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Controversy History Methodology Scripture Social Justice

Conservative Resurgence Past and Present

Five years ago, Hans Fiene of Lutheran Satire fame wrote an article titled, “Gay Marriage Isn’t About Justice, It’s About Selma Envy.” The article is worth checking out, even though its point differs significantly from that of this post. Fiene wrote:

My generation engages in straw men, misinformation, and lies because, in every year of social studies class, we studied the civil-rights movement not as history, but as hagiography. We didn’t just learn what events happened on American soil, we were encouraged to mimic the segregation-defeating holy ones and merit for ourselves a place alongside them in glory. Combining that admonition with our general aversion to hard work, we concluded that the only thing necessary to be as righteous as the saints who fought racial injustice was to decry an injustice that no one else was. And we became so desperate to find that injustice, we lost our minds in the process.

Fiene proved himself to possess prescience few of us could have understood at the time. Aside from that, Fiene perhaps inadvertently highlighted a tendency found in almost anyone who works toward some cause. I’m talking about a type of hagiographic jealousy. Consider the calls for a modern-day Conservative Resurgence.

Do we need a modern-day Conservative Resurgence? Perhaps. Or perhaps we have so idolized the heroes of the past that we seek to become like them in the present, not grasping the history of what happened, or how much it cost, or the dire straits which drove it.

Following Fiene, perhaps the ferocity of younger Southern Baptists supposedly fighting a new CR owes more to idolatry or envy than to doctrinal downgrade and creeping liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention. We can modify Fiene’s statement as follows: Perhaps my generation of conservative Southern Baptists, “engages in straw men, misinformation, and lies because, in every year of [seminary], we studied the [Conservative Resurgence] movement not as history, but as hagiography. We didn’t just learn what events happened [in the Southern Baptist Convention], we were encouraged to mimic the [liberalism]-defeating holy ones and merit for ourselves a place alongside them in glory.” Therefore, “Combining that admonition with our general aversion to hard work, we concluded that the only thing necessary to be as righteous as the saints who fought [liberalism] was to decry [supposed liberalism] that no one else was. And we became so desperate to find that [liberalism], we lost our minds in the process.”

What I’ve outlined here is, I think, the immediate objection most Southern Baptists have to the current conservative project, whether they’re able to articulate it like that or not. Of course, I followed Fiene, so I’m not taking credit for articulating it that way. But some self-awareness is certainly in order here. After all, this site is named for the Conservative Resurgence. And so it’s worth searching out whether or not the apparent push on the part of many for some sort of modern day CR (and I’m not convinced that’s a helpful way to think about it) might be mostly grounded in hagiographical considerations divorced from their proper theological and historical contexts.

In response, I first want to flip the objection on those making it, then address the objection head-on. That is, those who dismiss, out-of-hand, the existence of or need for a new CR in our day are actually objecting on the basis of hagiographical considerations divorced from their proper theological and historical context. Why do I say that?

Some claim to have lost faith in the original CR because of the sin they see on both sides of the divide. No doubt, sins and scandals serve to tarnish the reputation of our theological heroes, whether they were part of the CR or something else entirely different. We should, of course, be a little more careful in assuming we are any better off, or would be any better off were we thrust into their circumstances. Nevertheless, sin certainly can make us skeptical of motives, methods, and movements, as well it should. But to object to a particular movement based on the sinfulness of its members rather than its objective merit in terms of principles is to divorce that movement from its theological and historical import and make the same error as those who divorce its heroes from that context.

Moreover, as Mark Coppenger points out:

Back during the conservative resurgence, a “moderate” friend said we “Fundamentalists” were “using a cannon to kill a mosquito.” Similarly, some denominational leaders told us, “Move on. Nothing to see here” and suggested we were pointlessly divisive, insufficiently enlightened or nuanced, disloyal, or just plain not nice.

Likewise, Timothy George:

I did not like the raucous tone and polarizing rhetoric generated on both sides of the Controversy in about equal measure, it seemed to me. But I was close enough to the center of gravity to know that there were legitimate concerns raised by conservative critics who, early on in the Controversy, were asking only for parity. I thought then, and I still think now, that had our denominational leaders at the time responded to this challenge with more discernment, constructively and proactively, the rupture in our Baptist fellowship which has strained our relationship to the point of breaking could have been avoided. Instead, a strategy of denial, and stonewalling, and then counter-insurgency was adopted.

Many of those who deny we need a CR (or something similar) now don’t really realize what it was like back then. Oh, things were bad, to be sure. Regardless, the rhetoric launched at conservatives in the past is very similar to the rhetoric that’s being pushed right now.

But what really upsets the Fiene theory as applied to the CR is that those currently pushing principles from the CR aren’t those who are merely jealous for the glory of the CR anyway…they are those who went through the CR. I could name drop all day, but suffice it to say, the heroes of the CR who are left, who haven’t fallen into scandal, are signaling that something’s up now too. It may not be the same as before, but it’s not completely different either.

All of this brings us to the immediate answer to the objection that those engaging in some modern day resurgence are just jealous. Maybe they are, but that doesn’t answer the question as to whether or not they’re right. It doesn’t answer the question as to whether or not something really is up in the SBC. Questioning motives doesn’t get to the meat of the disagreement.

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