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Why Southern Baptists canceled an appearance by Ben Carson (COMMENTARY)

Ben Carson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Ben Carson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Carson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md.

(RNS) Last week, Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon and likely presidential candidate, withdrew from speaking at the pastors’ conference that precedes the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. After several weeks of criticism, primarily from younger pastors, the organizers of the conference asked him to step aside and he agreed.

Why did a controversy erupt over Ben Carson? After all, there is historical precedent for politicians speaking at this conference. Mike Huckabee spoke in 2009 and 2013. Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush have sent greetings via video. And Carson is admired by Southern Baptists for his personal story and political principles. He is a religious man (a Seventh-day Adventist) who believes in human rights for the unborn and upholds the historic meaning of marriage.

Observers on the outside may see younger pastors’ protesting Carson and jump to two wrong conclusions:

  1. They may assume there is a leftward political shift among pastors from the millennial generation. Perhaps a conservative stalwart like Carson was too polarizing for younger pastors who are moving to the left on political issues?
  2. They may assume younger pastors believe churches should withdraw from the political realm and create a sharp separation between the church and politics.

There is indeed a generational shift in the Southern Baptist Convention, but both these conclusions miss the true nature of what is taking place.

Regarding the first assumption, the problem for younger pastors was not that Carson is too conservative politically, but that he is not conservative enough theologically.

Younger Southern Baptists who reach across denominational lines in support of life, marriage and religious liberty are less likely to be enthusiastic about a pastors’ conference lineup that may, in some way, communicate unity around a political platform rather than the gospel of Jesus.

Regarding the second assumption, younger pastors are not withdrawing from political matters. They questioned the propriety of a potential presidential candidate addressing a convention of Baptists. Younger Southern Baptists fear that a display of partisanship will sacrifice the meeting’s ability to be a prophetic voice in relation to both parties. The desire is not to withdraw politically, but to engage prophetically.

To be sure, there is a generational shift in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. But it is not a shift in doctrinal and moral convictions. It is, instead, a shift in how the generations see themselves in relation to the United States.

Older Southern Baptists tend to see the U.S. as the Bible depicts Israel; that is, an exceptional nation founded on biblical values. Because of this heritage, we have been especially blessed of God, and we are called to steward that blessing for the rest of the world. This leads to the moral majority’s vision for society. The church has a privileged place in society and serves as a moral ballast upholding traditional family values.

Younger Southern Baptists see the U.S. as the Bible depicts Babylon; that is, we are exiles in a land that marginalizes and opposes historic religious views. Far from being a “moral majority,” younger pastors are more likely to see their role as a missionary minority: speaking truth to power, witnessing to the good news of Jesus in a world that is increasingly hostile to a Christian worldview. Accordingly, there is less emphasis on bringing change through political mobilization and more emphasis on dealing pastorally and compassionately with the implications of a secularizing society.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

The Ben Carson controversy represents this underlying generational shift, from the days when the SBC saw itself as reflective of the country’s traditional family values, to the days when the SBC sees itself as a dissenting minority. Younger pastors are grappling with the reality that Christian moral convictions do not reflect the majority culture’s values. Their reticence to hear a political pundit like Carson, even when they would largely agree with his beliefs, is rooted in a desire to be faithful to Christ in American culture — as prophets, not partisans.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/MG END WAX

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Trevin Wax

26 Comments

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  • There is a big hole in Mr. Wax’s discussion. If the reasons for cancelling Mr. Carson’s appearance aren’t because the reasons he cited:
    1. He may be out of step with younger pastors; or
    2. Younger pastors are avoiding entanglement of the church and politics

    Then why was he cancelled? Mr. Wax has no answers for that.

    But it definitely is not for the reasons he stated. No siree. Definitely and categorically not for such reasons. /sarcasm.

    “The Ben Carson controversy represents this underlying generational shift, from the days when the SBC saw itself as reflective of the country’s traditional family values, to the days when the SBC sees itself ”

    Those “traditional family values” of the SBC included keeping races separate by force of law. In the old days, Ben Carson would be denounced vociferously by the SBC for being an educated black man. Someone who refused to accept the racial divides the church sought to keep through support of legalized discrimination.

  • I totally agree that the younger generation see exile in Babylon where the older generation sees Israel and blessing. The shift towards a mission focus which brings cultural influence is more biblical than using political power to do so. Carson represents the older traditional stance, and that is why I may agree with much of his morals, but not his answer through political means.

  • “They questioned the propriety of a potential presidential candidate addressing a convention of Baptists. Younger Southern Baptists fear that a display of partisanship will sacrifice the meeting’s ability to be a prophetic voice in relation to both parties. The desire is not to withdraw politically, but to engage prophetically.”

    Thank the Lord, after all these years of being in the hands of far right politicians and rank fundamentalist, the SBC Pastors Conference have finely had a group of young ministers to stand up and say “enough”. The static status of the hierarchy may be finally diminishing. There is actually ministry (social ministry which many in SBC would grimace at the thought of) being done by the individual churches. People now don’t have to accept Christ/prayed over to receive help in most of these SBC churches. “Hard” evangelism does still exist in which people feel pressured to say the right words to receive help.

  • This is flagrant idiocy if I ever saw it. I withdrew from the SBC and its churches nearly a year ago when I realized that at least in the larger congregations in our area, getting home in time for professional football games seemed more important than delivering a meaningful sermon for the 21st century then embroiled in a two-front middle eastern war and major financial tumult in the U.S. and abroad.

    Today we have an unannounced candidate, Ben Carson, who has an impeccable reputation worldwide as a pediatric neurosurgeon, outspoken Christian, moral family man, rags to riches Horatio Alger story, compassionate man of conscience who owes no political party or hidden billionaire contributors anything. He has shown a consciousness of the military, having risen in its high school ROTC ranks to high leadership. In short, this is a man who has earned candidacy to represent all Americans of all faiths. The SBC has a hidden agenda; I am disheartened and ashamed of the stance it has taken.

  • No mention of the fact that Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist? No mention of Baptist21? Those are the holes in this article.

  • This reminds me why I’m not a Southern Baptist. It appears that at any given moment, that movement, far from being “prophetic,” is merely a Christianized copy of the Zeitgeist.

    If it became cool to wear a plastic bag over one’s head, the SBC would encourage everyone to do it, so long as they wrote the words, “Jesus loves you” on it.

    This is a bizarre caricature of speaking to the culture.

  • I’m coming to the conclusion that most evangelical Christian leaders are blithering fools. The younger ones are even more theologically and culturally shallow and empty-headed than the older ones. A single, solitary, reasonably well-informed and biblically grounded evangelical layperson is more wise and intelligent than a hundred more who have gone to cemetery, er, seminary, and who know nothing about the real world or how it operates.

    This is probably why every hundred years or so, there’s a need for new movements and a need to shut down old ones.

  • Memo to Dr. Carson:

    Consider it a badge of honor that these intellectual midgets and moral cowards disinvited you.

    They are not putting the Gospel first, as the writer claims. They are running and hiding from the culture war that is at their doorstep. They think that if they avoid the Ben Carsons of the world, the hard left will go away and leave them alone.

    If these mental lightweights knew anything about the nature of the far left or even its history, they would realize that they’re attempting the impossible.

    There is no place to run or hide….and throwing Carson under the bus is simply appeasement which will only invite more aggression.

    I hardly agree with Carson on a number of things, but disinviting him sends a message of weakness.

  • Said Trevin Wax to the naked emperor (SBC):

    What fine clothes the emperor is wearing!

    It is hard to believe the author actually buys into what he’s saying.

    Occam’s Razor suggests that the most direct and straightforward explanation for an action is usually the correct one.

    Given the way the Southern Baptists have been running scared for the past couple of years against the road warriors of the extreme left, it is obvious that this fear is what’s behind Carson’s being disinvited.

    To say it’s theological reflection is just laughable.

  • I half-agree with you, Larry. I’ve read about his gaffes.

    But even though he may run for president, I don’t consider him to be a serious politician or statesman. I do consider him to be a thoughtful critic of much of the culture. I wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances, because he doesn’t belong in office, but I would sit down and hear out his views any time, since they often challenge me even when I disagree.

    A vibrant organization doesn’t run and hide from any and all controversy. A vibrant organization will risk it if the speaker is otherwise thoughtful, accomplished, and interesting.

    The SBC is too white-bread, even as it strives pathetically to appear otherwise.

  • When the SBC one day dies, as all compromising movements of the Gospel eventually do, the words, “cultural conformity” will be emblazoned on its tombstone.

    That’s the one constant throughout its history.

    When slavery was in, so was SBC.

    And today, when liberalism is in, so is SBC.

    When Reaganism was in, so was SBC.

    And when “all-of-my-best-friends-are-gay” is in, so is SBC.

    If religion is just a parrot for the culture, what good is it?

    It’s worthless.

  • Larry,
    Mr. Wax is quite connected in the younger SBC world, which is why he has a series here and you merely have the options to troll and attack with out of touch comments as are displayed in this thread.

  • I think the problem with this article is the constant use of the phrase, “the way this generation sees itself.” God is love, but love is truth, love of the truth is to be a seeker of God. It does not matter how man “sees himself” what is important is the truth. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
    Jesus Christ

  • From my research, the word “Southern” in Southern Baptist was added because the Southern Baptists chose to support slavery in the United States. And it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the denomination made a formal apology for their views on slavery and civil rights. It seems ironic to me that after allowing political speakers at former conferences they are suddenly so careful about this one. It makes me sad.

  • Jack, I use the term “social ministry” actually “Social Gospel” would be a better term. Now I need to explain it. Many years ago there was quite a movement calling for a Social Gospel. It led to having a school of social work in one of the SBC seminaries. With the growth of fundamentalism in the SBC, the school of social work was disbanded. The social gospel stand was not seen as “witnessing enough”, not evangelist. Sort of a watering down of the Gospel. I can refer you to one Baptist Association in Georgia that has a food bank and other services. A few years ago I talked to the person in charge. He told me they “witnessed” to each person coming to receive help, before they received help. He told me many were “saved”. He said no government funds were accepted in this work.

  • Pat, Ben is a great surgeon and not so much a great politician. I don’t doubt his faith in God.

    You withdrew from SBC churches because the larger ones only wanted to end services in time to allow parishioners to see football games. I remember back in the day when we tried to beat the Methodist to the restaurants.

    Why not find a church which is addressing the issues of which you are concerned? I hope you haven’t dropped out of attending worship with other believers, your zeal would be lost to the cause of Christ.

  • “Mr. Wax has no answers for … why he was cancelled.”

    I encourage you to read Wax’s post again, and upon reading it again please note that he states very clearly why Carson’s invitation was rescinded. As follows:

    (1) Carson is not conservative enough theologically, and younger Southern Baptists don’t want to give the impression that unity exists around politics rather than or in addition to the gospel of Christ.

    (2) Younger Southern Baptists don’t want to align themselves–or even give the impression of alignment–with one political party for fear that such alignment will inhibit their ability to speak “prophetically” to the entire political establishment.

    Those are basically direct quotations from Wax’s post.

  • I’m tempted to say that SBC is rejecting Carson because they see him as a less-than-predictable, “crazy black man,” but that would be a cheap and unfair shot at SBC’s less-than-stellar past.

    I honestly think the reason for the disinvite has nothing to do with race, but has much to do with pure cowardice.

    On the other hand, if anyone accused the SBC of racism in its disinviting Carson, part of me would say the accusation was poetic justice, albeit of an odd kind.

  • Oh, okay……The Social Gospel is another matter entirely.

    Depending on how you define it, I will agree or disagree with it. If it’s a fancy way of saying that government should replace faith-based charities to fight poverty, then I will disagree with it. We’ve had more than a half-century’s worth of that, and it has been catastrophic for the poor.

    If you mean the church should oppose the free enterprise system and support some form of socialism, I would oppose that, too, and for much the same reason. Socialism looks beautiful on paper, but in reality, it means an equal distribution of less as opposed to an unequal distribution of more. Most people would understandably prefer the latter.

    But if it means that the Gospel involves ministering to the whole person, materially as well as spiritually, that I can agree with.

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