It’s the Noise

I wrote this after the inauguration, when it became clear that part of Trump’s strategy was to destroy any referential meaning of language. Not that I think it was his actual strategy at the level of cognitive awareness, as I’m certain at this point that he’s not smart enough to understand how language works.

Everything he does is intended to make it harder to know what is true and what is false, so there doesn’t have to be a pattern. A lie is as useful as the truth, but he will not prefer one to the other. The objective is confusion for the sake of power, not clarity. In this context, words are made powerful by making them meaningless, so repeating what he says, posting what he says, reporting what he says all contribute to the overall degradation of language and meaning.

That was January or February. I don’t want to scroll back through Facebook’s impossibly clunky navigation to find the specific date. At the time, it seemed clear that journalists were going to have to take a different tactic. I finished the above quote with this: “If he says something, report the truth without the lie.” I still think that’s important, but I didn’t count on one factor, and it’s the reason I’ve barely gotten anything written this month.

It’s the noise. Even good words get lost in this much noise. I know, because I’m trying to read good stuff, too, but the temptation is to say too much about what is happening, because thanks to his twitter and the circus that is his communications team, there is always something to say, and it’s not normal, day-to-day shit that needs to be said; it’s commentary on the absurd or the shocking or the vile or the bigoted. When the knob is always set to high, all language is functioning under too much pressure; we recoil from so much absurdity, and language that attempts to draw us back toward the truth is perceived as too much, overstated, exaggerated. We have already watched the degradation of truth in the context of Church and politics, such that now conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists can’t be bothered to challenge any pronouncement, any executive order, any outrage because Trump is their guy—is God’s guy.

What happens now is the competing truth claims will be stripped of the necessity of being truthful, and in the place of truthiness, we will embrace an agenda of linguistic pragmatism. If the words get what I want done done, then they are “the truth.” I have no idea how long we’ll cling to notions of truth, as we no longer have even the simulacra of truthfulness in political discourse, and now that evangelicals are abandoning truth in religious discourse, we are going to inherit a strange, strange world where the “will to power” will trump truth (sorry). It’s the dark half of Nietzsche’s vision of a world devoid of gods, and in answer to the madman’s question of what we will put in God’s place, the answer, as Nietzsche knew, was power. I’m certain he wouldn’t even be surprised that the Church was leading the charge toward its own corruption, nor would Dostoevsky, who knew a Church joined to a state apparatus no longer needs a Christ. Power fills the vacuum left by an absent Messiah, but the noise comes first.

Pastoral Conversion

First thing this morning, I saw Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson, the headline of which was subtle:

Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage

No idea where that story is headed…

For the uninitiated, Eugene Peterson has been the rock-solid, boring, erudite, committed, faithful pastor that many pastors aspired to be. He founded a Presbyterian church in Maryland, and then pastored it for 29 years before retiring. He’s been a prolific writer, too, especially in the genre of pastoral literature.

I have to admit something embarrassing before proceeding, though. When I was a Christian, I read a ton of C.S. Lewis. I even took an undergrad class that focused on all the Narnia books, as well as his space trilogy. (The class was awesome; the space trilogy is terrible, especially when it devolves into lurid Arthurian nonsense in book three. Book two is sort of worth reading.)

For pastors, reading is both a survival mechanism—there are damn few people you can really talk to, after all—and an inspiration. All those sermon ideas have to come from somewhere, and books and movies are a good place to mine ideas. Lewis wrote “theology” so that people could feel smart and satisfied about choosing Christianity. They typically fall into the category of apologetics. Peterson’s books are in a different category, though, and I say this with respect: they are not the sort of books most church folks care to read. Peterson writes so that people act like Christians, a lost art form, for sure. That one of them is titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction should tell you all you need to know about Peterson’s methodology vis-a-vis Christian behavior.

Eugene Peterson is the tortoise to the hare, and that is sort of what people should want in a pastor. Unfortunately, the world has not gone that way, and Peterson has rightly spoken out against “pastorpreneurs,” and how fucking great is that portmanteau? If you’re not a consumer of evangelical twitter, you probably missed the firestorm today. Peterson’s famous, easy-to-read translation of the Bible, called The Message, has been adopted by churches all over the U.S. and Canada, primarily because it is faithful to the message of the Bible without getting bogged down in Elizabethan English or religious constructions that are more faithful to ideology than a life lived. In what will come as a surprise to no one who is familiar with conservative evangelicals, Peterson has been disowned by notable church leaders, and Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, may stop selling The Message, according to a story in Christianity Today.

This is all so pitifully predictable, and while I will unhappily track the progress of this story, the main point here has naught to do with Eugene Peterson, except that he walked into a revelatory moment in American evangelicalism. Why is it such a huge deal that a retired pastor has finally said that homosexuality is not that big of a deal, and that if he were a pastor today, he’d marry a gay couple? What is the obsession with human sexuality that makes the conservative evangelical church an angry, bitter witness in the world? Why is a pastor who has served faithfully and written with care and integrity such an enemy when he changed his mind? And how in the hell is anyone served by removing a solid, modern translation of the Bible from the shelf of a bookstore because the writer believes things that he did not put in the text? What breeds this form of herd lunacy?

The answer is simple, really. Having abandoned all biblical admonitions that would impinge on their lives, this sect of evangelicals has chosen two tribal markers to signify their faith: human sexuality and abortion. They have long since abandoned the Ten Commandments, even as they lobby to have stone monuments placed on government property with the erstwhile ethical guidelines to serve as a totem, despite it being bereft of power and authority. They do not keep the Sabbath. They take the Lord’s name in vain regularly—a commandment that has to do with actions done in the “name of the Lord,” not using naughty language.

They covet, divorce with impunity, kill “the enemy” regularly, bear false witness on political talk shows and from pulpits, and make idols of all manner of power, wealth, status and racial privilege.

In short, they need something to prove that they are faithful children of God. Alas, the commandments are too great a burden, so they choose things that don’t touch their lives. Until they do. And then, some of those who have been affected by a pregnant teen or gay child undergo a second conversion, or deconversion, if you will. Those who remain demand adherence to the two rules that matter: thou shalt not be gay, and thou shalt not terminate a pregnancy. It’s a sad, truncated message of grace, and their own sacred text warns them against themselves in words attributed to St. Paul: “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof: from such, turn away.”


As a former pastor, I still have visceral responses to pastors who behave in ways that make it impossible for them to exercise moral or pastoral authority. Robert Jeffress has been the most egregious offender lately. The senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas went fanboy yesterday in the Oval Office. I just don’t think obsequious and fawning should ever describe a minister of any faith. He’s clearly as unfit as his hero to carry out his tasks. Even the Southern Baptist Convention deserves better.

More problematic, though, is the admonition to ignore the “fake news media.” Who exactly comprises the fake news media? Does he include the outlets currently reporting on Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney? The sloppy and partisan use of vague language comes far closer to electioneering and pandering than it does to using words of wise counsel for his congregants. He might just as well put on the jester hat, except jesters were prophets of a sort. Jeffress seems unable to find the truth he claims to represent, and it’s clear he’s guilty of violating the third commandment.

The Constitution is and isn’t a Word-a-Day Calendar

Keith Olbermann called for President Trump’s ouster from office yesterday. I’m a fan of Mr. Olbermann, especially the old ESPN Olbermann, but the political version of the pundit is not as likable as the sportscaster version. One seems to enjoy his job; the other takes himself too seriously.

This is the latest soteriological fantasy devouring the intellect of my liberal friends. I’m afraid that Article 4 of the 25th Amendment is not going to be invoked against President Trump for being an asshole. That, unfortunately, is not a reason to remove someone from office, except maybe a school or camp counselor. It also highlights an annoying trend in our political process, where “process” is taken to mean “shit we say on social media about politics.”

Just as every SCOTUS decision creates an abundance of legal experts who have no law degree, so too does every Trump moment of asshattery create Constitutional experts. The Constitution is like a word-a-day calendar in that you can learn a new thing by reading a new article every day. Unfortunately, though, as with the iconic desk calendars, learning a new thing does not teach you context, application or nuance. If you’ve ever read a freshman English paper, you understood immediately that knowing a word is not the same as knowing how it’s used.

Still, I do appreciate people reading the Constitution one article at a time as the need arises, but it’s like trying to fix your friends’ problems with a sporadic read of the DSM or PDR.

On Robert Jeffress’s Unrequited Love for Donald Trump

I’ve watched Robert Jeffress fawn over the President since his inauguration sermon—which he references in patently self-congratulatory ways throughout this video—but this speech from last night’s Celebrate Freedom Rally at the Kennedy Center finally reveals what’s been going on all along. Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas has a massive crush on President Trump. He comes off like the bully’s sidekick who is just happy he’s not the one being bullied. It’s not a stretch to call it a poorly repressed sexual attraction. Just watch his face when he talks about Trump reversing the nation’s “downward death spiral” (:31), or worse, when he gives the President credit for doing “more to protect religious liberty than any President in U.S. history” (1:17). I should mention that Jeffress gets most of his “history” from David Barton, a non-historian who traffics in nonsense about America’s Christian foundation.

Le Fou

President Trump thanking Robert Jeffress for last night’s adulatory introduction.

The real Le Fou moment comes at 1:46, when Jeffress remembers praising Trump for entering the Oval Office with more natural gifts and leadership abilities than any previous President. Who knew that Washington, Adams and Jefferson were less gifted than Donald Trump? Only a man deeply in love could manage such nonsense. Has he not heard of Lincoln or FDR either? Does he read history? Understand it? The pastor of a 10,000-member Baptist church wrote an introduction for the President that sounds like the lavish, masturbatory love poetry of a besotted 13-year-old boy. No one doubts the feelings are real; we just want the teenager to have a little more perspective, a little more experience, a little more wisdom.

Most egregiously, Jeffress barely acknowledges the ostensible purpose of last night’s civil religion worship service: the military veterans. He gives Trump credit for “respecting our veterans” at 1:04. I’m forced to wonder how Trump has done that, especially given that he seems hellbent on kicking millions of them off federal medical aid programs. Jeffress does not live in a fact-based world, though. His is faith-based, but not even the good kind of faith. His is a preference for things as he wishes them to be. When at 2:30 he invites listeners to remember a picture of the President with head bowed and eyes closed at the Western Wall—a picture the President tweeted and captioned with “I am asking for God’s wisdom”—nothing can prepare us for the naïveté of Jeffress’s conclusion. “That is one reason I am so enthusiastically supportive of this President!”

Truly, what could be more convincing than a picture of the President pretending to pray in front of the Western Wall? I’m assuming Jeffress has children. I’m also forced to wonder what his response would be were one of his teenage children to say they intended to go on a three-day cruise with a new date and that the date had promised: “He said he has no intentions to try to have sex with me.” Matter settled? The avoidance of credulity applied to the security of our children should at least be equal to that concerned with the credibility and fitness of world leaders. Not in Jeffress’s faith-based read, though. He finishes by heaping messianic expectations upon Trump, asserting that God is giving us one more chance, maybe the last chance, to save our country.

Jeffress’s next book–he’s written a couple dozen–should be How to Give Caesar a Verbal Handjob in Front of an Entire Country and Remain a Christian.

We will trust in the name of our Gorsuch (Updated)

Update: I have added the first part of Robert Jeffress’s opening remarks from the Celebrate Freedom rally at the bottom of the post, as well as the lyrics to the new “hymn,” Make America Great Again, sung by the Dallas First Baptist choir.

Original post follows:

Tonight at the Kennedy Center, President Trump will team up with his court prophet, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of Dallas First Baptist, at the Independence Day extravaganza. Jeffress invested all his pastoral and moral authority in Trump during last year’s election cycle, and like many Southern Baptists, he believes America is a Christian nation. His sermons on the subject induced so many eye rolls in the first ten minutes, I had to force myself to finish them.

Before going any further, I have to say that I’ve been told on pretty solid authority that the FBC Dallas choir will debut a new “hymn” tonight titled Making America Great Again. 

If that turns out to be true, I’ll certainly post and mock the lyrics here later. That they would actually call it a hymn brings me to the main point.

This week has made clear yet again that President Trump would not be where he is without the allegiance of millions of so-called evangelical Christians, Jeffress notable among them. For my evangelical friends, relax; this isn’t about you. I don’t think most of the people who voted for Trump who called themselves evangelical really are. They are in a totally different and really old category: civil religionist. It’s one of the oldest categories in the history of religion.

fbc dallas

Congregants at Dallas First Baptist worshipping the American Empire?

When looking at religious people, we look at their practices to determine which sect is theirs. Listening to words is often pointless, as Americans have learned to separate belief into cognitive and active spheres, as if what I do is possibly not what I believe. The current milieu provides a stellar example. Those who call themselves evangelical allegedly believe in a form of Christian theism. For the religiously uninformed, that is a Christian who believes God is personal, knowable, and active in the world.  In other words, God actually does stuff in the lives of his followers. You’ve most likely heard people say something about answered prayer or God “working something out” or “making a way.” Those are theistic statements.

The problem with this pro-Trump “evangelical” crowd is that they abandoned theism in favor of civil religion, which is just a spiritualized form of pragmatism. Civil religion, best understood, is religion at the service of the state or in support of the political/cultural status quo. Jesus was no fool, and I can say that without believing he was God. When talking about absolutes, he postulated that humans can only serve one master. In that context, it was God or Mammon, but that second choice can be any number of things, including political power or influence.

(Your religion nerd friends will call this Constantinianism, after the Emperor Constantine who gave Christians a privileged place in the Roman Empire, and according to the wisest theological historians, utterly destroyed the moral authority of the Church ever after.)

Among the many excerpts from the Psalms that have been made into truly awful modern songs is Psalm 20:7. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (NIV) The title of this post draws from that Psalm because the overwhelming moral justification in voting for Trump was to get control of the SCOTUS nomination. The thought was that Trump would pick a justice who is pro-life. This is really about the ongoing fantasy in fundamentalist circles that Roe v. Wade will one day be overturned, and the messianic expectations landed on Trump, because they knew Mrs. Clinton was not going to pick a pro-life judge.

This is the moment where the method reveals the religious conviction. These people had no faith in God to work out something on earth. (Honestly, it’s hard to blame them, and I do wish they’d simply admit that if he does exist, he’s busy elsewhere or just doesn’t much care for humans–hard to blame him on most counts there, too.) Their faith was in Trump and his choice for the Supreme Court. God certainly wasn’t going to do it, so the transfer from theism to civil religion makes perfect sense. There is even a justification for it under a messianic guise: God’s man for the task, or some other such shit. Those are just words to disguise the reality that the so-called evangelicals had no faith when it mattered, and so voted for the closest thing any of them will ever see to an actual antichrist.

Jeffress is enjoying his newfound importance in the king’s court, but if there is any truth in that book Jews and Christians read, a false prophet’s day of reckoning is always just around the corner. Evangelicals of conscience, including the Southern Baptists among them, you may want to start publicly separating yourselves from the civil religionists who are co-opting the words and symbols of your faith.

Updated Section

Jeffress gets an inexplicable standing ovation when he’s announced. Why is a pastor getting a standing ovation for speaking at a patriotic event? Anyway, he makes a quick joke about it: “Trust me; I’m just the warm-up act.” That’s followed by a quick introduction of himself and his church, as well as a brief welcome to the audience. Then this.

“In Psalm 33, verse 12, the psalmist declared, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” It is absolutely an indisputable fact that our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for his Word, and because of that, we have experienced the undeserved favor of God upon our country.

“But it is also an indisputable fact that in recent years there have been those who have tried to separate our nation from its spiritual foundation. And that reality has caused many of us, many Christians to despair and wonder, ‘Is God finished with America? Are our best days over? Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?”

“But in the midst of that despair came November the eighth, twenty sixteen. (Pause for applause.) That day represented the greatest political upset in American history. (Pause for applause.) Because it was on that day, November 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters are gonna choose the next President of the United States…And they chose Donald Trump!”

The Lyrics to Make America Great Again

Thanks to the Reverend for sending this along.

Make America Great Again x 2
Light the torch of freedom all across the land.
Step in to the future joining hand in hand.
Make America Great Again x 2 with “each and every day” added to the last MAGA.

I’ll post the video as soon as it’s available.

Kafka, on meaning


They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings.  In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers.  As a result, there are only couriers.  They gallop through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service. –Franz Kafka: Translated by Lyman Baker.

I’ve been reading through Kafka’s “parables,” as they’ve come to be called. The genre designation works for Couriers, if not for the whole collection. This one struck me because as I attempt to come to grips with religion as a no-longer-religious person, I’m forced to contend with questions of meaning.

Teaching religion every summer to college students of diverse backgrounds forces a fair degree of introspection and reflection on me, both as I assemble material for class and as I attempt to answer questions, many of which, inevitably, have no good answer.

“How can you not believe in God?” A student will ask upon finding out I’m a former pastor and current skeptic. “Where did creation come from, if not from God?” The question is asked with genuine befuddlement, and mostly, a proper concern for my soteriological well being. Many of you will know what’s coming. It will feel a bit like a parlor trick, in fact, but it’s a question that has to be asked in an introductory religions class, if only to establish that the playing field will not favor a religion or religion in general.

“Where did God come from? If all things emerge from something else, in the causal sense, then what is God’s cause?”

When confronted with difficult questions, questions not just of meaning or origin, but questions of morality and practice, most of the students revert back to the answers they have been given, and they will continue to repeat those answers even when it’s apparent the words don’t actually satisfy the question’s demands.

It’s a trick of language, of course, a sort of demythologized magic that allows words to retain power — much like an incantation to be used against doubt — long after they have ceased to be real answers. When confronted with the above question, the student will always say simply that God always was/is. Then follows the moment at which they realize that this class will not be like Sunday School. I will not nod in agreement, because “God is” is not an answer; it’s an article of faith.

Sitting in a religion class must be an amazing thing for a novitiate of education, and I’m constantly disappointed that my initial introduction to religions other than Christianity came in the form of books, most of which were written by Christian apologists, that noxious sect of faux philosophers whose sole aim is to disprove all other religions, even as they do not understand that they saw off the branch on which they — the carrion birds of faith — perch. What must it feel like to sit side by side with people of other and no faith and discuss these things for the first time? I’ve never had that experience at the level of an introductory religion class.

The juxtaposition does create tension, obviously, but not the type you’d expect. The faith-havers tend to side with each other against the faithless, because many of us still believe that there is epistemological safety in numbers. To argue, however, that a person of no faith is deficient without faith requires an argument based on some sort of reason, and it’s at that point that the bright student realizes that if reason is applied to the whole process, all are doomed. Reason combined with a preference for a specific religious tradition, then, causes a balkanization of religious alliances, so that all fall back on their own dogmas. How else do you face a world without fixed meaning? If the answers no longer work, it’s best to keep using them lest you are forced to confront something worse.

Molly Wizenberg on food, art, and life.

Molly Wizenberg is a James Beard Award-winning writer. The award recognized her work on Orangette, a blog that started off about food, and ended up being about life. She’s also written a couple books, including A Homemade Life, which we discuss in this article.


If that’s not enough, she owns restaurants—Delancey and Essex—in the Seattle area, and she cohosts the Spilled Milk podcast with Matthew Amster-Burton.


photo provided

The summer 2017 issue of Territory will be out next week, so ahead of that release, the editor is making some of the spring stories available online, including my interview/profile of Molly. The entire print version is now available, and I’ll post the uncut piece on the Work page after the summer issue is out. For now, here is The Rituals of Joy.

The SBC opts for an “All Lives Matter” approach to the racism resolution

The new Proposed Resolution #10 is posted below in its entirety. If you haven’t read Emma Green’s excellent coverage in The Atlantic of last night’s debacle, it’s well worth your time. The resolutions committee has drafted new language that messengers will vote on later today, and three things are very clear from the new proposed resolution.

  • They are trying to take this seriously, but do not know how.
  • They do not understand how language functions.
  • They are using a tu quoque argument against people of color (POC).

The first two-thirds of the resolution is a self-congratulatory walk down (recent) memory lane, including their bold condemnation of slavery…in 1995. Hopefully, we’ll have a Holocaust condemnation before 2050. Who knew that BPT was actually Baptist People Time? Some of it is sheer tokenism, such as the fact that “nearly 20 percent” of their congregations are non-Anglo, and too much is a proof-texting appeal to the Bible. This is the evangelical formula, though, especially when it comes to “reasoning,” so it’s hard to fault them for doing only what they know to do.


They have severely watered down the language of Rev. McKissic’s original proposed resolution by moving the force of the condemnation away from the alt-right and to racism in general. They make a glaring error by condemning alt-right white supremacy but not the alt-right, as if the rest of the alt-right ideology is dandy.

In doing so, they are insisting — All Lives Matter-style — that racism is bad no matter who practices it. No shit. That wasn’t the point of the original resolution, though. And just as the All Lives Matter folks (white people of a certain ideology) either ignorantly or willfully miss the point of Black Lives Matter, so too does the SBC miss the point of condemning their voting partners in electing President Trump, the alt-right.

There was no lack of clarity in McKissic’s original verbiage. The lack of clarity was a lack of moral clarity within the resolutions committee members, and that is to be expected these days. It seems no one knows quite what a Christian looks like anymore, especially in the churches that prefer to be political power brokers, of which there are many in the SBC.



WHEREAS, Scripture teaches, “From one man [God] has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (Acts 17:26); and

WHEREAS, The Psalmist proclaimed, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the LORD” (Psalm 24:1); and

WHEREAS, The Apostle Peter said, “God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35); and

WHEREAS, Our justification before God is based on faith in Christ Jesus alone and not in our ethnicity (Galatians 3:27–28); and

WHEREAS, Scripture proclaims that Jesus is purchasing by His blood believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9); and

WHEREAS, Throughout eternity we will gather with a “multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in worship of our risen Savior (Revelation 7:9); and

WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message conveys that all Christians are obligated to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and

WHEREAS, We know from our Southern Baptist history the effects of the horrific sins of racism and hatred; and

WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry,” and “genuinely repent[ed] of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously”; and

WHEREAS, In recent years the Convention has nominated and elected individuals from a variety of ethnicities, including electing our first African-American president in 2012; and

WHEREAS, In recent resolutions the Southern Baptist Convention called on “all Christian men and women to pray and labor for the day when our Lord will set all things right and racial prejudice and injustice will be no more” (2014); expressed continued grief “over the presence of racism and the recent escalation of racial tension in our nation” (2015); and urged fellow Christians to discontinue using the Confederate battle flag, acknowledging that it is “used by some and perceived by many as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, offending millions of people” (2016); and

WHEREAS, More than 20 percent (nearly eleven thousand) of our cooperating Southern Baptist congregations identify as predominately non-Anglo and for the last three years more than 50 percent of Southern Baptist new church plants have been predominately non-Anglo; and

WHEREAS, B&H Academic recently published Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, highlighting our continuing need to root out vestiges of racism from our own hearts as Southern Baptists; and

WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as “white nationalism” or “alt-right”; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

The odd moral equivalency in SBC circles.

The Southern Baptist Convention is meeting in Phoenix this week for their annual convention. The event always includes a spate of resolutions that messengers (voting representatives of local churches) are meant to cast votes on. Half the fun of the run-up to the convention is hearing about the machinations of the resolutions committee as they contend with a remarkable combination of heartfelt, sincere, important, bizarre and insane proposed resolutions.

This year, one Baptist with a sense of humor and irony stripped the “Bill Clinton” language from a 1998 resolution wherein the SBC called on moral character from our elected leaders and offered it to the committee with nary a mention of Donald Trump’s name. The original resolution passed overwhelmingly–blowjobs from interns are, in the parlance of Catholic Christianity, at least, a cardinal or mortal sin. This new, cleaned up resolution passed after it had been severely watered down, by which I mean, it essentially said, “Hey, everyone ought to have moral character.”

st jude

St. Jude Thaddeus: Patron Saint of Desperate Cases

On a more serious note, Dwight McKissic, an African American pastor from the Dallas area, submitted a proposed resolution condemning the alt-right. You can read his verbiage here. McKissic has long been a man of conscience in SBC circles. I have interviewed him a couple times on stories for a religion newswire, and while I disagree with his conservative evangelical ideas, I found him to be refreshingly direct, honest and sincere. He is that rare Christian these days–a person of unminced words and clear convictions that seem to cohere with his practices. In short, a real Christian.

Resolutions typically function like position papers for the Convention. They are not binding ecclesial legislation, but they do intend to communicate the current mood and ethical orientation of the SBC at a particular time. This is a critical year for such positioning, given the fact that a not-small percentage of the denomination voted last year for a man who would certainly have been condemned by the 1998 resolution mentioned above.

McKissic’s resolution did not make it out of committee, and I’ll have more to say on that below. A resolution that condemned gambling as a sin did make it out of committee and was approved by the messengers, though. If you’re new to reading me, you should know that I’m pretty sure conservatives of various stripes are tone deaf to irony; they simply can’t hear it, even when it emerges from their own mouths, or conventions.

Quick aside to illustrate: when former President George W. Bush was limiting stem-cell research, he actually said science should not be used for the destruction of human life. It played well to the pro-life crowd, but the science involved in bombs and cruise missiles and other forms of mass destruction clearly did not qualify as “science that is used to destroy human life.” There. Irony missed.

To be clear, a resolution that condemned gambling as a sin was passed by the SBC in a year in which the winner of last year’s election–an election the SBC helped secure–assumed the reigns of the Presidency, and much of this man’s fortune is built on casinos. Stacking ironies atop each other must be a Baptist parlor game. It gets worse, though. The victory of President Trump was assured by a coalition of evangelical Christians, like the SBC, and, you guessed it, members of the so-called alt-right. How then is the SBC supposed to condemn the men and women with whom they linked arms to elect a racist to the nation’s highest office? Better to call him naughty by calling gambling a sin than to call themselves guilty for abetting racists, or being racists.

The resolution could have been rewritten and resubmitted, or a floor vote of two-thirds of the messengers could have forced the resolution to the floor for a vote. That may have happened and been ignored by the chair, but we will know that answer tomorrow. After the events of tonight, Barrett Duke, the chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions (and the VP for Public Policy for the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), answered questions. The first question put to him by Adelle Banks of Religion News Service concerned why the committee chose not to rewrite this particular resolution. Before you read his answer, this is the pertinent part of the proposed resolution he will be dissembling about:

WHEREAS, there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing…

I transcribed Duke’s answer from an audio made at the press conference tonight. I left the “ums” in at first, but there were so many, they eventually affected readability.

A good corporate question…um…there are elements, as I said, in that resolution that we agree with…um…the concern about racism…we agree with the language in the resolution about…when it expresses concern about racism and those who foment racism…uh…the Convention has spoken on the issue of racism a number of times, and in fact, just look at the Convention at this point, and you can see that…um…um…the Convention is addressing questions of racism. We’re reaching out to different ethnic groups, as well. Twenty percent of our churches in Southern Baptist life right now are non-Anglo churches. That’s a significant number…um…we just elected as a president of the Pastors’ Conference an African American man, a fine man, H. B. Charles, and I’m looking forward to his leadership this year.

And so we felt like some of the elements in that resolution had already been addressed (very) recently in Southern Baptist Life, and other elements of the resolution—as you heard me say—were just…the language was just inflammatory. To say that anyone associated or some people who might be associated with the alt-right are involved in and advocating ethnic cleansing? I mean that just seemed extreme to us, and part of the concern when you do rewrite a resolution is that you do still create the opportunity for someone to want to add language back into it. If you bring it out, then they want to add language back into it, and we just didn’t feel like the Convention needed that. We didn’t feel like the world…uh…needed that, as well. We tried to make sure the resolutions that we did (report) out showed the Convention in a very committed posture together and speaking very clearly on things we can speak confidently about and make sure that we weren’t misunderstood as well.

Part of the challenge of writing a resolution is making sure that people understand what you say, and they can’t misunderstand it as well. It was difficult to look at that resolution and think that it was not possible to be misunderstood by somebody.

Only a very white, very disconnected person could wring his hands over the “inflammatory” language of ethnic cleansing in a proposed resolution from an African American pastor. Does Mr. Duke not read the words of the alt-right? Has he not been on the websites, seen the tracts, heard the podcasts? Does he really believe there aren’t persons on the alt-right advocating ethnic cleansing for blacks and Jews and any immigrant browner than a Boston cracker?

It’s important to mention that the very short phrase was the only issue raised in the answer. Why not just take it out if it caused such consternation? Why not rewrite? Why not narrow the potential list of possible ethnic cleansers to “a few,” or whatever moral math the committee deemed appropriate?

The resolutions debates are revelatory moments in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. What they revealed this year was a denomination long on compromise where a racist, sexist, rapist, unhinged, white President is concerned, but short on moral courage and devoid of honesty. Mr. Duke used plenty of tokenism and obfuscation in his rambling answer. It’s a shame he didn’t try Christian virtue. The answer sounded more like someone trying to avoid the obvious conclusion that the SBC joined hands with violent racists to elect a man who embodies exactly zero Christian virtues.