The nomination of Sarah Palin changed Southern Baptist fundamentalism quicker than Eve tempted Adam to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden, metaphorically speaking. The Republican Party’s first woman caused Republican Party’s first-line male clergy to revise their theology about women, while claiming they never meant what they said earlier.
Only 10 years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention thumped the Bible and announced in Salt Lake City, of all places, that the woman’s place was in the home. More exactly, they added a family paragraph to the Baptist Faith & Message statement, which said that a wife had the God-given responsibility to her husband “to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”
Their words were abundantly clear and literally interpreted. The wife had no other role, no other divine appointment, no other responsibility. No exceptions were made for women who work outside the home, either by necessity or vocational fulfillment. The woman was to be a household manager and to nurture children.
Their statement was economically unambiguous: the husband “has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.”
One of the two women on the Baptist Faith & Message committee, which wrote the family statement, said that women should never “be ashamed to be a worker in the home.” She said that women were to be “helpers first of all to our husbands” and “homemakers are the backbone of our society.”
The SBC president, who appointed that committee, would later say, “The wife should not be burdened with the necessity of working outside the home.”
When he was chairman of the SBC’s Council on Family Life in 2003, he said, “Particular attention should be given to the specific roles established in the Scripture for the husband and the wife in the areas of provision and management. The husband should be vocationally focused and able to provide for his family.”
Now SBC leaders are reinterpreting their statement.
None does so more dishonestly that a seminary professor who wrote last week that “the Baptist Faith and Message does not address the question of women in secular leadership, only spiritual leadership.”
Wow! Talk about mendacity.
All of a sudden their faith statement is about spiritual leadership. That’s certainly not what the words say and what the leadership said. If they had meant to affirm women in the workplace, then they would have said so, which they did not, even in their interpretative document of their faith statement.
Another SBC official wrote that he saw no conflict between his denomination’s statement on women and supporting Palin vice-presidential campaign. He said that men and women are “assigned different but complementary roles in the home” and “our confession of faith does not speak to the appropriateness of women serving in political office.”
Well, no, the confession of faith doesn’t speak literally to women running for office. But when his wife served on the committee that wrote the family statement, neither she nor he spoke up for women working outside the home.
In fact, when I said in June 1998 that Southern Baptist fundamentalists “hope to make June Cleaver the biblical model for motherhood, despite numerous biblical references to women who worked outside the home,” fundamentalists responded with the claim they were only being faithful to the Bible.
Fundamentalists could have clarified that their statement was only about spiritual leadership and had nothing to do with women being employed outside the home. They could have said they valued and honored women pursuing their God-given talents in the workplace. Nope, they said their statement was all about the Bible.
So, why are SBC fundamentalists rushing towards theological revisionism?
Theological accommodation always arises in response to cultural change. Palin has changed the Republican culture, forcing SBC clergy either to say they can’t support her because what she is doing counters biblical teaching or to shift their interpretation of the Bible. Their fear of being shut out of the White House, should she win, or blamed for Republican defeat in November necessitates their theological revisionism.
What the revisionist storm will wrought for Baptist women in church leadership and in family roles is unknown, except that it will not be what is was. And that’s bad news for the patriarchal clergy of the Christian Right who hide behind the Bible in the pursuit of political power.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.