Monday, May 14, 2007

Religion Redux

In the last couple of months I've had the good fortune to meet several transplanted Southerners who now call New York City home. Oddly enough, we each had been raised as Southern Baptists and, reaching adulthood, rejected that denomination in favor of more liberal religious climes.

If you follow politics, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) will be a familiar entity because the denomination always places itself squarely on the right wing of the "right wing." To non-Southerners, the denomination is often conveniently lumped together with other evangelical, conservative groups. And Southern Baptists do mirror the views of many of these organizations, including the Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family, and Pat Robertson's army of followers.

But the Southern Baptist Church wasn't always this conservative or politically involved. (Given their recent political connections and attempts to control their members' electoral habits, the SBC's tax-exempt status should be revoked.) Prior to the late 1970s the SBC was a large, but relatively quiet denomination among America's mainstream religious groups. The Southern Baptist Convention leadership, which oversees the denomination, engaged most of its energy and resources in mission work, both domestic and foreign. Individual congregations were largely independent, particularly in terms of what was preached on Sundays.

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, a faction of "fundamentalists" who believed, for example, in the inerrancy of every word of the Bible, began to hijack the denomination and Convention leadership. By the early 1980s, having succeeded, they began the process of enforcing dogmatic belief among congregations and ministers, while purging Baptist seminaries of women (students and professors) and those who didn't subscribe to the fundamentalist party line. In some cases, students and teachers were even forced to sign statements avowing the "literal truth" of the Bible. From that point on, it was just a downward spiral for the SBC as it joined the ranks of America's fascist organizations. Although the vast majority of congregations fell in line, lock-step, behind the Convention's leadership, a few more liberal churches openly broke away, some forming a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Thus it's no surprise that this conservative shift alienated countless individual members who rejected the SBC and, in many cases, walked away from organized religion altogether. So as one of those apostates, I was thrilled to meet people who had experienced the very same thing. I think I've mentioned in earlier posts that religion to Southerners is interwoven in the very fabric of our region's culture. It permeates southern society and affects one's life in the South whether one attends church or not. For those of us who had attended Baptist churches as children - and enjoyed the benefits of Sunday schools and summer "vacation Bible schools" - we understandably felt betrayed by a denomination now preaching a doctrine defined by hate and intolerance. The SBC's pathological anti-intellectualism - most often expressed in its disdain for Darwinist concepts and acceptance of "creationism" - likewise proved unacceptable to more liberal-minded adherents.

To make matters worse, much of what fundamentalists espoused had nothing to do with basic Christianity or traditional Baptist doctrine. Indeed, as Bruce Bawer revealed in Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, fundamentalist beliefs were largely of 19th century origin and had no intellectual foundation in the Bible. Add the rise of similarly extremist "Christian" organizations and their cozy relationship with the Republican party, and a sense of betrayal among former SBC members often turned to outrage. (I dealt with the theme of outrage in Friday's post.)

In meeting these "Southern" New Yorkers I was amazed to learn that we had each experienced strikingly similar spiritual journeys that often included years of agnosticism and a rejection of church affiliation. Although I eventually turned to the Episcopal Church as an outlet for my convoluted faith, I still find it very difficult to actually sit in a church or follow a liturgy - as much as I enjoy some segments of the liturgy. I've also begun to incorporate ideas from Buddhism and the Quaker expressions of Christianity, making more traditional outlets of incorporated worship increasingly difficult to accept. I'm comforted by the discovery that many of my ex-Baptist contemporaries have adapted their spiritual lives to accept this admixture of religious doctrines. In the end, I believe that they're all expressions of the same basic human need to understand the concept of "god" in its most universal connotations.

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