October 24, 2011
— Martin E. Marty
Baptists and Mormons are running ahead of Catholics in media coverage on the current "public religion" front. Many of the members of all three faith groups chafe when they hear their movements denominated "denominations." Catholics chide scholars and reporters: "We are not a denomination. We are a church," or as comic Lenny Bruce claimed to hear them saying, "We are the church." Mormons are busy urging that they dare not be named and shelved as a cult. And the Baptists, who took form seeking to reform the church in models of simplicity, are so complex that many who observe them despair of finding a model term for them.
The role of Catholics in American public life has been prominent and debated since 1787 and long before. Nervous Non-Catholics saw them aiming to take over American power in the name of the Pope. Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, from day one in the 1830s wanted to be the pure American religion, but were always seen as aggressive outsiders and most recently have been classified as a "cult" by religious leaders who see them aiming to take over and run America politically and culturally. As for Baptists? They have been professing an individualistic approach to American political purity, but their religious rivals and many in the public realm see many of them, ironically, making forays into realms of cultural, political, and philosophical power.
Does the public at large "know" or "catch on" to Baptists in politics? Baptists have, after all, produced recent leaders including, first of all, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In the second row among prominent political Baptists was the late and admired (at least by me and by people of my persuasions) Senator Mark Hatfield, whose recent death inspired reflection and prompts me now to raise some questions about Baptists. Notre Dame's Mark Noll, who knows as much as anyone about this subject, wrote in the July-August issue of Books & Culture magazine, "So You're a Baptist—What Might that Mean?" Answer: almost anything and everything, most of which is congruent with basic (Protestant) Christian church positions as professed in many other (and mainly conservative) Protestant bodies. He points to the Southern Baptist Convention's 16 million members in the United States, plus more in 75 other separate Baptist denominations, based in thousands of local churches, many of them gathered into and/or separated into many thousands of congregations. Large African American Baptist groups enrich the mix and render even more complex all attempts to generalize.
Two recent books which Noll reviews help him sort out themes, but he cannot avoid gasping a bit at internal varieties. The books and review pay attention to niceties of Baptist teaching about, yes, baptism plus "soul liberty" and more. Whoever reads the books and the review cannot miss the accent on Baptist suspicion of "earthly authority," such as that in the civil order and in blunt practical politics. Here is where irony comes in: the public sees many kinds of Baptists, including those in the Southern Baptist Convention, fearing anyone's use of the Christian cross and message (about a kingdom "not of this world") now seeking privilege for many kinds of Christian endeavor.
Celebrators of "separation of church and state" who were not Baptist but were friendly to Baptists for their independent and non-dependent-on-the-state stances busy themselves now making sense of modern Baptist flip-flops, or reassuring themselves with the reminder that there are many different kinds of Baptists' stances—and Baptists.
Mark Noll, “So You’re a Baptist: What Might that Mean,” Books & Culture: A Christian Review, July/August 2011.
David W. Bebbington, Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (BaylorUniversity Press, 2010).
Robert E. Johnson, A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (CambridgeUniversity Press, 2010).
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.