Doug Jones pulled off an upset victory December 12 over Republican Roy Moore by becoming first Democrat to claim a Senate seat in Alabama in 25 years.
According to preliminary exit polling conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, the Washington Post, and other media organizations, Roy Moore won 80 percent of the evangelical vote.
To help better understand the origins and explanations of the current state evangelical Christianity in the United States, HDS communications turned to Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies, Lecturer on Ministry at HDS, and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Let me start with a story. It, and many like it, are part of family lore on my mother’s side. The Rev. Joseph Adams, my mother’s father, was a Southern Baptist minister in central Louisiana in the first half of the twentieth century.
Joe Adams was a Biblical preacher whose voice, if the wind was right, was said to carry a mile over the Winn Parish countryside. He was also a homesteader and a subsistence farmer.
In the mid-1930s, in one of the families in his parish, a young, unmarried woman became pregnant. She did not marry or reveal the father. Her family ostracized her, and, sadly, they felt that God spoke rightly and firmly when she died at the end of her pregnancy.
Prior to the memorial service the father of the young woman told my grandfather to deliver a sermon that carried the full force of God’s fury. The father said he wanted immorality and its consequences preached.
In a sense minister Adams acceded to the father’s demands. The sins he named, though, were those of the absent and silent man in the story—the father of the child—and of the young woman’s parents, all of whom abandoned her in her moment of need.
Now, it’s fair to say that Rev. Adams firmly believed that the Bible forbade sexual relations outside of marriage. But he also believed the Bible was always to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus.
So, on the day of the young woman’s memorial service, he asked, where was the mercy? Where was the compassion? Where was the forgiveness? Where was the love that Jesus taught? These qualities, he said, should have led them all to recall a similar story in which Jesus answered those who insisted they stone the woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
I don’t mean this story as hagiography; although many times in my own ministry I have turned to my grandfather Joe’s example when I needed the courage to do the right thing. Rather, I tell the story mostly because it exemplifies the way in which Jesus was at not only Joseph Adams’ theological and pastoral center, but also, in those days, that of many Southern Baptists—the predominant Protestant denomination in the South by far.
That was then.
A conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) beginning in the 1970s is well-documented. At stake was the conviction among the most conservative Baptists that liberalism had infected the seminaries and many of the churches.
The conservatives insisted that the Southern Baptists needed strong doctrinal and confessional positions (a decidedly un-Baptist idea) to unequivocally condemn particular sins and to preserve full-throated Biblical authority. By the late 1970s the takeover was mostly complete, and in the succeeding decades its goals were largely implemented. Seminary faculty and denominational leaders who failed to conform to the new ways were removed or left of their own accord.
It took until the turn of the millennium, however, for the Southern Baptist Convention to remove a major thorn in its side. At its 2000 meeting in Orlando, Florida, the SBC adopted a revision to its 1925 statement of faith, “Baptist Faith and Message.” There were several significant changes, among them these two:
- The 2000 version deleted a section on the changing nature of a living faith, which began, “A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation."
More pointed, the 2000 version:
- Deleted from the section on the scriptures: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
And replaced it with: “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."
The architects of the 2000 version of the “Baptist Faith and Message” publicly asserted that they wanted to eliminate the use of the teachings of Jesus to moderate the interpretation of Biblical commandments. They reversed the long-held Baptist belief that the Bible was to be interpreted in the light of the teachings and life of Jesus, as well as the believer’s experience of the living Christ, and instead elevated the Bible above Jesus.
The coup was complete; Biblical injunctions could now obviate any appeal to Jesus. Joseph Adams’ funeral sermon might now look a lot like heresy.
The origins and explanations of the current state of evangelical Christianity are unquestionably more manifold and complex than these changes within the Southern Baptist Convention. But we can see a similar shift among many conservatives in defining Christian values: from an emphasis on the life and teachings of Jesus—and the believer’s experience of the living Christ—to a set of authoritative propositions or artifacts.
The desire to overturn Roe v. Wade is an example of the change in emphasis among conservative Christians from the love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness found in the teachings of Jesus to a a propositional determinant of one’s faith.
It’s quite possible to be a loving Christian and be against abortion, but to raise that issue to another tier above care for victims of sexual violence, care for the poor, care for victims of racial violence, care for those from other nations trying to make a life in the United States, or care for those of other faiths and ethnicities is to raise the value of that injunction above the value of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Sadly, it’s a move that leaves too many Christians to express their Christian faith through clinched teeth.
—by Dudley Rose