Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book review: Uneasy in Babylon (Barry Hankins)

Book Review: Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture, Barry Hankins, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), pp. 344. Hankins is Associate Professor of History and Church-State Studies at Baylor University.


Barry Hankins, in the “first book-length scholarly work about Southern Baptist conservatives,” offers a balanced critique of what some call the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Hankins’ title wryly emphasizes the stark changes in Southern Baptist and Southern cultural life since the release of Rufus Spain’s At Ease in Zion in 1967. 

Hankins draws on his background in church-state studies to explore the vision of conservative elites, not only in their past denominational takeover, but also on “what they perceive to be a full-scale culture war.” Hankins sees the conservative movement in the SBC as more than what the conservatives claimed. It was not simply about theology, particularly the inerrancy of Scripture, and it was not, as moderates claimed, control of denominational politics.
“In many ways it was
a response to culture,” Hankins insists. Through personal interviews and critical insight, Hankins explains how conservative intellectuals, activists, and populists, such as Al Mohler, Timothy George, Richard Land, and Adrian Rogers, developed into evangelical culture warriors whose victory in denominational politics provided a platform for larger engagement of American culture and government. 

By detailing the bloody story of the conservative takeover of Southern Seminary under Al Mohler, Hankins accuses conservatives of not only pushing out their liberal and moderate opponents, but also driving away excellent fellow evangelical scholars who would not tow the full conservative line. Hankins then investigates the most important of the cultural touchstones of the conservative movement to push along his thesis.
Beginning with the differences in views between Establishment Clause moderates and Free Exercise conservatives on religious liberty, Hankins then examines moderate and conservative positions on church-state separation in comparison with Baptist forebears Isaac Backus and John Leland.
Hankins then turns to the conservative litmus, abortion, and shows how those without radical pro-life leanings were rejected by resurgent conservative leadership. Still, Hankins praises Southern Baptist conservatives for overcoming their original sin of racism and establishing the most ethnically diverse denomination in the nation, even reaching out to the African-American community more than the moderates did.

Hankins’ restrained disdain for conservatives’ views on the submissiveness of women comes through in his tête-à-tête between Jann Aldredge Clanton and Dorothy Patterson and the subsequent addition to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. “In a denomination of nearly sixteen million people, why not agree, Hankins pleads regarding women in ministry, “to let individuals and congregations decide for themselves what approach they believe is most biblical?” Hankins concludes for himself that SBC conservatives choose to be complementarian because they are culturally contrarian. He adds, “No confession in the history of English-speaking Baptist life has ever before included a statement on the proper role of women in marriage.”

Though he disclaims objectivity, Hankins’ own background as a Michigan-born moderate SBC outsider adds weight to his perspective, while his position at Baylor has permitted him “to see Southern Baptist life up close, indeed from the inside, without actually being an insider.”

While Hankins’ impressive work is jammed with source material and is a solid and well-argued case, small weaknesses appear, largely from his outsider-inside perspective. Hankins views the abortion controversy as a merely cultural issue and either assumes his reader understands or overlooks the short step from a high view of the Scriptures to a high view of human life.
Second, Hankins makes much of the training of SBC conservatives outside the American South, and one would expect an attendant broadening of views on gender. Hankins does not, or perhaps cannot, explain how that training boomeranged into a counter-cultural position of graciously submissive womanhood. Unfortunately, Hankins makes what amounts to an unkind caricature of Dorothy Patterson at a few places.
Despite the fact that no one of Southern Baptist extraction, liberal, moderate, or conservative will like everything he or she finds in Uneasy in Babylon, it will remain a valuable part of the corpus of Southern Baptist history and discussion of the late twentieth century.