A couple of years ago I wrote an article called ‘Why Americans Go to Church’. At the time I was making a rather tongue-in-cheek observation about the amorality of American culture across all of its expressions. Since then I have expanded my reading into this phenomenon.
I think two events spurred me to do this. The first happened a long time ago; it was when US President Bill Clinton denied ‘having sex’ with Monica Lewitt, and was later caught in the lie. Clinton, I read then, was a ‘Southern Baptist’. In this cult only penetration counts as sex, apparently. While I thought it was serious ‘economy with the truth’, I did not dig into it deeply.
More recently, I had an online exchange with someone who insisted that Catholics ‘were not Christians’ and that they had come along ‘later’ and perverted the true meaning of the word. This person exhibited all the lack of education, and absence of any desire to gain some, that is typical of American Baptists.
Being a European, of course, I had no direct experience of Southern Baptism or any of the other so called ‘Evangelical’ cults until about five years ago, and even then it seemed relatively harmless. They were just a bunch of crackpot fringe-dwellers, somewhat like the Moonies or the Baha’i. Still, I was beginning to see pattern, as I read the writings of Baptist seminarians and ‘thinkers’. Was there any substance to this cult at all, or was it just anything anyone wanted it to be? Was it, indeed, actually dangerous?
Clearly, Baptists suffer from confusion, which devolves to two fundamental errors. The first is that Catholicism is not the first Christian church, and even that Catholics are not Christians. Well, Christianity as we know it was invented by the Apostle Paul, who wrote over half the books contained in the New Testament. The term ‘catholic’, meaning ‘universal’ is first recorded in the writing of Ignatius of Antioch, a follower of the Pauline church, in 110ce.
Admittedly, the church itself did not acquire its full political structure until it became the official religion of the Roman Empire three centuries later, yet even at this early date it exhibited the hallmarks of Roman organisation, being strictly pyramidal with defined levels of authority. It was modelled on the Roman military and bureaucratic structure from the start, probably because Paul had been a member of the Roman bureaucracy himself. The direct connection between the modern Roman Catholic Church and the inception of Christianity is well documented and quite irrefutable.
It is very likely that the eventual triumph of Catholic Christianity over the many competitor cults was a direct result of this organisational structure. There had been other versions of Christianity, but these were swept aside or suppressed. This does leave open the faint possibility that the Baptist claim — to be linked to an earlier form of Christianity — might have some grain of truth, but this stands no scrutiny.
We know a little about other early cults. The first, so-called ‘Adoptionist’ Christians did not, for example, believe that Jesus was born the son of Jahweh, but that he was adopted as such at the time of his baptism, something which, coincidentally, supports the suggestion that the Biblical Jesus may be based, at least in part, on a real man. A similar effect can be seen today in India, where Mahatma Ghandi is not only revered as a great leader of people, but worshipped as divine in his own right. There have been other similar cases, too. Could this be the source of the Baptists’ confusion?
Well, no, because Baptists insist that Jesus was born the son of God from the Virgin Mary, and completely reject the Adoptionist position. This appears to be because they are confused about the chronology of the New Testament texts and believe, erroneously, that the Gospels are the earliest writings; but they are not, the Pauline texts — which do not mention the ‘historical Jesus’ even once — are.
This has spurred many specious attempts to date the Gospels, or some forerunner text, to the early part of the first century. This is wrong; there is no plausible evidence that they were written before the second century, and the existence of a mythical original ‘source document’ remains unproven. The desperate attempt to conjure it into existence is a function of the necessity, on the part of this group, to show that the Gospels actually pre-date the Pauline texts. They don’t.
Furthermore, Baptists believe that ‘salvation’ comes from ‘faith in Jesus’ and not from Baptism itself, which is effectively just a rite of initiation. If they were actually closet Adoptionists, this would not be the case. In fact, across a range of theological issues, Baptists happily accept the Roman Catholic line and only differ on a small number, which are admittedly very important.
While many Baptists try to suggest that their church somehow originated prior to the development of the Catholic one, there is absolutely no evidence to support this. But it doesn’t end there. Baptist ‘theologians’ routinely trot out sects from before the Reformation and claim them as prior versions of themselves, when even cursory examination shows how false this it. Baptists are obsessed with the idea that they are not Protestants, because as Americans they seek to distance themselves from the Protestant Church of England, which they claim persecuted them.
None of this is true. Baptism is indeed one of the Protestant cults that was born out of the Reformation, which itself was a socio-political event consequential to the Renaissance. It features, like many Protestant sects, an intense focus on the literal word of the Bible, which, for Baptists substitutes for history, or indeed, any other form of knowledge. There is no connection between the historical early churches and modern Baptism or any other Protestant sect and instead, they are all derivatives of Catholicism.
Baptists reject what they see as the interposition of the Catholic command structure and bureaucracy, along with much doctrine that is part of Catholic dogma but not mentioned in the Bible.
But this, too, is skewed. Baptists believe in the idea of a triple-god or Trinity, which is a central tenet of Catholicism. The only verse in the Bible that directly alludes to this is Matthew 28:19: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. Yet this is ambivalent and could as easily be interpreted as three different entities; it is only the assumption, required by the monotheistic underpinning of Christianity, that God is indivisible, that makes them appear as one — and which obliges the Baptists, along with everyone else, to adopt the Catholic interpretation, because it was the first.
Even more damning is the apparent failure to comprehend that the very Bible Baptists use was written and codified by the Catholic Church itself. In other words, they are disputing the Catholic understanding of its own core text, while wholeheartedly accepting as true elements of Catholic dogma that do not appear in the Bible.
It’s as absurd as arguing with Tolkien over the meaning of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And in the final irony, even the version of the Bible they insist is the literal ‘word of God,’ was not written by a Baptist, but by a Protestant Scottish king, James VI, some fifteen centuries after the alleged death of Jesus. It seems remarkable, in the light of this, that they can still claim that their cult predated Catholicism; but Baptism, with no moral sanctions intrinsic to it, is very accommodating of untruthers.
The moral vacuum at the heart of Baptism comes from its approach to Salvation. To a Christian, this means that after death one is raised to Heaven to spend eternity with God. The Catholic version of this owes much to Egypt, where the doctrine of ‘judgement’ after death was very important. Briefly, only those who had lived their lives according to the religious rules enter paradise and those who did not, have to endure an eternity of suffering.
Catholic Christianity develops this into different levels of transgressions — ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ sins. Venial sins may be atoned for by a spending a period in ‘Purgatory’ after death, while mortal sins must be confessed to and penance done in life. The only forgiveness for such sins comes through the church itself, via the Confessional.
This affirms an intrinsic morality. To behave outside the moral constraints of the church means eternal damnation, and to behave within, eternal ecstasy. Transgress slightly and you get a spiritual slap on the wrist. Thus Catholicism embodies the notion that morality devolves to obedience to its rules. This made it very attractive to the Romans, who sought to manage a whole Empire through it.
Most Protestant sects, while disputing the authority of the Papacy and the organised nature of the Catholic Church, and insisting that each believer must communicate directly with God, rather than through the intermediary of the church, still inherit the idea of judgement, and that sins on earth will be punished after death. This means that they too, embody a moral imperative.
Baptists, however, believe Salvation comes directly from an entirely personal ‘faith in Christ’ and not through the church, the Eucharist, ‘good works’, observation of morality or anything else. Faith alone allows the believer direct access to Heaven, no matter how he or she behaves.
Baptism insists instead that persons who ‘accept Christ’ are not only ‘saved’ but are ‘born again’ as better people who have no desire to act immorally, and therefore do not. Furthermore, since each individual believer is responsible for his or her own peace with God, no external sanction is available. This means that as long as Baptists profess their faith, they may do as they will.
Baptists who murder, for example, doctors who carry out abortions, believe they may do so without fear of eternal damnation, because their slick and convenient cult does not require them to consider the moral implications of their actions. The sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, is irrelevant to them since ‘faith in Jesus’ immediately absolves breaking it, alongside any of the other Commandments. On a lesser note, this moral vacuum explains why Baptists are apparently happy to tell blatant lies, both in matters of religion and politics; witness a succession of residents of the White House.
Since the only moral imperative is belief in Christ, and that alone is enough to forgive any sin, no matter how serious, and allow the believer access to an eternity of bliss, Southern Baptism is by definition completely amoral. No earthly act will be either punished or rewarded, so Baptism is perfect for those whose only purpose is the furtherance of their own ends, by any means, yet who seek religious sanction. This makes it a very good fit to an utterly ruthless, amoral, materialistic culture, based on an Imperialist land-grab and devoted only to the maximisation of profit.
Southern Baptism Today
Contemporary Southern Baptism is a uniquely American cultural phenomenon which derives from the establishment of the United States as a post-colonial Imperial power. The suggestion by its apologists that it is an ancient church is completely untrue. It evolved in the 20th century, particularly in the tele-evangelist ‘ministry’ of Billy Graham and his fellow travellers. Its real roots are in the events surrounding the American Civil War, and its contemporary expression is a phenomenon of the age of mass communication; it is the Fox News of religion. Just as Rome adopted Catholicism and used it to rule the world in the past, so Baptists hope that America will adopt their religion and use it to rule the world in the future.
We should do well to remember this in our dealings with American Baptists. It explains a great deal, from the deliberate lies of tobacco companies, the secret murders and torture carried out by the CIA, Big Oil’s wilful manipulation of the truth about Global Warming, down to Bill Clinton’s grubby little lie about Monica. Where the only moral imperative is ‘to be seen to believe’ then anything goes, from selling snake oil to political assassination, mass murder, and the deliberate destruction of the planet for pecuniary gain.
So although I wrote my blog piece about why Americans go to church as a tongue-in-cheek parody, it turns out to be completely true. For far too many Americans, religion is indeed simply a convenient, catch-all justification for the complete denial of moral responsibility.
Originally published at Rod Fleming’s World.