February 26, 2007
Baptists, Biblicists, and Beyond
— Martin E. Marty
"Myths of the Baptists" is the mis-worded headline above a story reporting from across the Atlantic that does not treat all Baptists, and that also deals with more than just Baptists. John Whale of the Church Times and the Sunday Times reviews Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout's survey-rich study The Truth about Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe. A quote from the book: "Our findings confirm those of other academic researchers who continue to point out the glaring gap between religious and political conservatism." And from Whale: "At the polls, on this evidence, even the godly serve their economic interest first. The Republicans' real base is not the religious right but the affluent." Agreed—but might the Republican party not make a two-base hit with affluence and religion?
Greeley, of the University of Arizona, and Hout, of Berkeley, are both Catholics, as Whale finds it important to note. In their study, these authors expound a three-fold distinction based on the General Social Survey. First and most numerous are conservative Protestants in largely white denominations, including Southern and other Baptists, Pentecostals, and Lutherans of the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods. Next are "mainline Protestants": Methodists, most Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Third are African-American Protestants in their four or five main denominations. African-Americans do side with the first group in their hold on the Bible, born-again experience, and evangelism.
The conservatives vote Republican, the mainliners split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, but "the African-Americans plumped nine to one for Democratic presidential candidates since the 1960s." Nor are the biblicists found to be solid on the issues that inflame them. "Their marriage discipline wobbles: conservative Protestant men declare more sexual partners than do mainline Protestant men." Do the stuffy old squares need to get born again to play around? Yet the conservatives do tend to vote "family values." They don't just tramp to the polls "in lockstep."
Of most importance is that the impression of lockstep arises when the public hears "electoral threats from the religious Right's leaders directed at any politician who refused them backing, etc. .... That those leaders could deliver the votes of their rank and file was not disputed." But it should have been disputed, it is implied. "The explanation appears to be that conservative Protestantism has turned docile, at least in public. The pew lets the pulpit speak for it." The Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 adopted an "authoritarian system of decision-making" that evidently awes the two scholars who belong to that relaxed body called "Catholic." Why are the conservative Protestants so authoritarian?
Because, says Whale, the Bible, their supreme guide, is "a collection of books in which you can find at least two opinions about everything"—so "you need a firm umpire." Half of conservative Protestants say they avoid alcohol on biblical literal grounds, yet "any biblical concordance shows 'wine' symbolizing everything from abject evil to ultimate good."
Whale goes on: "Without bossy interpreters to think for you, you would be lost. And such interpreters can overstate levels of conviction among conservative Christians on wider questions, it seems, and hear no protest from the pew." Half of them will drink to that!
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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