Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Southern Baptists

In “Why I Am a Baptist” (August/September), Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. inadvertently gives the impression that Southern Baptists came together in 1845 in order to “establish mission boards and organize evangelism.” To those not intimate with the details of Baptist history, this could be substantially misleading: Baptists in America had already unified their missionary efforts at the inaugural Triennial Convention of 1814. In fact, by 1821, a former slave named Lott Cary was setting sail for Africa as America’s first Baptist missionary to the distant continent.

The year 1845 is instead historically significant to Baptists’ shame: It is the year that Southern Baptists defected from the Triennial Convention to form one that would bless and uphold the wicked institution of slavery among Christian missionaries. (One year prior, the Triennial Convention had refused to appoint a slaveholding Christian from Georgia as a ­missionary.)

While Dr. Mohler has done a commendable job in calling Southern Baptists to reckon with this entanglement with racism, it is a grave disappointment that Baptists, with such a raucous habit of bucking societal conventions in the pursuit of gospel faithfulness, became the settled defenders of slavery. Baptists in the American South abandoned their mandate as God’s wilderness prophets, turning their tradition of dissent into an ­unquestioning affirmation of the Southern way of life.

Speaking on behalf of Baptists, Dr. Mohler declares: “Put us in jail, take away our earthly goods, do your worst—we will not ask permission from the powers that be.” It was this disruption of the social order that brought such fierce opposition upon the early Baptists. And where can such radical witness be found today?

It is black Baptists who have carried and continually stoked the great flame of the Baptist tradition, proclaiming the gospel and calling the excesses of state power to account. This is perhaps most recognizable today in Civil Rights–era luminaries like Gardner C. Taylor, who, along with Martin Luther King Jr., was a cofounder of the Progressive National Baptist Convention so central to the movement. Baptists like Taylor and Cary consistently refused to ask permission to live out faithful lives under the conditions of slavery and Jim Crow. If it were not for the faith of our resilient black brothers and sisters, there would no longer be a Baptist tradition worth defending in the pages of First Things.

John Shelton
washington, d.c.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. replies:

I appreciate the letter from John Shelton. He raises a number of salient points, including the fact that the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention bear full responsibility for their complicity in American slavery and their effort to perpetuate the evils of racism in the nation. This, too, is part of the Baptist story that must be told. Sadly, it is part of the story of every major denomination then existing in the American South.

It is also true, however, that the Southern Baptist Convention was established with a more centralized organizational purpose than the Triennial Convention—with foreign missions and missions in the United States as the central assignment of the new denomination. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention has always been denominational in a way that the Triennial Convention never was. And, it is worth mentioning that the Triennial Convention is probably not best described as a group of “wilderness prophets.”

But Shelton’s broader point is well taken. Activism is also a Baptist distinctive, and the prophetic voice was clearly heard when Martin Luther King Jr. and Gardner C. Taylor read out the text of the Bible, including the Old Testament prophets, and demanded justice and righteousness. Yes, Baptists must never lose that prophetic voice, and it is part of the Baptist story as well. I welcome Shelton’s letter and his point. It is a salutary privilege to discuss and defend Baptist identity and convictions within First Things. We are most Baptist when we bring every discussion to the cross of Christ. As Dr. Gardner C. Taylor reminded us, “There at the hill something eternally valid and forever decisive ­occurred. Something everlastingly sufficient took place.” Amen.

Women and Religion

Grant Kaplan ends his welcome review of my book (“Secularism as Sexism,” August/September) with a question worth pondering: “Might, then, the Christian and the women’s liberationist have more in common than they’ve come to believe? Both, after all, have suffered from a domestication forced upon them by a secularizing logic.” My answer is a strong “no,” because “the Christian” and “the women’s liberationist” are categories in different registers.

If the practice of religion was privatized according to a secularizing logic, the sphere of Christian men remained public: politics, the market, higher education, citizenship. The discursive definition of religion as a private practice did not confine Christian men to the home as it did all women; indeed, as many suffragists pointed out, nothing in secular logic prevented priests, imams, and rabbis (all male) from exercising the vote. To contest the “secularizing logic,” Christians would have to question the idea of the neutrality of the state and the independence of political debate from the transcendent truth claims of religion. That would be to question the very premises of democracy. When feminists contested the secularizing logic I have described in relation to gender (the one that equated women with religion and confined them to the domestic sphere), they were asking that the principles of democracy be extended to include them. If both are challenges to democracy, the one would undermine its premises, the other make it more inclusive.

Joan Wallach Scott
princeton, new jersey

Grant Kaplan replies:

I am grateful for Professor Scott’s reply to my review. She correctly points out that Christian men remained as public as ever, and that secularizing logic did not confine men, even men with professed vows, to anything like a domestic sphere. It would in due time, however, demand that men leave their religious commitments behind, either overtly, by forbidding public prayer, or covertly.

The majority of Christian men in Western countries have embraced the nation-state and the commitments that often follow. A minority—Carl Schmitt being one of the most ­insightful—have questioned the neutrality of the state, and thus the premises on which democracy rests. These claims, however marginal, seem validated by recent imagery, the most gripping, to my mind, being the image of burkini-clad Muslim women being harassed on a beach by French policemen for wearing too much clothing.

History and Fiction

Richard Rex’s sharp riposte to the general trend of excessive praise for ­Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy (“The Mirrors and the Smoke,” ­August/September) helpfully illuminates the fact that this series “occupies disputed ground between history and fiction.” Though Mantel and many of her admirers want to have their pie and eat it too—chiding troubled critics that her books are only fiction while simultaneously maintaining that they “adhere to the facts as closely as possible” and even make “a fetish out of historical accuracy”—Rex’s key distinction between “historical fiction,” which places imaginary characters within historical contexts, and “fictionalized history,” in which historical personalities and events form the majority of the narrative, cuts to the core of this issue.

One possible downside of historical fiction becomes all the more acute in fictionalized history: We reimagine the past in our own image. We populate historical contexts with individuals who share our prejudices and parrot our beliefs. This is, in one sense, gratifying since such characters confirm our biases and are highly relatable. However, this sort of pseudo-history is ultimately unsatisfying, for it cuts us off from the very strangeness of the past that makes it compelling (and entertaining!) and which might cause us to pause, reflect, and think differently.

Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an excellent case in point. As Diarmaid MacCulloch observes in his recent ­biography (Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life), there is a profound absence at the heart of the historical evidence for Cromwell’s life and ­career: We only possess his incoming correspondence. His outgoing letters were probably destroyed by faithful servants in the wake of his arrest in 1540. As a result, Cromwell’s voice is “largely missing.” ­MacCulloch suggests that Mantel perceptively evokes this absence through her use of the third-person historical present. Nevertheless, it also leads to the “radical instability” that Rex diagnoses in her leading character.

Cromwell is likely the perfect subject for fictionalized history. The famous Tudor historian Sir Geoffrey Elton even went so far as to claim (inaccurately, as it turns out) that he was “not biographable.” While Rex’s claim that Mantel’s Cromwell shares the characteristics of James Bond, Josiah Bartlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Robin Hood is perhaps an overstatement, he is often simply a ragbag of modern prejudices. This is a shame, for there are vivid and haunting passages in The Mirror and the Light (such as the description of the treed Damascene cat at Austin Friars) that make Cromwell a compelling character. Mantel’s ability as an author should not be underestimated, but neither should the deeply problematic nature of her fictionalized history.

Jonathan Reimer
eastern university
st. davids, pennsylvania

Flannery O’Connor

“My own approach to fiction, at least when I have to talk about it, is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea. She put her finger inside the cup.” So spoke Flannery O’Connor in her 1963 essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.” Only when the hot liquid stung her thumb did Anna ­Williams know the cup was full. Hence O’Connor’s plea: “If there is any value in hearing writers talk, it would be in hearing what they can witness to, not what they can theorize about.”

In Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connorreviewed by Jessica Hooten Wilson (“O’Connor and Race,” August/September)—­Angela Alaimo O’Donnell fails to mark O’Connor’s incarnational aversion to theory. Like George Orwell, she fears that the unprecedented abominations of the modern world have been committed in the name of lofty ideals encased in abstract ­theories. O’Donnell indeed begins with the latest theoretical fashions: Race Formation Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies. There is little doubt that these can teach us salutary truths about the unquestioned benefits that most whites have reaped at huge cost to black people. Yet nowhere does O’Donnell set forth her own presuppositions. From Alasdair MacIntyre and others we have learned that there is no “view from nowhere,” no lensless vision, no un-traditioned standpoint. Yet she speaks glibly of “the deeply ingrained binaries of western metaphysics” and “the right side of history.”

Christian faith is based on stark though complex demarcations between belief and unbelief, salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. It was Nietzsche who sought to take us beyond the binaries of good and evil. And surely Christians are destined to be on the wrong side of history until its end at Armageddon. Hence ­Tolkien’s sobering motto: “We fight the long defeat.” The question, for Flannery O’Connor and the rest of us, is how to resist the ultimately victorious power of evil. ­Chesterton’s Catholic hero in The Ball and the Cross offers the key: “The Cross cannot be defeated,” declares Evan MacIan, “for it is Defeat.” Thus do Christians, whether antique or contemporary, win by losing, fighting the right battles at the right times with the right weapons, above all refusing to adopt the violence and coercion of the Enemy.

Similar convictions may have prompted Flannery O’Connor’s admiration of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism.” Niebuhr ­declared that, if God had assumed human form in democratic America, we would have killed him no less surely than did the Romans of first-century Palestine. In her story with its deliberately scandalous title, “The Artificial Nigger,” O’Connor provides a lasting image of the God-Man’s murder. It occurs not in so obvious a place as the lynching of a black man but, far more subtly, in a black lawn jockey standing in front of a Southern mansion.

This plaster cartoon is a white declaration that black lives don’t matter. He is a Sambo-figure holding a slice of watermelon, as if black people were capable of nothing more than cheap gratification of their appetites. He is supposed to be a smiling and carefree “darky,” but he has a chipped eye, he lurches forward at an awkward angle, and the watermelon has turned brown. Thus is he parodied in a ­perpetual humiliation. “It was not possible,” declares O’Connor’s narrator, “to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either.” Riveted by this emblem of suffering and shame, two grossly alienated kinsmen find their unexpected and undeserved reconciliation. Though it will take months, even years to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, the crimes they have committed against each other begin to melt away in the presence of this unintentional Crucifix. “They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.”

Flannery O’Connor was no saint. She said ugly things about black people. Sometimes, she seemed even to believe what she said. Yet she was never proud of these sentiments and she never let them seep into her stringently anti-racist fiction. O’Donnell misses this huge difference, at least in part, because she is wed to theories of reading fiction for its racial content. O’Connor the writer, by contrast, offered artistic witness to the untheoretical center of the turning world. For her as for all believers, it stands at a single concrete, historical site—at Calvary. There, the human victory over the incarnate God issues in the greatest of all reversals, as Christ tramples down death by his own death. O’Connor’s effigy of the Jocko does something similar. He becomes an inadvertent Man of Sorrows. He powerfully images the white man’s egregious sin against black people. Far more deeply, he signals the lasting means for healing our racial strife, as the alienated races might yet embrace each other through their common embrace of divine suffering.

Ralph C. Wood
baylor university
waco, texas