Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are Baptists Still Nonconformists?

My wife is currently reading Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010), a novel rooted in Truong's childhood experiences as an "outsider" Vietnamese-American in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, where her family settled after the fall of Saigon in 1975 (and a novel of particular interest to us because our son is a Korean-American living in Boiling Springs, North Carolina). This morning she read to me a sentence that follows a reference to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in nearby Shelby: "As far as the Southern Baptists were concerned, Episcopalians were third on the list of local religious nonconformists" (after one of the characters in the novel and Catholics).

That sentence struck me as delightfully ironic, for in seventeenth-century England the 1662 Act of Uniformity officially made Baptists the "Nonconformists" (along with Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers)--because of their dissent from the doctrines and practices of the established Church of England, the progenitor of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Things have changed. While there may be no government-established church in the United States today, it's fair to say that Baptists are now culturally established here, and it's not merely a function of their numerical preponderance. As the eminent historian of American Christianity Martin Marty has observed, all American denominations--including those with more hierarchical eccelsiologies--are now "Baptistified" (Martin Marty, “Baptistification Takes Over,” Christianity Today [2 September 1983]: 33-36). Baptistness has worked its way into the American ecclesial establishment, even while American culture has intertwined itself with Baptistness in what Marty's fellow historian of American Christianity (and now president of historically Baptist Wake Forest University) calls The Democratization of American Christianity in his influential book by that title.

In light of the cultural and ecclesial establishment Baptists now enjoy in relation to the current state of the American experience, are they still Noncomformists? Some degree of noncomformity belongs to the essential DNA of Baptist ecclesial identity, for Baptists at their best are a relentlessly pilgrim community that resists all overly-realized eschatologies of the church, seeking the ideal community that is fully under the rule of Christ somewhere ahead of them rather than in any past or present instantiation of the church. In the present circumstances of the American establishment of Baptistness, it seems that we will have to reclaim our Nonconformist heritage through a stance of Baptist alterity in relation to the status quo of the Baptist denominational tradition--a perspective that my fellow Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman of Duke University Divinity School calls a consciousness of being an "other Baptist."

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