Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rise of Baptist Republicanism By Oran P. Smith (1998 book review)

Review: Oran P. Smith, The Rise of Baptist Republicanism.
New York University Press, N.Y., 1997
Intro., append., biblio., ill., tab., fig., 320 pages. $38.50 cloth.
Published in The Southeastern Political Review
[now Politics & Policy]
Volume 26, Issue 3 (Fall), 1998.

A fellow sociologist told me that he was convinced that within the chest of every political scientist beats the heart of a pollster. Oren P. Smith’s work show that this was clearly merely the usual disciplinary rivalry. Smith has given both political scientists and sociologists a fascinating and well documented study of the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) into the single largest religious force in modern American politics. What is especially appealing about this work is that its eclecticism is its strength. It would be easy to present a one-sided account of the Southern Baptist Convention, and especially easy to reduce the SBC to being just another religious group and lump them into the so-called “New Right”. All too often in lesser or more journalistic studies, we find the latent prejudice of many non-southerners directed towards the peculiar historical traditions of the south. This is what Smith calls the problem of “Southerness”---which even he, as a native South Carolinian, has trouble defining. But this is not a detriment, because throughout this work one notices the depth of feeling the author has for his region and state, and this translates into his desire to tell this portion of its story in as much of its complexity as possible. It may well be true that only a southerner could have written with so much insight into Southern politics.

The strengths of the book are many and the argument is laid out in a convincing manner. Smith details how the historical changes in the SBC parallels the changes in the Republican party and in what ways the political challenges and disputes in each are similar. In terms of the its influence on regional politics, the SBC functions as a barometer of southern culture and politics, in part because it is a fairly open and democratic organization and in part because of its reflection and reproduction of “Southerness” and “Southern political culture”. Through it all, the SBC has become “the very symbol of the rising influence of the religious right”(27).

This brings up the question of how we are to understand such entities as the “New Christian Right,” or the “New Right”. The terms themselves denote ambiguous common sense notions that cover a messy amalgam of neo-conservatives, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, military/industrial sectors, political action committees, think tanks, etc., whose grip on power results from one of those wonderfully abstract pendulum swings of American politics. It is clear that the difficulty in defining the New Right has raised the troubling possibility that there is no unitary politics of the Right, and therefore no single ideology emanating from a central source. Smith examines this problem of the definition of the New Right without sacrificing the real differences and conflicts between what he terms “Movement Right” ideologies. He makes a genuine contribution to the excavation of one of the multiple locations of conservative ideology. Perhaps most importantly, Smith’s study helps situate the New Right in the arena of everyday social conflicts; conflicts which have long histories and which are passionately fought. Consequently, Smith’s study renders the usual definitions of the New Right problematic, and contributes to the great need to understand the complexity of American conservatism. The “Movement Right” is neither the creation of a small group of leaders, nor a formless mass of half-wits, dupes, or religious fanatics.

The richness of Smith’s study in terms of everyday politics is found in his case study of the rise of Baptist Republicanism in South Carolina. The principle actors, Bob Jones University (Bob Jones Sr. and III), the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed), the Moral Majority (Jerry Falwell), and the SBC, form the nodes around which the movement of fundamentalist and evangelical Southern Democrats into the Republican Party can be traced. “Each comes to politics with unique motivations, each has a religious and political history of its own, and each fundamentalist group responds to different stimuli”(99). Smith’s examination of the political realignment to the Republican Party and the dynamics of the interaction between the four branches of the “Movement Fundamentalist Right” in South Carolina is particularly insightful in showing us how the politics of a region, and the politics of a religion, came to dominate major portions of the national political agenda. Especially important in Smith’s discussion is the effect of the “culture wars” on the development of Baptist Republicanism.

If there are criticisms to be made, they are minor. It might honestly be said that sociologists are more skeptical of polling data than are political scientists. While Smith implicitly seeks to move beyond the traditional confines of his discipline, the results of public opinion polls are often reported uncritically. Another criticism is that one wishes Smith had told us a bit more about his own relation to his subject, for it certainly informs his work.

This book will be valuable to anyone interested in contemporary southern politics and religion. Political scientists, sociologists, and students of the relationship between religion and politics in contemporary America will also find important insights in this book. The appendix giving a chronological history of the Southern Baptist Convention’s move towards Baptist Republicanism is an excellent resource for researchers as well.

B. Ricardo Brown
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York