If there’s one thing we can say about evangelical notions of objective morality, it’s that they sure do seem to evolve and shift over time. We’re seeing one such shift happening right now, in fact. A bunch of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) folks have changed their opinion about one of the biggest markers of their denomination! Well, sort of. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a shift in thinking that reveals something about Southern Baptists that they probably would rather not broadcast so clearly.
AL-KEE-HAWL: It’s What’s For Dinner.
For the longest time, the SBC was known for two things: fire-and-brimstone preaching, and total abstinence from alcoholic beverages.
And they took teetotaling seriously! An SBC friend of mine in college took this doctrine to ridiculous levels, I thought. He wouldn’t even eat any foods prepared with wine. No amount of persuasion would sway him. One evening, he deigned to try an elaborate beef stew I’d made with red wine. Guys, you’d have thought that it contained arsenic, he was so tentative about touching the very tip of his tongue to that stew.
Baptists are so famous for their disgust with alcohol that they weren’t content with passing resolutions forbidding its use to members. They even made laws designed around keeping anybody from buying it in stores. Economists named one of their theories after the control-lust of theirs: Bootleggers and Baptists, which is the way that rule-makers and rule-breakers support regulatory rules–and then undermine those rules to make huge bank. The name comes from at least one literal example of Baptists and bootleggers supporting–and undermining–alcohol purchasing regulations.
(Temperance movements–as the early anti-alcohol groups were called–ultimately gained the power they sought through the Prohibition amendment to the United States Constitution. But very soon afterward, massive numbers of deaths due to tainted alcohol and a crime wave of unimaginable proportions engulfed these groups’ credibility.)
Booze: The Breakfast of Champions.
Alcohol consumption used to have such an effete, high-class reputation–competing with its lowbrow one. Only wine snobs understood wine, and hard liquor was for expensive lawyers and doctors. The only other people who drank the stuff were lower-class folks, went the thinking, poor folks and alcoholics–for them, the Two Buck Chuck, the Thunderbird, the Wild Turkey and the SoCo, and the canned beer purchased in flats with names like Lone Star, which was my dad’s hands-down favorite–and who could argue with the cost, which I saw running at about $4 for 24 cans in the mid-90s?
The SBC likely found it quite safe to utterly condemn the consumption of alcohol.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the culture wars.
Southern Baptists became part of a culture that values alcohol. Suddenly, alcohol became trendy. “Wine Moms” became a (cringeworthy) thing. Craft beer production exploded across the United States–and sure, Southern states dominated by the SBC entered that fun race later, but there they are all the same. Heck, I didn’t even know what a “single malt whiskey” was when I heard the 1993 Crash Test Dummies’ song “When I Go Out With Artists.” I had to ask. I’ve now had a couple bottles of the breed in my liquor cabinet over the years and a lot of folks have a favorite.
SBC adherents are simply people, when it gets down to it. They may piously proclaim all they like that they are in this world but not of it, or that they’re totally focused on Heaven. Trends still get to them just like they do to others.
Beer: Finger Lickin’ Good.
Q: Why do you have to take two Baptists with you when you go fishing?
A: Because if you take just one, he’ll drink all your beer.
A Bama Blog, August 2, 2006
I’d already been noticing oh-so-trendy evangelical leaders and adherents talking about the trendiest kinds of alcohol in their social media.
Here’s a Baptist who writes lovingly about a long-dead Baptist who brewed bourbon. And here’s a writeup of a whiskey maker in Waco, a town absolutely crushed by Baptists. And here’s a Southern town full of Baptists who seem very supportive of a distillery set up in one of the towns they themselves dominate.
None of this is new. In the 1980s, when I briefly joined the SBC, I even knew the truth of that doctrinal position–because even my peers in youth group drank to excess constantly. The self-proclaimed Internet Monk was writing about it back in 2005, describing the Southern Baptists’ hypocrisy toward alcohol as “One Big, Happy Lie.”
Rather, I’m seeing a new public sharing of preferences. In the past, the SBC’s hypocrisy about alcohol lurked under the surface of our cultural waters. “Jokes” about their secret see-yin of drinking circulated for years and years, a tacit concession that the SBC’s resolutions were all fine and good, in fact they could throw a big ole teetotalling parade down Booze-Free Main Street, and for all their bluster, along the throngs of people watching that parade, we’d find plenty of Southern Baptists drinking out of bottles hidden in paper bags and getting quietly soused before noon.
Whiskey: Taste the Rainbow.
A couple of months ago, we saw a Baptist Press news article about the SBC’s shift in attitude about alcohol. The writer of that piece speculates that Brett Kavanaugh’s stoutly-affirmed affection for beer perhaps played into discussions about the shift. I disagree. I think that shift began way before his botch of a hearing.
Maybe it was Southern Baptists who discover that they’ve “grown to enjoy a glass of wine now and then” and don’t like to hide it. Authenticity may well be one of our human needs–maybe fairly high up the hierarchy, to use Maslow’s imagery, but there all the same. If someone likes to drink sometimes, that person probably won’t like sitting in a pew listening to a preacher thunderously denounce all those who consume alcohol as fake Christians or boozehounds.
In that Baptist Press article, the writer profiled several Southern Baptists who have substance-abuse issues with alcohol. And in these profiles, we begin to see something interesting.
Bourbon: Where the Flavor Is.
One recovering alcoholic works as a pastor now. He began drinking as a 15-year-old. He claims he’s been sober now for 16 years and must avoid all alcohol forever (as most recovering addicts must). Unfortunately, he could never find that line between responsible consumption and overconsumption. Now he piously informs us,
I’ve never met a person drinking who becomes more holy as a result of it. I have seen people destroy their lives because of it though.
I suspect he’d have something different to say if we applied that sentiment to cell phones, social media, automobiles, multi-level marketing schemes, the chasing and accumulation of massive wealth, and habitual overeating–all of which Southern Baptists are just fine and dandy with. These things also not only do not increase “holiness,” but destroy lives when abused.
And yet I see no SBC resolutions condemning them utterly or saying they will not hire or elect any leaders who are known to use/do them.
Another interview is with a Southern Baptist woman who saw a therapist for postpartum depression. (Remember, evangelicals very seriously distrust qualified mental-health professionals.) The therapist recommended a bit of wine before bedtime. That recommendation soon led to full-blown alcohol abuse. Eventually, she landed in rehab and now, hopefully, is in recovery. She recounts how her church friends drink socially in get-togethers set outside of church. She ends, plaintively it seems to me,
…What’s the line?
It’s an incomplete sentence. Tack on “between what’s okay and what’s not okay for Southern Baptists to think here.”
Gin: The Quicker Picker-Upper.
The line between what’s okay and what’s not okay.
It’s such a compelling, alluring idea for certain people–specifically, the authoritarian followers still huddling in Christian churches.
They need lines. Steps. Ordered tasks. Straight arrows leading from step to step to expected conclusions and outcomes that do not vary (except, occasionally, in the Christian’s favor). Mechanisms in the truest sense of the word: mechanical functions of known quantities that take them inevitably from first to last. Transactions that never vary. Variables always accounted-for and well within expected parameters.
The sure thing.
Here’s the super-important part, though: It was always a farce, this idea. Never did Southern Baptists’ private lives ever really look in reality like they did in the denomination’s facing-outward presentation of itself.
And now the quiet, subversively-observant “jokes” are becoming the facing-outward reality.
And Now, the Maybe Box.
Years ago, Libby Anne talked about Two Boxes morality: the idea that a proposed action either fits in the Jesus totes approves of this box, or the Jesus hates this box. Evangelicals subscribe overwhelmingly to this notion. They don’t care at all if the proposed action actively harms anybody, or if it is done with or without consent. If it fits in the Jesus hates this box, then that’s just how it is, and it can never change because Jesus himself doesn’t ever change.
When we introduce a third box labeled Sometimes this is just fine and sometimes it isn’t, they get super rattled. It’s work they absolutely do not want to do and have never been prepared or trained to do: considering context and cues from someone else.
Context and cues necessarily demand taking other people into account. It means relying on someone else to provide permission–or withdraw it–and caring what that person says, does, and wants.
It’s got to be just terrifying for people who have no idea how to begin dealing with that stuff.
I know it was for me.
Opening the Maybe Box.
Thing is, many of the worst-of-the-worst qualities we see in evangelicalism today come from their systematic and near-universal stripping-away of other people’s rights and dignity. If they start considering other people’s opinions about what they want to do to them, it won’t ever end–and they know it.
The Two Boxes version of morality allows them to mistreat others and come away thinking that yes, indeed, today they have totally shown the world Christ’s love–even when that is the dead opposite of what has happened.
But it also allows them to hide away from stuff they have no ability to exercise moderation with, like alcohol. If it’s always in the Jesus hates this box, then in theory they’ll never need to worry about encountering it.
Except that’s exactly what doesn’t happen, because Southern Baptists have always secretly done whatever they really wanted to do with regard to their leaders’ commands.
They’re just more open about it now, it seems.
Change in an Eternal Dreamland.
If anything frightens evangelicals more than context, it is surely uncertainty. And if anything frightens them more than both of those combined, it is change.
Change implies movement from a less-perfect state to one more-perfect. Or it can mean that someone is moving in the opposite direction–from a greater state of perfection to something less-perfect.
Neither of those movements or outcomes would be acceptable to an evangelical, really. In the first case, it means someone was wrong. That’s the worst thing ever, to an evangelical. In the second, it means someone’s probably going to Hell, which is obviously pretty bad as well.
Worse, evangelicals generally proclaim that their god totally told them to take whatever position they hold about anything. So if they end up changing their minds about the position, that indicates something really off-kilter about their claims of divine communication, doesn’t it?
And yet they change their minds constantly. When I was a child, the culture wars had barely gotten started, Creationism was a tiny blip on the radar, the male supremacist cult of complementarianism was just barely starting, Christians could vote Democrat without fearing the retaliation of the tribe, and women had begun making serious inroads to Southern Baptist leadership ranks.
They’ve turned into the thrice-damned Republic of Gilead over there, and they think that’s just how it’s always been when no, it has not.
RESOLVED, That Southern Baptist Leaders Are Wankers.
So okay, yeah, Southern Baptists at the lowest levels finally dare to reveal what everybody and their dog has known about them since forever: lots of them drink. Hooray Team Jesus!
But that doesn’t mean their leaders are prepared to issue another resolution conceding that alcohol consumption belongs in the Maybe Box. It’s easier for them to maintain a fiction about how much power they hold over their flocks–and what their lives look like.
I just find it all so tragicomic that the stuff that certainly allows for contextual consideration, like sex and drinking, ends up in the Two Boxes, while all kinds of stuff that they could certainly condemn for exactly the same destructive potential is already so commonly used and displayed among the flocks that they can’t possibly come out against it with full force.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a shift in public attitudes about drinking that will just end up being yet another example of how far separated the leaders are from the flocks in the sheepfolds, and how little like reality their various rules and resolutions look.
NEXT UP: NDEs, terrible movie medicine, and the idea that atheists just need a good shaking-up to dislodge their atheist-in’ ways. See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.
Endnote: “Honey, am I allowed to call SBC leaders “wankers,” do you think?” — (immediately, firmly) “Yes.”