a holy war heats up for the sbc
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Wikipedia. A Roman fresco depicting Constantine's Battle of Milvian Bridge.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we took a first look at one of our country’s latest mass shootings. The perpetrator in this one, Robert Aaron Long, turns out to hold extremely fervent Calvinist beliefs, which he learned at his family’s SBC church. This shooting comes on the heels of us talking about the latest schism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I saw this schism as closely involving two very different modes of evangelical belief: Calvinism and Arminianism. As we examine Calvinism’s tie-ins with Robert Aaron Long’s beliefs and how he lived them out, I thought it might be useful to talk about Calvinism and its counterpart and describe how they factor into the SBC’s power squabbles.

a holy war heats up for the sbc
(Wikipedia.) A Roman fresco depicting Constantine’s Battle of Milvian Bridge.

(Before we begin, a brief note: Neither of these two modes actually rises to the level of a denomination. Both function mainly as add-ons to whatever their holder believes. One can just as easily be a Southern Baptist Calvinist as a Southern Baptist Arminian. A pastor can go for one mode while his congregation can be overwhelmingly the other. They’re just add-on modules — a sort of flavor syrup glugged into a Christian’s denominational coffee.)

Meet the Competing Viewpoints: Calvinism.

Calvinism, sometimes called Reformed Theology: Popularized by John Calvin but started earlier, in the 15th century. Theirs is a god of boundless hate, of merciless cruelty and endless control-lust.

In this view, people can’t choose whether or not they’ll be Christian. Instead, the Christian god chooses people to be his followers, and in fact chose them before they were even born. And if he wants them, they literally can’t refuse his demand. If you’re not preselected to go to Heaven, then you’re going to Hell no matter what you do.

On that note, Calvinists are expected to stick to this notion when their children are born. Who knows? The parents may be sure they’re pre-selected for Heaven. However, their children might not be. And Calvinist parents must be okay with that and still praise their god and worship him. They must also teach their innocent, beautiful children that they are worse than worms and sludge, thus perpetuating the chain of pain.

Somehow, Calvinists manage to massage all that predestination gobbledygook into a nonsensical dedication to evangelism. (This point will become very important later.)

Of all the myriad flavors of Christianity, Calvinism is certainly one of the most cruel, hateful, and wicked ones.

However, I will say this: compared to the other flavors, Calvinists’ god looks the most like the one portrayed in the actual Bible.

Most Christians construct a version of Yahweh/Jesus who most appeals to them. And most construct a god who is loving, kind, and merciful. This common shortcoming says very good things about those Christians. However, their nicer god just isn’t the one in the Bible.

Sometimes, I wonder if that idea scares nice Christians. Long ago, it scared Rachel Held Evans

The Arminians in the Other Corner.

Arminians: Standard-issue Christians who think belief and disbelief are choices that people can freely make.

In this view, people choose to believe in and worship the Christian god, thus gaining a ticket out of Hell after they die (and a leg up on non-believers in this life, if they fit into a whole slew of asterisked terms and conditions). In this viewpoint, Christians decide to leave Christianity and stop believing. At that point, they fall out of grace and are at risk of Hell again. But they can regain these benefits if they reconvert!

the trampoline of salvation
Boingy, boingy, boingy! It’s the trampoline of salvation!

Like in Calvinism, Arminian Christians’ totally-omniscient god knows in advance what people will do, of course. Weirdly, in this mode he still allows people he supposedly loves to fall out of faith, thereby losing their free ticket to safety in Heaven. But bless his cotton socks, this god has a good heart. He does. He wants everyone saved, absolutely everyone. He’s just utterly incompetent in going about achieving that goal.

As you might have guessed from the above, the two modes share roots. Indeed, Jacobus Arminius developed Arminianism from Calvinism in the 16th century. That said, most Christians regard them as polar opposites.

Almost everyone has tangled with this flavor of Christianity. Arminianism dominated evangelical flocks in Christianity’s heyday in America. I can see why, too. It is more about choice, where Calvinism slams harder on learned helplessness and obedience. And Arminians’ god is a whole lot nicer-sounding.

Maybe that’s why they’re slowly losing this new fight.

From the Ooze: The Calvinists Arrive.

Around 2012-2014, I began hearing a lot of argument in the SBC regarding Calvinism. A lot of these Old Guard Arminians were deeply worried about how many Calvinists were suddenly coming out of nowhere and achieving positions of great power in the denomination. Here’s one such fretting, from early 2014 on the SBC Issues blog:

[S]ince Dr. [David] Dockery was actively involved in the early days of Founders Ministries as a conference speaker (1980s) then without question it would be very easy for him to make the bold prediction he made in the 1990s that Calvinism would rise in prominence and position in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 21st century. His statement was more hopeful than prophetic. However, his assessment is proving to be an accurate one.

Another blog written in 2011 puts the Calvinist “Ground Zero” at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — Al Mohler’s baby since 1993 and the SBC’s flagship seminary. It’s worth a read and quite sobering.

Now, this fretting occurred a bit before J.D. Greear (their current King of Baptist County for a few months still, anyway) began to entertain serious thoughts of running for the SBC’s presidency, which probably happened around 2016. But he was likely one of the people Arminians had in mind when they fretted over Calvinists invading their ranks.

But it’d already happened. It’d happened long, long ago.

By 2014, Calvinists’ takeover of the SBC was already a done deal. It’d already kinda happened.

In fact, the Conservative Resurgence itself, the movement that turned the SBC as a whole into a reactionary, conspiracy-theory-addled, ultra-politicized totalitarian movement thinly cloaked in Jesus-printed drapery, seems to have been largely pushed and prodded into life by Calvinists.

How the (First) Conservative Resurgence Went Down.

The Conservative Resurgence began in the 1980s. It was a planned, systematic, ruthlessly-executed takeover of the SBC by extremely politically-conservative and ambitious men. I’m sure they realized that they’d never achieve their dreams with the SBC as it was. Indeed, they seemed downright horrified by what they saw as encroaching liberalism (particularly regarding female pastors, then making a few inroads in the SBC’s good old boys’ network), which would have decimated their power bases.

The architects of the Conservative Resurgence studied the SBC’s bylaws to figure out exactly how to gain the power they needed to move the denomination toward greater authoritarianism. Their plan was almost beautiful in its stark simplicity: they just began installing their pals into easily-gained, low-level positions. Those lower-level sycophants then helped elect more conservatives into higher-level positions.

Their opposition was absolutely helpless against this tactic. Their rules assumed good-faith acting and no collusion. So when bad-faith actors colluded to overcome them, nothing effective stood in the way.

That’s how people like Al Mohler came into power: by being unflinchingly-loyal, lickspittle toadies to those gaining great power. Those men then rewarded him with a plum position despite his real lack of experience and training for the role. They valued loyalty over credentials. They still do.

Eventually, the architects of the Conservative Resurgence had enough sycophants installed into power to really do some damage. And that’s what they did. And the SBC has never yet recovered. In fact, it’s cruising straight toward what some Baptists (like this guy) have begun calling a Second Conservative Resurgence that promises to do even more damage.

When this process occurs in individual churches, folks call it steeplejacking. (Notice the publishing date of that link: 2011. Notice, too, who’s doing the steeplejacking, and to whom.)

In humongous too-big-to-fail denominations, I reckon we call it the Conservative Resurgence.

Following the Bouncing Red Dot Straight to Founders Ministries.

According to the Font of All Knowledge, Founders Ministries once called itself the Southern Baptist Founders Conference. They got started in 1982, then renamed themselves in 1998 to Founders Ministries. Their stated goal has always been to bring Southern Baptists back to their “roots,” which means to them ultraconservative politicking based on Calvinist theology.

As of 2007, 807 churches belonged to their organization. Robert Aaron Long’s church, Crabapple First Baptist Church, is a named and listed member church. (Interestingly, their pastor is named Jerry Dockery. I wonder if there’s a family relation there?)

The folks in Founders Ministries love love love the Conservative Resurgence. In this 2016 post, one of them refers to the distressing liberalism growing in the SBC before that movement as a “crisis.” And they’ve got a lot of good things to say about Paige Patterson, one of that movement’s architects (along with Paul Pressler; and yes, both men have been tainted by sexual scandals, and no, literally nobody involved in their movement second-guessed their involvement as a result).

The leader of the Founders, Tom Ascolwrote movingly in 2010 of a long conversation he had in 1980 with Paige Patterson. On that day, Patterson fully persuaded young Tom Ascol of the creeping threat of evil liberalism. At some point, Ascol clearly became a firm Calvinist. His site sure features a lot of Calvinist literature, such as A Quiet Revolution by Ernest C. Reisinger.

Interestingly, Patterson himself was not a Calvinist. But he sure served Calvinists’ interests — as did everyone else who participated in the Conservative Resurgence, Calvinist or not. These Resurgence-ers paved the way for Calvinism to roar into prominence later.

(And the Calvinists at the time knew that, I am 100% certain.)

Speaking of Quiet Revolutions.

Regarding that book A Quiet Revolution, which details the rise of Calvinism in the SBC, Ernest Reisinger offers us a who’s who of names in their group. Take a look at these, brought to us from that 2014 post about David Dockery (relink), and see how many you recognize:

Reisinger tells of his beginning projects and the November 13, 1982 prayer meeting that took place at the Holiday Inn in Euless, Texas with the following people in attendance: Ernest Reisinger, Tom Nettles, Fred Malone, Tom Ascol, Bill Ascol, Ben Mitchell, and evangelist R.F. Graves.(2) This meeting was the start of the Founder’s movement that has worked diligently over the last thirty years to calvinize the SBC — beginning with our college and seminary students.

Then Reisinger gives praise to those who served as speakers at Founders conferences during its formative years. Dr. David Dockery is listed as an early speaker along with Al Mohler, Timothy George, John Piper, John MacArthur, J. I. Packer, Tom Nettles, Ligon Duncan (3) and more. [Footnotes refer to the book A Quiet Revolution; p. 56 and 57, respectively.]

Oh my oh my. I don’t expect anybody to recognize a single name in the first list. I only first heard of Tom Ascol earlier this week in Baptist blog posts like this one. But I suspect most readers will recognize a few in that second! The speakers he describes in the Founders group’s earliest years went on to become some of the biggest names in evangelicalism.

In that “Second Conservative Resurgence” post (relink), you can read a lot more about how the Founders are pushing hard to drive the SBC to a showdown over ultraconservative politics. They are in this thing to win it. That much is clear. The groundwork they laid in the 1980s and 1990s has borne fruit at last.

Behind-the-Scenes Calvinism.

I’d really like to know just how this Founders Ministries group shaped and informed the Conservative Resurgence. But more than that, I’d sure like to know how they’re shaping and informing this newest schism in the SBC between Calvinists and Arminians.

One of the main problems I’m facing involves the secrecy that surrounds the underpinnings of this new squabble. Though many major figures in Calvinism (like Rowdy John Piper and John MacArthur) don’t make any bones at all about their leanings, others keep it on the down-low. It took a long time for me to catch on to Al Mohler’s Calvinism, for example. J.D. Greear’s was only easier to spot because it became a sticking point in his two runs at the SBC’s presidency.

That’s when I began to keep my ears open for the fight, and began to note when I heard someone described as Traditionalist, which is what Arminian SBC folks prefer to call themselves, or the various terms that Calvinist SBC folks use to refer to themselves: Reformed, orthodox, etc. (Some of the Calvinists get tetchy about the Traditionalist term, too, because they think that once upon a time most Southern Baptists were Calvinist.)

Arminians: Holding the Field.

For now, Arminians hold the field. Barely. Very barely. They don’t realize it yet, but Calvinists encircle them on all sides and will only grow stronger with time.

I really don’t think the masters of the SBC understand quite yet how in-it-to-win-it these Calvinist interlopers are — or understand how they long ago weaponized one of the most-cherished parts of the current SBC belief system.

But we will, tomorrow.

NEXT UP: The loading of the Calvinist mousetrap is the centerpoint to Calvinists’ success in taking over the SBC. See you tomorrow as we spiral further down this rabbit hole into a new iteration of the Problem of Wingnuts!

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Last thoughts: There’s some uber-Calvinist aspiring-leader out there who gets really grumpy about my observations about Calvinism. To date, I haven’t seen him actually engage with my ideas. He usually restricts himself to rolling his eyes at me or lashing out with ad hominem slams. How very rational! Of course, for slams to work, victims must care what their slammers think of them. Also, I must offer my thanks to Calvinists in general for perpetually confirming all of my opinions of Calvinism.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...