According to Religion News Service (religionnews.com), since 2006 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has lost over two million followers. And the trend continues downward.
There are many sociological and cultural factors accounting for the trend, and among them is certainly racism within the SBC. To its credit, in 2019 the SBC passed Resolution 9 in which Critical Race Theory was recognized as a helpful “analytical tool” to confront racism so long as it remained “subordinate to Scripture” (see Resolution 9). The resolution was carefully worded, and it remains easy to recognize the underlying fear of blasphemy haunting the hearts of its crafters. Nevertheless, the resolution passed.
Now, in 2022, it seems even the polite and restricted Resolution 9 is too much for the SBC to handle. The extreme right continues its quest to take over the Convention, and part of that takeover involves an effort to rescind Resolution 9. In its history, the SBC has never rescinded a resolution, so the stakes are high. The problem with the resolution, according to Tom Ascol, a candidate for the SBC presidency, is that it smells of wokeness. “God is not woke,” according to Ascol.
On the extreme right, wokeness usually conjures up dreaded socialism, communism, Marxism, and several other names used to denounce anti-sexist and anti-racist social policies. For example, Ascol is quoted as saying that motherhood is the “highest calling” for women. He seeks not only to deny women leadership roles in the SBC but also to denounce feminism and womanism. Ascol is further quoted as saying that social justice is a threat to biblical values. With a comment like that, it is hard to believe that he has read the Bible. Nevertheless, we might conclude that the reason over two million people have left the SBC since 2006 is likely due to over two million people feeling unwelcomed, unaccepted, and unloved. To be against social justice means to be against those, like God, who long for justice.
Wokeness is a problem for the extreme right because it means something like “socialism,” which is wicked in their eyes. People concerned about the common good, which is what socialism is about, are the enemy. Wokeness is not a problem on the moderate right, where justice questions are debated, and not a problem on the left. It is only in the circles of the extreme right that social justice is a threat because it is about “wokeness,” “communism,” and the evil powers of government.
The extreme right’s dismissive critique of “wokeness” identifies larger questions about government that should concern us all. According to John Locke (1632–1704), who is the classic expression of economic liberalism, which is today called “conservatism,” there is a justified balance to be struck between individual endeavors upon which an economy runs and the social network in which an economy operates. You can’t have one without the other.
The classic principle of balance means that while on the one hand a government should limit its engagement of society, on the other hand a government should ensure an economy is open, fair, available, and affordable to its participants. Classic economic liberalism is troubling because it went hand in hand with colonialism and assimilation, but it did manage to mix (what for us is) socialism and capitalism. It was what I call free market socialism: taken positively, a government sets standards for equality and fairness; it concerns itself with the social and natural environment; it ensures there is a living wage; it cares about infrastructure; it addresses poverty because poverty costs everyone; and it guarantees that education and healthcare are available to all. If we look at moderate conservatism today from the foundation of classic liberalism, it is surprisingly socialist when it comes to defining what does and does not concern a government. A democracy is about debating this balance, but extremism destroys the debate.
What is most disconcerting is how the extreme right has sought to eliminate the moderate right and in the process to reject practically any role for government at all. This means that a government’s justified concern for the common good is seen fantastically as tyranny—like the Canadian truckers who believe a vaccine threatens their liberty, like US gun lobbyists who believe common safety is totalitarianism, like the Q-Anon members who think that racism or sexism is simply a personal “opinion.” In institutions like SBC, a basic concern for the common good expressed in Resolution 9 has become an icon for the evils of “wokeness” that threaten the (undefined) American way. Irony inevitably sets in. Mike Flynn is currently on a “ReAwaken America Tour” to save America from being awake.
Most people are not on the extreme right and most people do not relate to its problematic world of conspiracies and fears. Most people sense that neither a nation nor a religion can continue on grounds that refuse the common good. But identifying solutions against the extreme right and putting solutions into practice is both difficult and challenging. There is little doubt that supporting public education is one solution because it enables a nation to develop a common sense. Education is about establishing a common ground on which a nation can grow. Private education is oxymoronic because it risks being ideological. Private education weakens the public conversation. If we want to move to an anti-racist society, for example, we need to work together, and the foundation of working together is public education.
Spirituality is Not Religion
Beyond education, the common good includes the quality of human spirituality. The tragedy of human spirituality is how it becomes mixed up in religious bigotry, but spirituality has never meant religion. If we look at the word “spirit” in its radical sense, it relates to the ancient idea of the soul. Spirituality is the quality that not only gives breath (spiritus) but also gives order (animus). Ancient people generally understood that the soul is the energy of breath mixed with order. It was not a mysteriously hidden, possibly superstitious, reality like today. The soul was a combination of animation (movement motivated by want or desire) and recognition (understanding what is worth wanting or desiring). It was something like mind or sometimes heart. To ancients, the question about the soul concerned to what end is one motivated. In the Christian New Testament, wrong motivation is sin (amartia or missing the mark).
Human spirituality, as much as education, is a common good because it concerns the debate about proper motivation (that is, proper aim or goal). To be spiritual is not to be mystical; it is to be centered on what matters in the present. To be sure mysticism can help us center, but not everyone is a mystic. However, everyone is a motivated person. What motivates us is a spiritual question, and the actual religious answer is the common good. Very often the biblical word for common good is splagchnizomai in Greek and rachamim in Hebrew. We translate these words as compassion.1 To be a person of spirituality, to be a person of compassion, requires being awake to the common good.
The Greek word means a gut feeling. A literal translation is “to be moved in one’s bowels” (splachna). Compassion in Greek is a deep human feeling for how another person suffers. The Hebrew word is different but equally interesting. The root word raham means womb. Compassion in Hebrew carries the sense of seeing or experiencing another person as your sibling. Another’s suffering is the suffering of your brother or sister.
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