Religion

What would the SBC be today without Paul Pressler?

(RNS) — Paul Pressler, who died this month at the age of 94, served for decades as a state judge in Texas, but among Southern Baptists he will be remembered for two other things.

First, in tandem with Paige Patterson, he was the architect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s so-called Conservative Resurgence, a movement that remade America’s largest Protestant denomination.

Second, he had been accused of sexually abusing boys and young men. We live in an age when these sorts of sordid and horrific revelations should not surprise us, yet they always do more than that — they shock. 

Yet Pressler is hardly unique in the annals of conservative Christianity. The person most analogous to him is John Howard Yoder, an Anabaptist theologian whose work influenced not only 20th-century Anabaptist and Catholic thought but appealed to many Baptists as well. Along with Stanley Hauerwas and the Baptist theologian James McClendon Jr., Yoder shaped a whole wing of communitarian Baptist theology outlined in the Baptist Manifesto of 1997.



And Yoder was a serial sexual harasser of women, some of them his own graduate students at Notre Dame University. Just as conservative Southern Baptists will for decades puzzle, and perhaps agonize, over what to do with their movement’s hero, Baptist and Anabaptist theologians struggle with the legacy of Yoder, attempting to salvage his theology while repudiating him.

Pressler may be more easily forgotten because his legacy was and is in denominational politics, not theology. What he accomplished is over and done, and no one will ever debate his theology in a graduate school seminar. Yoder is unavoidable when studying Protestant thought in the postmodern era.

The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. (RNS Photo/AJ Mast)

But what cannot be forgotten, for many Baptists, is what the SBC may have looked like today had Pressler not launched the Resurgence. In the 1970s and ’80s, SBC conservatives all believed that the denomination was careening down a slippery slope to theological liberalism, and today they believe the Resurgence saved it.

But this view ignores some very important facts. The theological liberals whom Pressler purportedly vanquished did not dominate the convention, nor were they a movement. They didn’t even dominate the seminaries where their views were tolerated, as were moderate evangelical Christian views. Rather, at the time of the Resurgence denominational leaders adhered to what Baptist historian Bill Leonard called the “Grand Compromise,” an effort to keep theological disputes at bay for the sake of unity around missions and evangelism.

But the Grand Compromise was precisely what conservatives set out to destroy in order to fashion a denomination unified around theology. And they succeeded — sort of. It’s often said that Baptists don’t have creeds, but the conservatives agreed on four main points: that Scripture is inerrant; that women should not be pastors; that only traditional, heterosexual marriage is biblical; and that abortion is murder.

The conservatives could never agree on the validity of Calvinism, but they learned to live with that theological division because it is not necessary to be for or against Calvinist theology to engage in the culture wars.

The culture wars were a gift to the Conservative Resurgence. Of the four essentials listed above, all but inerrancy translate nicely into conservative politics. (You just have to tweak the women pastors issue to make it part of secular feminism.) It was no accident that James Davison Hunter’s 1992 book “Culture Wars” appeared the same year that conservative pundit and political activist Pat Buchanan declared that America was in a culture war, nay, a “religious war,” as he called it at the Republican National Convention.

A few short years later, Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, instituted the four essentials at the seminary, by which time Pressler and Patterson had prepared the SBC for the culture war moment, which raised the profile and the power of the SBC. By the early 2000s, when George W. Bush was president, SBC political activist Richard Land put it well when he remarked that the George H.W. Bush administration would return his calls, the Clinton administration would not take his calls, while the George W. administration called him.

Paul Pressler in a video from 2015. (Video screen grab)

Paul Pressler in a video from 2015. (Video screen grab)

None of that happens without the Conservative Resurgence, and the Resurgence doesn’t happen without Pressler.

So what might the SBC have looked like over the past 45 years had Pressler not launched the Resurgence?

This is, of course, a what-if question, which are often more fun than helpful. But they can be a way of reflecting as well. So here goes.

First, without Pressler the SBC today is a theologically pluralistic denomination with a minority of theological liberals, a vast middle majority of evangelicals who want to focus on evangelism and missions and a minority of fundamentalists on the right who want to win souls but also fight culture wars.

Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham and W.A. Criswell would be members, just as they were before the Resurgence. There would be social gospel Southern Baptists focused on biblical justice, moderate evangelicals trying to win souls and shape the culture with the love of Christ, and fundamentalists militantly defending what they see as orthodox theology and politics.

A general view of messengers during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (RNS Photo/AJ Mast)

A general view of messengers during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (RNS Photo/AJ Mast)

Because of this theological pluralism, today’s SBC would be far less politically unified. The left-wing minority would all be Democrats, while the moderates and fundamentalists would all be Republicans of varying stripes, at least until Donald Trump came along and it became necessary to support him in order to remain a Republican. Still, even in this era of Trump, Southern Baptists who all vote for him probably have a variety of views as to whether he is saving or scandalizing the country. It’s enough that he hates liberals; it’s all you need to know.

Like James Madison’s vision for the country, in a politically pluralistic SBC no one group could dominate, which would mean the SBC would not have a unified voice politically, which in turn would mean the denomination would of necessity be less politically influential.

There would still be those like Pressler, who was equal parts Sunday school teacher and inside operative in the Republican Party. But the intellectual culture warrior Mohler would not be the face of the denomination. Without the Resurgence, it’s possible Mohler himself would have become a serious theologian along the lines of Hauerwas or McClendon, and not primarily a culture warrior. (In the 1990s, I thought he would be the next E.Y. Mullins, not an H.L. Mencken of the right.)

In other words, the denomination would not be viewed as primarily a culture war institution and only secondarily a religious body. This might be a good thing for America, and even better for Southern Baptists.

An SBC that had never experienced Pressler would not today be in the midst of its own culture war. The SBC today is torn between those who want to keep fighting culture wars and those who don’t. The latter want to get back to emphasizing missions and evangelism, and to something akin to Leonard’s Grand Compromise, refashioned for the 21st century. Ironically, given the SBC’s profile as firmly in the Trumpian culture war camp, those who want to tone down the rhetoric keep winning the presidency.

Finally, and most importantly, had Pressler never been in the SBC, there would not be today a group of middle-aged men still struggling with the effects of having been sexually abused by him.

Like other predators, Pressler used his position of religious influence to prey on his victims. We will learn much more about this in the near future as historians begin to scour archival documents, including FBI files stemming from a failed federal background check in 1989, when the George H.W. Bush administration tried to appoint Pressler director of the Office of Government Ethics.



Every historian who grapples with the era of the Conservative Resurgence and its aftermath will have to decide what to do with Pressler, just as others have to decide what to do with Yoder, or the abusive parish priest who gave them the body and blood of Christ, or the abusive Southern Baptist youth leader who led them to Jesus.

As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr allegedly once said, “Original sin is the one doctrine that can be empirically proven.” Perhaps he should have used the Calvinist term, “total depravity.”

(Barry Hankins is a professor of history at Baylor University and editor of the Journal of Church and State. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


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