Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fire, brimstone and Southern Baptist marketing

Psychologist Valerie Tarico writes about recent developments in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), aka, Great Commission Baptist Convention, Conservative Christianity's Marketing Gimmick to Keep Its Old-Time, Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat Away Point 06/27/2012

It also gives some background on a key moment in the career of one of the commentators this blog follows off and on, Brother Al Mohler:

Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought its teachings into line with compassion and the moral demands of the 21st century. In fact, by the 1970s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology [sic], linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions.

But then at the national convention in 1979, hard-liners seized the reins of power. Theological dissent was purged. Over a several years, women were removed from positions of spiritual leadership. By 1993 an adroit biblical literalist, Albert Mohler, who had been instrumental in the coup, was installed at the helm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A 1997 documentary, Battle for the Minds, tells the story of one well-loved but regrettably female theology professor, Molly Marshall, whom Mohler forced out. Under the leadership of Mohler and likeminded theological conservatives, the denomination has pursued the kind of authoritarian Old Time Religion that lead to the 1845 split, with biblically sanctioned sexism and homophobia replacing Civil War-era slavery endorsements.

Tarico argues that the SBC is doubling down on patriarchal attitudes toward women and emphasizing proselytizing as responses to fears of unfavorable membership trends. She gives a good description of the SBC model of recruitment (emphasis and bolding in original):

  1. Every member is a part of the sales force. Great Commission Christianity is first and foremost about recruiting, because membership is top priority. The Great Commission brand says that the most important thing churches can do is recruit more converts. Overseas medical services, inner city food banks, even friendship –all of these can be smart marketing, but they should be a means to an end, conversion.
  2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims. – A focus on outreach necessarily goes hand in hand with a certain kind of theology. The recruiting efforts would be pointless if there were many paths to God. The message of the recruiting is that there is only one path to God: being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Interspiritual or interfaith perspectives are wrong, and adherents need to be wooed from their misguided beliefs to the Righteousness.
  3. The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. In this case right belief means something like: You deserve hell; Jesus died for your sins; accepting him as your savior will get you to heaven. Buddhists may believe that compassion is the heart of spiritual practices. Modernist Christians may center in on the words of the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Priorities like these simply don’t work with the Great Commission strategy; they are too inclusive.
  4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. The Great Commission is a competitive strategy; and in fact successful conversion activities often are described as “winning” souls. Creating heaven here on Earth might require interfaith teamwork. By contrast salvation through right belief is an individual affair, and those who believe they are saved and headed for heaven tend to get grumpy if someone suggests that there is no hell.

Her history gets a little over-generalized here:

Mind you, the Great Commission strategy has been a winner for some mega-churches, and proselytizing is strongly correlated with the growth in minority sects like Scientology and Mormonism. In past centuries religions could capture mindshare through conquest, which is how Christianity spread through Europe and how Islam spread through India. Competitive breeding was baked into both Catholicism and Islam because it offered some additional advantage. But in the last century, the primary mode of competition among religions has been evangelism. In other words, the Southern Baptists have placed their bets on a strategy with some history of success.[my emphasis]
Given the volume of hate-filled and dishonest anti-Morman propaganda we see from the Christian Right these days, more carefully qualified comments on the history of Islam are desirable. Muslim rulers did expand by conquest. And there is some argument to be made that the unifying and motivating force of Islamic monotheism had a major role in that.

But the Muslims were not a bent on forced conversions historically as western Christians. For the Prophet Muhammad, Christians and Jews were considered "people of the Book" and Muslims were to allow them freedom to practice their faith. (Historically, many of Muhammad's ideas shared to him in visions from the Archangel Gabriel also had roots in Jewish Christian communities in Arabia with whom Muhammad also certainly came into close contact.) Although others such a Zoroastrians were not considered part of the protective umbrella of People of the Book, Muslim rulers quickly adopted similar policies toward other faiths besides Christian and Jews.

This is not to say there was no religious discrimination. On the contrary, rule was based in religious affiliation and Muslims received favorable tax treatment, for instance. Muslim-ruled areas didn't have to resort to the convert-or-leave policies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, against Spanish Jews. Over time, the advantages of converting to Islam became increasingly clear to peoples under Muslim rule. But the impression that Islam was initially forced on subject peoples via "mindshare through conquest" is misleading at best.

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