Will the Union Rise Again?


Paul Harvey

Recently I was (at last) completing Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia University Press) -- about which more soon. Today's post is not about his book, though, but more about a tale of two seminaries.

In tracing the history of Christian radical pacifism (particularly individuals associated with the
Fellowship of Reconciliation), the importance of Union Theological Seminary in New York comes up time and again. In the conclusion, Kosek notes that "the waning of liberal Protestantism in the second half of the twentieth century, coincident with the eclipse of political liberalism, is one of the great puzzles of modern American history, but whatever its complex causes, that trend damaged Christian non-violence severely." While FOR leaders were consistent critics of liberal Protestantism, they nevertheless depended on the liberal Protestant tradition for the "institutional network of churches, seminaries, student groups, journals, and other forums that
supported the Fellowship's activities and occasionally produced truly radical religionists."

By the late 1960s, "that network was fraying," and so was Union, a symbol of the "dimunution of liberal Protestantism's intellectual and institutional resources, at the same time that conservative evangelicals wre organizing for a political resurgence . . . " Kosek's conclusion thus joins, and adds to, scholarly analyses of a great transformation in the American political (and religious) fabric in the late 1960s and 1970s. The largely urban warriors of Kosek's text were replaced by the (largely) suburban warriors of the new age of conservatism.

As it happened, while reading over these passages I received in the mail the new history of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in Louisville) by the historian Gregory Wills: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford, 2009). I read a proposal for this book several years ago, and since then have been looking forward to its publication.

Not just another commissioned institutional history, this is an outstanding work of scholarship by someone who knows the sources deeply and mines them extensively. Southern Seminary barely survived the Civil War and Reconstruction years, and again it struggled through the Depression and World War Two (just when Union was at its peak, with Reinhold Niebuhr leading the charge). By the late twentieth century, however, Southern had risen to become the largest Protestant theological institution in the United States. A painful struggle through the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a triumph for conservatives in the denomination, and for its current president R. Albert Mohler. The shifting of the American theological center of gravity from Niebuhr and his generation to Mohler and his marks the same kind of transformation (I think) that political historians such as Lisa McGirr, Donald Critchlow, and many others have tried to capture in their works.

A brief description from Oxford captures the main theme:

With 16.3 million members and 44,000 churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Baptist group in the world, and the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Unlike the so-called mainstream Protestant denominations, Southern Baptists have remained stubbornly conservative, refusing to adapt their beliefs and practices to modernity's individualist and populist values. Instead, they have held fast to traditional orthodoxy in such fundamental areas as biblical inspiration, creation, conversion, and miracles. Gregory Wills argues that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has played a fundamental role in the persistence of conservatism, not entirely intentionally. Tracing the history of the seminary from the beginning to the present, Wills shows how its foundational commitment to preserving orthodoxy was implanted in denominational memory in ways that strengthened the denomination's conservatism and limited the seminary's ability to stray from it. In a set of circumstances in which the seminary played a central part, Southern Baptists' populist values bolstered traditional orthodoxy rather than diminishing it. In the end, says Wills, their populism privileged orthodoxy over individualism. The story of Southern Seminary is fundamental to understanding Southern Baptist controversy and identity.

Southern Baptist polity gave populism power, and this populism frequently resulted in the expulsion of those who were thought to deviate from evangelical orthodoxy. In recent years, this led to an almost complete turnover of the seminary's faculty as the seminary's identity was brought in line with the orthodoxy of the "conservative resurgence" in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In an interview about his book,
Wills celebrates the struggle of orthodoxy against liberalism. He attributes the success of Southern to its periodic return to its roots, one that often involves some painful pruning but protects orthodoxy from decay. Southern Baptist expatriates and exiles from that period, obviously, view things differently, and the pain they experienced still can be felt (as in one personal reflection of a pre-1993 alumnus here). To his credit, Wills gives those voices full and fair coverage in his sections on what Southern Baptists used to refer to as "the controversy" (or did before "the controversy" was basically settled).

Because I admire Wills's scholarly research, but lament the outcomes that he celebrates, it makes me wonder what would be (or perhaps already is) the "institutional network" for our generation that would sustain the creative acts of conscience that Kosek traces in his book. The theologians and historians Gary Dorrien and Serene Jones, both of Union, as well as Cornel West reflect on that in this Bill Moyers interview. In particular, Dorrien has been instrumental in rescuing liberal theology from the caricatures to which it has been subjected. Perhaps the Union will rise again?

The pacifist radicals in Kosek's book were rather straight-laced, even conservative, in personal behavior, and their gender politics were pretty conventional. But they also certainly burst orthodoxies of both right and left, and ultimately served as a key transitional generation in bringing the "moral jujitsu" of active nonviolence resistance to the civil rights generation of the 1950s and 1960s. They weren't orthodox by anyone's standards. But really, what good is "orthodoxy," if it doesn't lead to justice?


Stephen C. Rose at: July 13, 2009 at 6:35 PM said...

The collapse of liberal theology was simultaneously the collapse of orthodoxy (new and plane o). H. R. Niebuhr understood this and was sage enough not to predict what would come after these twin deaths. I think what comes after is a reconceptualization of what we call nonviolence. One which sees it less as a movement than as a challenge to humankind and a summons to moral evolution. I knew all this when I heard H.R. speak at UTS in 1960. The celebration of RN and DB are indices of the failure to even understand what this is all about. Reinhold would call it naivete. I call it a better realism. EN was an excuse for stasis and regarding the institutional church as trivial.

PhilipMeade.com at: July 14, 2009 at 12:12 PM said...

I am very happy to say that I studied under both Greg Wills at Southern in Louisville and Mike Ruffin at Belmont in Nashville (who wrote the "personal refection" article). Both are dedicated servants and it has been helpful to learn and think through the issues from both perspectives from two men who I know and trust.

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