Newspaper article News Sentinel

Divine Lines

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Divine Lines

Article excerpt

"Barack Obama didn't divide us. Donald Trump divided us. His personal behavior, his policy views, his temperament and character, his religious values, all were highly questionable."

Nathan A. Finn

Dean, School of Theology and Missions at Union University

Ask a historian about the newest tensions in the Southern Baptist Convention, and you'll hear words like theology, polity and methodology.

Dig a little deeper into those tensions, closer to the congregational level, and you'll hear words like evangelism, missions and morality.

Should there be an altar call after every service?

Should the congregation be led by a dominant CEO-type pastor or a clergy-lay partnership?

Should a presidential candidate's party affiliation or political views trump flaws in his or her moral character?

Those are some of the pulpit-and-pew level tensions straining the faith, fellowship and funding in the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

Those tensions - racial, sectional, but mostly generational - have been forming for more than a decade, thanks in large part to the rise of social media and millennials, and will be on full display this week when the convention holds its annual meeting in Phoenix.

They flared considerably - and publicly - during last year's presidential campaign when old guard Southern Baptist leaders like Richard Land and new generation leaders like Russell Moore began to clash over Donald Trump.

It was the first time that had happened since conservative, nondenominational Ronald Reagan faced moderate Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in 1980.

"Barack Obama didn't divide us," said Nathan A. Finn, dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University, a Southern Baptist college in Jackson, Tenn.

"Donald Trump divided us. His personal behavior, his policy views, his temperament and character, his religious values, all were highly questionable."

Some think Trump deserves a chance, Finn said. His policy views, especially on abortion, are close enough to those Southern Baptists hold. Plus, supporting Trump lets Southern Baptists keep their seat at the table.

But others believe they don't need to be at the table, Finn said. It's partisan politics, not morality and integrity, being served up.

"Trump's candidacy, and now his presidency, are causing us to consider whether we are just a chaplain for the Republican Party or do we have a prophetic role to play for both parties?" Finn said.

Moore, the president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the public face of the network of churches, emerged as a consistent, vocal critic of Trump, even sparring with the candidate on Twitter. Moore issued post-election apologies for his approach, but not his positions.

Land, who is Moore's predecessor and now the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, joined Trump's evangelical advisory board and marveled at the access to the incoming administration.

Stretched across the divide

Finn's office in Jackson, Tenn., is between Nashville and Memphis - between Moore's office at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and SBC President Steve Gaines' office at Bellevue Baptist Church.

That's where Finn, now a leading Southern Baptist historian, finds himself, not just geographically but generationally.

"I'm a member of Generation X, the generation between the older 'resurgence generation' and the younger millennials," Finn said. "In some ways I am like each of them.

"To the older generation of Southern Baptists, there are issues that are non-negotiable, that are worth fighting for," Finn said. "Those are important issues to younger Southern Baptists, and they are worth discussing, but we can disagree on them and still work together."

Southern Baptists unite around core doctrine and mission, but the division comes from disagreements on secondary issues, said Jon Akin, the new director of young leader engagement for the Southern Baptist-supported North American Mission Board. …

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