chapter to the schism in the Southern Baptist Convention and claim it as one of the “most significant religious events of the twentieth century.” What makes that “battle for the Bible” so significant for Baptist history in America?
Thomas Kidd & Barry Hankins: There are at least three reasons. First, a major schism in the SBC is significant by the sheer number of believers affected, and because of the wealth and power of the SBC institutions that were up for grabs.
Second, this was a major theological schism with all sorts of social and cultural implications, which is why the New York Times and other major news outlets covered it on their front pages. Not all Americans read the Bible frequently, but the Bible remains America’s most influential book. The SBC controversy was the greatest institutional struggle over the Bible since World War II.
A third reason is that SBC controversy took place at the beginning of America’s most recent round of culture wars. The denominational split mirrored the polarization of the larger culture, even if the issues debated (women’s ordination, inerrancy, etc.) were specific to the SBC. It is difficult to say to what degree America’s culture wars drove concerns in the SBC, or whether the theological controversy in the SBC merely dovetailed with the culture wars. The only thing we can think of that would have been as significant religiously would be if the Catholic Church in America split into two new institutional factions.