By Mark Coppenger
April 24, 2023
Back in the 70s when I was a platoon leader in a mech infantry unit attached to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, there were two legal whiskeys in Tennessee—Jack Daniels and George Dickel. Of course, there were many Tennessee whiskeys crafted in stills up in the hollers. And some of it managed to find its way under the floorboards of our tracked vehicles. Our Tennessee National Guard battalion was made up of good ole boys from the Cumberland Plateau (Cookeville, Smithville, Sparta, Livingston, Rockwood, Harriman, Crossville—Sgt. York and Lester Flatt country), and some of them had a taste for moonshine that would not be denied. So, they’d fill plastic milk jugs and smuggle them to our annual training exercises for evening refreshment in the field. On nights when we were free to “stand down,” they’d build bonfires and take turns performing “free acts” (their expression for talent shows) fueled by the home brew, plus generous helpings of “Budweideker Beerero.” I was sure they’d acquit themselves admirably if deployed to the combat zone, but on those Texas nights, they were more fit to be rolled to their pup tents in wheelbarrows.
And yes, one of our official state songs, “Rocky Top,” speaks of some ill-fated “revenoors” who “got disappeared,” and offers partial explanation for the product’s popularity:
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar
When I finished grad school, I headed north to the Chicago area to teach at Wheaton College, and there I joined the philosophy faculty with Stuart Hackett, whose favorite word for nonsense was “moonshine.” (It’s legit. You can look it up.) So, I’m picking up on that usage to warn you against what strikes me as some of the bad brew that addles messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention. Here’s a sampling of hooch to look out for:
The name comes from the Sophists, who were to Socrates what the Pharisees were to Jesus—slick talkers who did whatever was needful to win, the truth be hanged. Rhetoric is plagued by “informal fallacies,” cheap substitutes for responsible argumentation. There are scads of them: For instance, argumentum ad hominem attacks the person instead of his reasoning; ad misericordiam relies on overwrought sympathy rather than thoughtful assent (like the kid who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan); post hoc ergo propter hoc (Every time a rooster crows, the sun comes up, so the bird thinks he’s the cause of the dawn.); and misleading statistics (All heroin users started on milk.) Two of my favorites, deployed on the floor of the Convention, are ad populum (where you give us warm, fuzzy, pious talk to charm or intimidate the crowd (“We prayed over this and this is what God showed us.”); false dichotomy (“Either you vote for this or you’re a racist [or abuse-enabler]”). Of course, fine talk has its place; and yes, there are substantial dichotomies; but be sure they’re backed up with hard reality and demonstrable relevance.
At the 1984 SBC in Kansas City, a state convention staffer sidled up to me and whispered that a female dignitary of the “moderate” persuasion was going to speak against a resolution which opposed women pastors. He wanted me to position myself in a certain section of the hall, where I could jump to my feet and applaud after she’d spoken. Others were similarly coached and placed about the room so that they might prompt a standing ovation. I guess he assumed mistakenly that my philosophy degree made me liberal. Of course, I didn’t cooperate. Providentially, that piece of performance art didn’t materialize, and the resolution (introduced by committee member Carl F. H. Henry) passed.
I like theater. I was in a half-dozen plays in college. But I hate it when smooth operators try to play us within the family of God through, for instance, staged encounters (ambushes) with supporting cast, or through agenda-bending, “spontaneous,” platform maneuvers, replete with “Oh, look what we just happen to have here!” graphics or enablements—that sort of thing.
And the Oscar goes to . . .
Think Fauci: “I am the science.” Or, “Settle down kids; we got this.” Of course, there can be a time to bring up “best practice,” “industry standard,” “studies show,” “trust me when I say,” or “reliable sources report,” but if you carry on as if the messengers couldn’t handle more explanation or you couldn’t be bothered with prickly questions, then you need to get off your high horse.
My East Tennessee-born daddy told me about a moonshiner who ran a still made from a car radiator lined with lead. The poor folks who bought his product went blind. Unfortunately, the same thing can happen when you keep messengers in the dark by committing administrative sins of omission (not telling them what they need to know to make informed decisions) or commission (by misconstruing things). One blogger recently assured us, absurdly, that there’s “nothing to see here” in terms of wokeness at play in the denomination’s agencies. And we were finessed into voting for Resolution 9 in 2019, when the committee hustled it in on us in a package deal before we had a chance to figure out what was going on with this toxic ideology. And I know I’m stepping on toes, but I never really got the point to keeping salaries and benefits a secret. I guess my time in the Army is partly to blame, where anyone can access the year-by-year pay of everyone in uniform. Freshly-commissioned second lieutenants get $43,644 a year, plus housing allowance, per diem pay for temporary duty elsewhere, medical and dental benefits, combat pay, and death benefits to the family; the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, with a million personnel in uniform under him, gets $212,100 a year, plus benefits. I’d be happy for folks to know what I get, so they could say, “Really? That’s too much,” or “Thank God. They’re doing right by him,” or “Are you kidding? That’s all? Let’s do something about that.” And by “folks,” I mean messengers and not just the executively-sophisticated minded.
After much hue and cry over the ill-starred Resolution 9 in Birmingham, a bunch of messengers signed off on a proposed, corrective resolution for Nashville in 2021. It was a pointed call to renounce that earlier misstep (commending unholy CRT/I-thinking as a useful, “analytical tool”). Instead, the committee spoke in evasive generalities. When pressed, the chairman warned us, “The world is watching,” implying that we risked being counted as racists, so we’d better mind our p’s and q’s. But since when do we, the “offscouring of the world,” care if society at large disapproves of the truths we utter. Aren’t we cautioned against pursuing the admiration of the world? Should we muffle our convictions because CRT-zealots, SJWs, BLM, or the SPLC might not like us? Should we tremble at what might be said about us in faculty lounges, secular boardrooms, and mainstream media newsrooms? Shouldn’t we also be mindful of those out in the world who are dying to hear the SBC speak bluntly against the soul-and-society-killing obsession with perpetually-recriminating victimhood? And what’s next? A resolution urging “pronoun courtesy” since the watching world would be impressed with our sensitivity?
Here’s I speak of ageism, whether directed against young or old. In Rehoboam’s case, he prided himself on besting his father. He rejected the wisdom of his Solomon’s counselors and instead turned to young men for advice. Ginned up on their new-day counsel, he snarled at plaintiff subjects, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with barbed whips.” And, thus, he blew Israel apart. (Of course, we could also cite the case of Absalom.)
In SBC terms, we hear “yutes” say things like, “It’s our turn,” or “What’s in it for us?” And, also, “prime timers” and “keenagers” worrying, “We’d better elect (appoint, hire) a young guy who relates to the up-and-comers so we don’t lose the next generation.” I don’t remember this sort of talk during the conservative resurgence. We just wanted someone who would stand up for the Bible, whether old W. A. Criswell or young Tom Nettles.
On the other hand, we have 1 Timothy 4:12, where Paul tells his young associate, “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Or, to paraphrase, “You’re young, but you’re in charge. Just don’t act like a punk. Truth and goodness are the thing.” In this connection, I remember some advice given me when I went on the board at SBTS in 1987: “Be quiet at your first meeting. Otherwise, you’ll come off as impertinent.” Well, I’m glad I spoke up against tenure for Molly Marshall-Green along with a young John Michael and a half dozen others. Then, about that same time, Tom Kinchen (WV) and I (IN) came on board as state execs. We were 40 years old, and several of the old, “moderate” war horses in that “fellowship” rolled their eyes and even barked when a “kid” ventured to shun their groupthink. They may have had venerable hair like the snows of Hermon, but they’d missed the crisis engineered by liberals down in the valley.
Back to Rehoboam: In recent years, we’ve found ourselves burdened with heavier yokes and stung by freshly-barbed whips. We used to think that salvation cleansed us and made us color-blind brothers and sisters in Christ (neither Jew nor Greek), but now we understand that real Christians perpetually scour “the stain that remains” and find a (social) “gospel issue” at every turn, habitually lamenting (rather than stewarding) whatever privilege we might have to the glory of God. Also, we used to think that when churches and parishioners messed up, it was their responsibility to address the problems as autonomous bodies. Now we, as a denomination, subject ourselves to the barbed lashes of lawyers, their clients, and those cowed by their threats into dumping millions of our joint, mission dollars into placating their upsets. It’s as if the United Way were forced to pay reparations for the misbehavior of one of its donor corporations.
When the platform leaders (or verbose folks at the mics) monopolize the time, in effect stifling discussion, then they treat a deliberative body as if it were a stage play or sporting event, with spectators rather than participants. Whatever one might think of elders in the local church, the SBC is not a church and the annual meeting is not a synod. Full-blown “congregational polity” is the template for our yearly gatherings, with a dozen mics distributed about the hall.
When I was writing the chapter on Herschel Hobbs for Baptist Theologians, I got the chance to interview this former SBC president in his Oklahoma City home. He offered up anecdotes touching every corner of our denominational life. One concerned a dignified fellow on the platform some years ago who remarked when debate was well underway that this was unseemly. His equally-august neighbor turned to him and observed, “If you want the little dogs to hunt, you’ve got to let ‘em bark.” Well, too condescending by a lot, but there’s a point there. We’re sawmill, bank-teller, homemaker, insurance salesman, pastor, secretary, shopkeeper Baptists by the thousands in a big building for a few days hashing things out, with each person’s vote equal and each voice certified. So, we need to restrain the time-consumers. Great to see and hear from them, but often not as much as they think.
I once heard a series of lectures on the rise of the welfare state in England, including socialized medicine. The agenda got a big boost from Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, as they drew on the example of the Jerusalem church, which “had all things in common.” Of course, they ignored the fact that these early believers shared voluntarily, not in fear of state sanctions. But never mind, it sounded good, they liked the new setup, and the movement was on a roll.
But SBC heavyweights can play at this as well. ERLC leadership found support for President Obama’s open-border policies in biblical “sojourner” passages. A big-church pastor found justification for women pastors in the Great Commission, Pentecost, and Mary Magdalene’s report on the empty tomb. One leader excused sermon plagiarism by likening it to Mark’s use of Peter’s preaching in penning his Gospel.
Back during the conservative resurgence as the “Battle for the Bible” played out at the national, state, and associational levels, one might hear, “We had a great meeting. No conflict.” Well, prima facie, that’s a good thing. The Bible celebrates unity. But not at all costs. When somebody’s serving leaded moonshine in the hall, some jugs need to get broken. And that’s biblical as well.