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Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist…

Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture

by Barry Hankins

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Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. Pp. x, 344. $37.50. Reviewed by Richard A. Bailey, University of Kentucky Willing to throw caution to the wind, Barry Hankins tackles two subjects that prudence demands be left alone—religion and politics, specifically the intertwining of the two themes in the last twenty years within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The result is Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. In this insightful examination of the conservative leadership of SBC, Hankins analyzes “who Southern Baptist conservatives are, how they became evangelical culture warriors, and what they intend to do with their considerable influenceâ€? (2). Ultimately Hankins’s careful use of personal interviews elicits a fair evaluation of how the conservative evangelical theology of current SBC leaders prompts their forays into American culture. In the late 1970s, Hankins argues, these conservatives grew concerned over what they saw as the inability and the unwillingness of a more moderate SBC leadership to engage American society. The only hope to redeem America from this serious moral crisis, in the eyes of these Southern Baptist conservatives, was to wed theology and culture. By emphasizing the ways in which their conservative theology was able to speak to larger issues, this new wave of SBC leaders waged an all-out war on American culture. This war was to be fought in three waves. First, these conservatives were convinced that they must regain a “theological foundation for resistanceâ€Â? (10). Then, they must oust the more moderate SBC leadership, replacing them with conservative men who shared their theological vision. Finally, such SBC conservatives planned to assume the mantle of the Old Testament judges, engaging the Babylonian culture around them. In his first four chapters, Hankins treats the historical narrative of the first two stages of this theological-culture war. Non-Southern experiences (intellectually, geographically, and culturally) prompted SBC conservatives, such as R. Albert Mohler and Richard Land, to adopt the neoevangelical strategies of Francis Schaeffer and Carl F. H. Henry in their attempts to engage and critique America culture. With the exception of Paige Patterson, “the neoevangelical influence became attractive to Southern Baptist conservatives because of its emphasis on cultural engagementâ€Â? (39). Once these conservatives grasped the importance of such a version of evangelicalism, they began to work from several different angles, namely, intellectualism, activism, and populism, to reestablish the theological foundations of the denomination and its institutions, such as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Hankins’s focus on the tumultuous years at Southern Seminary following the 1993 appointment of Mohler as the school’s ninth president illustrates well the conservative insistence to purge what they perceived as theological infidelity within their own ranks. As the seminary moved further to the right theologically under Mohler’s tenure, Southern Baptist conservatives engaged American culture even more strongly. In the process, SBC leaders, according to Hankins, had to revisit a fundamental Baptist doctrine—religious liberty. The conservative Southern Baptist way to address religious liberty was to espouse a brand of “Baptist accommodationism,â€Â? which allowed them expect the government to “take a friendly stance toward religion, accommodating it wherever possibleâ€Â? (140). As Hankins demonstrates in the second half of Uneasy in Babylon, this approach to religious liberty provided the foundation on which conservatives Southern Baptists have built their program of cultural engagement. To demonstrate this engagement, Hankins analyzes the SBC conservatives’ views on church and state, abortion, the role of women in the church and home, and race. In these four chapters, he clearly shows the coherency of the SBC conservatives, despite the different approaches of specific leaders. As a rule, SBC conservatives assume a countercultural stance in their battles with Babylon. The exception, however, is the issue of race. “Race is the one issue where Southern Baptist conservatives want to be progressive,â€Â? regardless of the alliances such a progressive position entails (270). In the end, this cultural program, birthed from a concern for theological conservatism, unites SBC conservatives and demands that they live uneasily in the Babylon that is America. While a conservative Southern Baptist might want to find much in Uneasy in Babylon difficult to swallow, Hankins ultimately convinces due to his outstanding scholarship. Effectively using personal interviews, he allows Southern Baptist conservatives to speak for themselves, weaving their accounts into his narrative. These interviews also reinforce the coherency of the conservative position, demonstrating where theology and culture interacted. Perhaps the greatest strength of Hankins’s study is his evenhanded evaluation of a generally contentious topic. While admitting that he sides with moderate Southern Baptists, he is fair and respectful to both moderates and conservatives in his analysis of their interviews and the facts. Unlike the majority of recent works that have dealt with the SBC controversy, Uneasy in Babylon is not a polemic for one or the other group of Southern Baptists. Rather, it is a book about Southern Baptists conservatives and their attempts to engage American culture. The one glaring weakness, however, has to do with the treatment of race and race relations. With very few exceptions in the book, race relations only involve white and black Americans. This limitation disappoints for at least two reasons. First, it allows a portrayal of SBC conservatives as decidedly progressive on the question of race. Hankins is certainly correct in his treatment of SBC efforts to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites, though it is accurate to wonder what has been done in this area outside the few examples of such efforts that he mentions. Furthermore, these actions alone do not make the SBC leaders progressive. What about their relationships with other racial groups? If one looks at the ways in which Southern Baptist conservatives have related to other groups, such as Asian Americans in the recent controversy over a children’s curriculum program titled “Rickshaw Rally: Racing to the Son,â€Â? they do not seem nearly as progressive as their relations with African Americans might suggest. Second, and more importantly, portraying race relations as primarily between blacks and whites ultimately reinforces racial insensitivity to other peoples. Race is not simply a black or white issue. While Hankins does not say it is, his discussions of SBC conservatives and race implies that this is case. A more explicit statement of why he deals specifically with blacks and whites within the SBC to the exclusion of other groups (a logical focus given the legacy of the SBC’s attitudes toward African Americans) would avoid any such tendency to forget about the injustices other peoples might be experiencing at the hands of these “progressives.â€Â? This potential shortcoming, however, does not lessen the importance of Hankins’s fine study. His use of oral interviews demonstrates clearly the ways in which SBC conservatives fuse theology and culture to address what they perceive as problems in American society. Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptists Conservatives and American Culture is a must read for students of Southern Baptist history, as well as twentieth-century evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
  rbailey | Sep 20, 2005 |
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The first book-length interpretation of the new conservative leaders of America's largest Protestant denomination. Uneasy in Babylon is based on extensive interviews with the most important Southern Baptist conservatives who have assumed control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Known to many Americans from their appearances on national TV talk shows, such as Larry King Live and Fox News, they advocate a return to traditional values throughout the country. Hankins shows how differing cultural perceptions help explain the great chasm that developed between fundamentalists in the SBC and.… (more)

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