American democracy and democratized Christianity face a similar crisis of disunity.
Several years ago, my eyes stopped on a two-panel cartoon that made me both laugh and grimace. The first had a typical Jordan River scene of a familiar bearded figure in camel’s hair dipping someone under the water, with the caption “John the Baptist.” The second depicted a similar scene, but the penitent was held under the water, thrashing about for life, while bubbles indicated drowning. That one was captioned “John the Southern Baptist.”
Once upon a time, the old cartoon could have prompted smugness in Christians of other denominations, but not anymore. In one respect, we are all Southern Baptists now.
Years ago, historian Martin Marty spoke of the “Baptistification” of American religion—by which he meant that the individualistic creedalism, the entrepreneurial drive, and the voluntary-society model of the church were so consistent with the American ethos that almost every Christian communion—regardless of polity or theology—was starting to reflect it.
For Baptists, this would seem consistent with the talking point for generations that the sort of polity practiced in Baptist churches was the model for the kind of democracy to which America aspired.
Increasingly, though, American democracy is starting to look more and more like a Baptist congregational business meeting. The theory of “the priesthood of the believer” and every voice counting is giving way to the darker reality of knife fights, splits between factions, and the social Darwinism of the way the meanest and most aggressive people can dictate the terms of debate. Whether those fights are over the color of the carpet in the vestibule or how to end a global pandemic, the so-called elites are in …