Southern Baptist Leader Signs on to Promote “Secular” Campaign
Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, recently went on the record as endorsing Richard Dawkins’ Openly Secular Campaign. Akins seems to believe that he has found an ally in a group that is as equally “oppressed” as his is? As expected, Akin’s endorsement was not without flak from fellow Baptists.
At first glance it may appear that this Southern Baptist may be tossing an olive branch to this post-modern society. Is Akin hinting at a willingness to embrace the foundational tenants of the Enlightenment? Is he ready to acknowledge his denomination’s dismal record on human and civil rights in this society? Is he ready to affirm the contributions of liberals and progressives to American society? I doubt it. Here is why I am skeptical.
I begin with an awareness that this is not the first time a prominent Southern Baptist leader has entered into a formal relationship with a secular movement. Thirty-five years ago Southern Baptists’ leadership gleefully hitched their wagon to Ronald Reagan’s conservative coalition of secular neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. That resulting religious and secular coalition has since focused its collective resources on obstructing, nullifying, or subverting the achievements of every progressive rights movement birthed in the cultural crucible of the 1960s.
I suspect that this is what Akin is really concerned about. Southern Baptists are extremely anxious these days, and deservedly so. Their greatest fear, as they adjust to the mindset of being a minority, is that they will be treated just like they have historically treated many of the marginalized and disenfranchised in this society (blacks, women, gays, and others). What Southern Baptists now want is a protected status that will allow them, in the name of religious freedom, to continue to discriminate, not just in their churches, but also in their educational, social service, and charitable organizations and institutions that are dependent on federal and state licensing and funding.
Akin says in his video, “No one should be coerced when it comes to their particular religious beliefs, whether they are religious or not religious. They should have the freedom to express what they believe and they should be able to do so without hatred, without discrimination.” I have a suspicion that what Akin is referencing here is the now-familiar Southern Baptist assertion that they are becoming a persecuted, disenfranchised, and discriminated against minority themselves.
I would be more inclined to entertain the possibility that Akin’s motives were not self-serving if he began with an apology and a request for forgiveness from all of those marginalized communities he and his denomination have discriminated against. I would be more inclined to give Akin the benefit of the doubt if he also offered to join a coalition that was focused on forwarding the civil and religious rights of all of those who are marginalized and disenfranchised in this society, including those of the LGBTQ community.
I have some reservations about Dawkins as well. One has to do with semantics. Although I can agree with some of Dawkins complaints about the reality of discrimination against atheists in this society, I do have to wonder about the choice of his movement’s moniker. It appears to me that the movement would be better served to be titled either the “Openly Nontheist Rights Campaign” or the “Openly Atheist Rights Campaign.” The term secular should not be so blithely limited to an association with words like atheist, agnostic, scientific, or freethinking. This enlightened Baptist can be openly theistic and openly secular at the same time. We are, after all, citizens of a great secular democracy and we are all beneficiaries of the scientific revolution. We are all secularists in this sense. The idea that one has to be one or the other, secular or religious, is a false presumption.
In addition, there is a part of me that wonders if Dawkins is not in some ways as illiberal as the Southern Baptists Akin represents. He and Akin have this much in common. They are both fundamentalists. They both start with the assumption that faith and science are irreconcilable enemies. John Gray in his New Republic article says that Dawkins campaign is really one against religion and that Dawkin’s brand of atheism is its own kind of narrow religion. If Gray is right, Dawkins and Akin may have more in common than most suspect.
I am well aware that the atheist rights movement in America is seeking to find its footing and to settle on a productive strategy. As a student of rights movements in America I will be watching to see if the “Openly Secular Campaign” truly embraces the liberal values that proceed from the Enlightenment. I will be watching to see how this movement squares with the well-documented illiberality of the Southern Baptist Convention.