Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon and likely presidential candidate, recently withdrew from speaking at the pastors’ conference preceding the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. After several weeks of criticism, primarily from younger pastors, organizers asked him to step aside, and he agreed.
Why did a controversy erupt over Ben Carson? After all, there is historical precedent for politicians speaking at this conference. Mike Huckabee spoke in 2009 and 2013. Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush sent greetings via video. And Carson is admired by Southern Baptists for his personal story and political principles. He is religious—a Seventh-day Adventist—believes in human rights for the unborn and upholds the historic meaning of marriage.
Observers on the outside may see younger pastors protesting Carson and jump to two wrong conclusions:
• They may presume a leftward political shift among pastors from the millennial generation. Perhaps a conservative stalwart like Carson was too polarizing for younger pastors who are moving to the left on political issues.
• They may assume younger pastors believe churches should withdraw from the political realm and create a sharp separation between the church and politics.
There is indeed a generational shift in the Southern Baptist Convention, but both these conclusions miss the true nature of what is taking place.
Regarding the first presumption, the problem for younger pastors is not Carson is too conservative politically, but he is not conservative enough theologically.
Political platforms vs. the gospel
Younger Southern Baptists who reach across denominational lines in support of life, marriage and religious liberty are less likely to be enthusiastic about a pastors’ conference lineup that may, in some way, communicate unity around a political platform rather than the gospel of Jesus.
Regarding the second assumption, younger pastors are not withdrawing from political matters. They questioned the propriety of a potential presidential candidate addressing a convention of Baptists. Younger Southern Baptists fear a display of partisanship will sacrifice their ability to be a prophetic voice in relation to both parties. The desire is not to withdraw politically, but to engage prophetically.
To be sure, a generational shift is taking place in the SBC. But it is not a shift in doctrinal and moral convictions. It is, instead, a shift in how the generations see themselves in relation to the United States.
Older Southern Baptists tend to see the United States as the Bible depicts Israel—an exceptional nation founded on biblical values. Because of this heritage, America has been blessed of God uniquely, and we are called to steward that blessing for the rest of the world. This leads to the Moral Majority’s vision for society. The church has a privileged place in society and serves as a moral ballast upholding traditional family values.
The missionary minority
Younger Southern Baptists see the United States as the Bible depicts Babylon—they are exiles in a land that marginalizes and opposes historic religious views. Far from being a “moral majority,” younger pastors are more likely to see their role as a missionary minority—speaking truth to power, witnessing to the good news of Jesus in a culture increasingly hostile to a Christian worldview. Accordingly, there is less emphasis on bringing change through political mobilization and more emphasis on dealing pastorally and compassionately with the implications of a secularizing society.
The Ben Carson controversy represents this underlying generational shift, from the days when the SBC saw itself as reflective of the country’s traditional family values, to the days when the SBC sees itself as a dissenting minority. Younger pastors are grappling with the reality that Christian moral convictions do not reflect the majority culture’s values. Their reticence to hear a political pundit like Carson, even when they largely would agree with his beliefs, is rooted in a desire to be faithful to Christ in American culture—as prophets, not partisans.
Trevin Wax is managing editor of LifeWay Christian Resources’ Bible study curriculum series The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After. His column was distributed by Religion News Service.