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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Navin Johnson Redux III—Toward a Near-Future SF Treatment of White, Male, Christian Southerners

My blog posts usually lead to a considerable amount of Facebook/Twitter-based discussion, but things have been pretty quiet in response to the first two posts (here and here) I’ve made in this mini-series. If the problem is that I’m being uncontroversial and thus boring, I will solve that now with a promised post on religion. As an outsider commenting on Southern, white Christianity and its relation to this subculture, I am bound to get things wrong and likely to offend at least someone. Please do jump in. As I said, the principal reason for these posts was to prepare for a planned sequel to my novel. If I don’t understand the present, I’d like to, because it would make my projections into the near-future better reading.

When I say religion, I’m going to limit myself to Southern Baptism, as this is the largest denomination among Southern white people, accounting for about 50% of the population. It’s also the largest denomination in the country as a whole. Roman Catholicism comes in second, but I don’t think it’s likely to be the dominant influence in a world like the one I am creating. The average age of Catholics in America is 49. That’s old (and getting older). For comparison, the average age of Americans of no religion is 36. Projecting into the near-future means these trends will be more advanced, so fewer Catholics.

Currently, half of all Catholics in the South are Hispanic. In my novel, people of color were expelled during or prior to the Second US Civil War so the fastest-growing group of Catholics in America will not figure into the population numbers. Already today, 60% of white, American Catholics live either in the Northeast or the Midwest of the US. Furthermore, a xenophobic future society will not likely accept a lot of immigrants from predominantly Catholic European countries (Poland, Italy, France) so immigration would not be a factor.

Sure, the “Christian Republic” I am envisioning in the 2040s through 2060s could still have some Catholics, but on the basis of these numbers, even if white Catholics were encouraged to stay, they would be a small minority. There could be cities where they are concentrated. Today, the four of the five most Catholic metro areas in the country, percentage-wise, are Lafayette, LA (50%); Harlington/Weslaco/Brownsville/McAllen, TX (42%); El Paso, TX (41%); and Corpus Christi, TX (39%). Lafayette’s Catholics are mostly Cajun (likely to be expelled in the geopolitics I’m envisioning), and El Paso’s would be mostly Hispanic (ditto). The other two cities are already established as a border zone, patrolled by Chinese troops, keeping the peace between the “Christian Republic” and Mexico.

I would need Atlanta to exist in this story, as that’s already designated as the capital of the Christian Republic. Metro Atlanta is currently 11% Catholic, up from only 1.7% in 1960, the increase fueled by movement from other parts of the US. Would a Southern Baptist-based theocracy encourage Catholics to stay in Atlanta as equals? I’d say unlikely.

What of Methodists, currently 25% of Southern white people, or Presbyterians, at 10%? Southern Methodists reunited with their Northern branch in 1939; Southern Presbyterians with theirs in 1983. Baptists remain regionally separated. In a religiously based, future Civil War, these ties would likely cause many of the Methodists and Presbyterians to flee to the North, but the Baptists would entrench.

Thus, my focus on Southern Baptists, as they are likely to be the ancestors of at least 75% (possibly 100% if I choose to write in more expansive future expulsions) of the citizens of my future “Christian Republic.” The word Southern here dates to 1845 when the Southern Baptist Convention split from its Northern counterpart over the issue of slavery. Preachers in Southern churches used their sermons to argue for slavery as Biblically ordained. Paul’s New Testament letters stating that servants should obey their masters and examples of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments figured prominently, as did the “Curse of Ham.” Ham was Noah’s son. Genesis 9:23 tells of an episode in which Noah got drunk, and Ham saw him naked. Seeing someone naked is hardly that big of a sin, but Greek translations of the Bible used a word connoting either sodomy or castration instead of the word “see.” Third-century rabbis speculated the same thing in the Talmud.

To punish Ham, God apparently cursed his son Canaan with forever being a servant. A bit of foreshadowing there? If Canaan is cursed, perhaps Moses leading his people to take over Canaan many years later was justified? Regardless, without any mention of skin color in the Bible, these Southern preachers decided Black people were the descendants of Canaan. (Southern Baptists no longer believe this.) Not surprisingly, post-Civil War, most Black Baptists split off to form the National Baptist Convention and various other groupings and independent congregations. Parenthetically, with current-day Southern culture based on property and the homophilic relationships stemming from it (see my first post), division into white and Black religions on Sunday morning reinforces the tendency toward social segregation that began during the slavery era.

I am not going to say much about Primitive Baptists, despite there being such congregations near where I live. My reasoning: there aren’t a lot of Primitive Baptists relative to the mainstream (64,000 adherents in one 1995 reference I found). The original split from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the early 19th century was over the authority of doctrinal organizations at a higher level than the individual church (such as the SBC, for example), which were seen as invalid. These intensely conservative churches have evolved some unique practices such as foot washing as a sign of humility (men wash other men’s feet; women wash other women’s) and the use of venomous snakes during the service. Apparently, the snakes, a symbol of the devil, won’t bite true believers, and as such, living through a service is evidence one is saved. A friend whose relatives belong to such a congregation (in Georgia) assures me that the possible alternative hypothesis that defanging all of the snakes keeps them from biting is not generally considered—obviously only nonbelievers would think thusly. These churches ban musical instruments (the white Gospel singers were never my favorites anyway, but still, this certainly makes for a more staid service), and many primitive Baptist churches refuse to let those giving sermons prepare in any way, expecting the sermon to come directly from the Divine. Another friend of mine who belongs to a local Primitive Baptist Church told me much of the congregation regards him with extreme suspicion because he carries note cards with him when he is responsible for the sermon. True, small churches that are more extreme than most might persist into the near-future; however, if, as in my contemplated sequel, a semi-theocratic government is set up in the South, the mainstream, SBC-affiliated Southern Baptists are most likely to be the ancestors of those who dominate this government and set the rules for the society. They are the ones who are both numerous and unopposed to large, hierarchical organizations.

For most of the SBC-affiliated churches, what they believe is summed up in the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), which was laid out in 1925 and last revised in 2000. Here’s a link for those who wish to read the whole thing. I am going to concentrate on aspects of doctrine most relevant for projecting into near-future science fiction, but I will follow the outlining scheme in the document:

I. The Scriptures. The Bible is perfect, God-given, and above all other law. As such, the science fictional government of a Christian Republic must claim that they apply Biblical law and in no way contradict it.

II. God. Trinitarian. The Father is the creator and also the one who looks out for his creation. The Holy Spirit is what inspired men to write the Bible. He is both ultimately just—convicting men of sin—and ultimately merciful—providing the path for salvation. The Son is Jesus, who took on all aspects of humanity except sin. He died as a substitute for man and his sins so God could avoid killing all men, none of whom are perfect, all of whom are sinners. In this substitution—killing his own son, who was a part of Him—God showed ultimate love of humanity (and lack of fear of any cosmic Child Protective Services). After ascension into Heaven, his job became mediating the reconciliation between God and man through personal salvation. He will eventually come back to Earth and judge and redeem humanity (that portion of such that is Southern Baptist, at least). So, as far as near-future SF goes, the government would need a mass line (to use the Marxist term) for when Jesus is coming back and why he hasn’t arrived yet. The non-Christians are evil and need to be converted wouldn’t work so well in a society that is homogenous and making little if any effort to missionize those of other countries. However, wars of conquest could be justified as either “saving” the Heathens or protecting the Christians. As they are justified today. So not much change.

III. Man. The new wording here includes the following: “The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation.” It follows a line establishing that there are only two genders. It seems the genderqueer will always be the enemy, but transgender individuals might have some hope of acceptance in a future society.

Interestingly, it seems you aren’t a sinner at birth. The phrase used for when a person becomes a sinner is “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” Wow, talk about loaded with ambiguity! In a SF world, could drugs or transhumanist interventions make one incapable of moral action? Are certain types of people (historically, Black people) to be thought of as incapable of moral action?

This part ends with the idea that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.” On first blush, it would look like persecution of “the other” is out the window, but not so fast: Christian love might include torture if it coaxed a nonbeliever into accepting of Jesus. (Sure, no Southern Baptist would believe this today, but in near-future SF, it is plausible.) It could certainly involve praying for them but not wanting them anywhere near potentially corruptible “good Christians.”

IV. Salvation. Salvation is divided into four parts. Regeneration means accepting of God’s grace and becoming a new person via being convicted by God as a sinner, repenting for one’s sins, and believing unwaveringly in Jesus as one’s Savior. Justification is God’s consequent change of the verdict to “no longer guilty.” Sanctification, or growth in Grace, means that the person continuously becomes a better Christian. Glorification is the final state of the redeemed—permanent salvation. See the next section for implications.

V. God’s Purpose of Grace. A fascinating concept, apparently it is rife with disagreements between individual churches. Most Baptists seem to believe that once you say and honestly accept the Sinner’s Prayer, Jesus will stay with you, even if you go back to sinning. Sinning isn’t good. Southern Baptists don’t approve. But once you’ve been saved, you aren’t going to Hell no matter how bad you get. And you have the free will to be very bad—complete compatibility of free will with God’s purpose is assumed. However, there’s an out: if you are sinning, some Baptists think you didn’t really accept Jesus, you just claimed to do so. And some Baptists question free will, despite the endorsement in the BF&M. As far as near-future SF goes, with this much controversy, there’s probably a lot of leeway. As far as understanding today goes, it’s one way to understand a man who would patronize a strip club or a brothel and still consider himself a good Christian. Non-Baptists will deride the once saved, always saved doctrine as the “antinomian heresy.” If your SF world has Catholics, it might be a good phrase to co-opt and use when they criticize Southern Baptism.

A word about the Sinner’s Prayer—it is a 20th-century, Protestant innovation. And everyone’s differs—no specific words are mandated. Some find it to be the moment of salvation; others, the beginning on the path. So, in a SF world, the specific words could be changed dramatically from, for example, what campus evangelical groups use today.

VI. The Church. Individual churches are autonomous. Probably wouldn’t change in the future.

VII. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is required for a congregant to take communion, but a survey by the magazine Christianity Today found that only 4% of Southern Baptist preachers actually observe this. However, unrepentant sinners are generally excluded. And unlike in Catholicism, juice, rather than wine, is served, as the SBC backed total abstinence from alcohol in a 2006 resolution. (An article on The Gospel Coalition website claims that younger Southern Baptists don’t agree with this resolution and are ignoring it.)

VIII. The Lord’s Day. Go to church on Sunday.

IX. The Kingdom. This sentence is striking: “ …the Kingdom is the realm of salvation into which men enter by trustful, childlike commitment to Jesus Christ.” They aren’t encouraged to question and argue? No wonder they don’t get many Jewish converts.

X. Last Things. The section on eschatology is noncommittal as to details, fitting with the aforementioned survey finding that young Southern Baptists are all over the place when it comes to the details of end-of-times prophecies. The days where the SBC was uniformly dispensationalist—Jesus will come down and Rapture the good Christians up to Heaven while the Jews are gathered in Israel to fight the forces of Satan and lose, with Jesus and his buddies returning to defeat Satan—were over in the 1980s. The decline began about the time of publication of the Left Behind series of books. Today, some Southern Baptists even believe that most of the prophecies in the Bible describe events that have already happened (partial preterism).

XI. Evangelism and Missions. Commanded.

XII. Education. Teachers at Christian schools are limited “by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures.” Near-future worldbuilding should take this doctrine into account in describing education. The major conflict with the Bible has been in the area of Earth history—geology and evolution. It appears today that young Earth creationism (the Earth is about 6000 years old) and old Earth creationism (God created the Earth billions of years ago—either there are unexplained gaps in Genesis, or a day didn’t mean 24 hours) are both considered acceptable viewpoints. A few iconoclastic preachers have decided to accept Galileo’s opinion—“… the Holy Spirit’s intention is to teach us how to go to Heaven, and not how the heavens go,” but dividing science and religion into “nonoverlapping magisteria,” (to use the words of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould) is still very much a minority position. The 20th-century liberal Christian viewpoint that the Bible is not to be trusted in the domains of history or science but is morally and ethically guiding and true is viewed by most Southern Baptists as the route to atheism. If there is no Creation, there is no sin, there is no Salvation, and Jesus was just a man if he even existed at all.

A Southern Baptist-dominated society is unlikely to foster any type of science that by necessity contradicts a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, molecular biology, for example. And why wouldn’t the vast majority of molecular biologists in the world be atheists? One can’t make one’s living teasing functions of genes from their sequence while accepting the simultaneous creation of all living species. It is illogical. The brain breaks.

A 1997 survey by Nature found that 90% of National Academy of Sciences members considered themselves to be atheists. However, more recent work from Rice University has found that social scientists are more likely than natural scientists to profess a belief in God. The Bible, being old, does not seem to proscribe the modern methods of sociologists or political scientists, nor does it seem to dispute their findings.

If there are natural science researchers in a future theocratic South, they will live in secret, as the hoi polloi would be hostile to them.

XIII. Stewardship. Christians are “under obligation to serve Him with their time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to them to use for the glory of God and for helping others.” Southern Baptists seem serious in what they say here. The Internet is full of Southern Baptists railing against “prosperity gospel.” Message for near-future SF: televangelists living in palaces are unlikely to be in charge of religion if it grows out of current Southern Baptism.

XIV. Cooperation. It can be okay to work with other Christians, depending on the end-game.

XV. The Christian and the Social Order. Virtually every word of the middle part of this passage is important for worldbuilding: “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” Well, the Bible does say homosexuality is an abomination, so there will only be so much movement on acceptance of gay people. However, just like Orthodox Jews, some Southern Baptist preachers will say that it’s God’s problem to punish the sin and theirs to love the sinner. Tolerance, perhaps; acceptance, no. Abortion is murder—plain and simple. No porn or fooling around outside of marriage, but if you’re saved, you can still go to Heaven even if you indulge, at least according to some Southern Baptists. Human capacity for tolerating cognitive dissonance is amazing.

“Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause.” As all good comes from God, this is an exhortation to band together even with non-Christians if it serves a Southern Baptist’s political or humanitarian purpose and doesn’t compromise the integrity of their beliefs. A Southern Baptist can be your friend, admire much about you, and work with you, even if you are ultimately going to Hell.

XVI. Peace and War. Pretty milquetoast. Do whatever you can for peace and to end war. These exhortations don’t seem to preclude joining the military and killing people if the envisioned end is Pax Americana.

XVII. Religious Liberty. Mostly, this part is an endorsement of the American concept of separation of church and state. The following part also exhorts Christians to obey the state as a religious duty, something also seen with Sunni Muslims: “Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God.” They do not, however, consider secular politicians to be appointed by God, as the Sunnis do. So worshipping their civil leaders is unlikely. Authoritarian government is a possibility.

XVIII. The Family. Very much in harmony with Southern property-based culture, where one’s home and the family that live there are central, “God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society.” Marriage is for a lifetime. And the patriarchal tendencies of Southern society are reinforced in a full-throated fashion: “A husband … has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband… “

So, how will I paint a positive picture of a future society based on the culture of present-day white, Southern Baptists? Well, the social cohesion stemming from a homogenous society based on the home and bound by shared folklore, attitudes, traditions, community institutions, and religion might lead people to actually listen to what Jesus was saying and abolish poverty and inequality. With close community ties, shame could function as a way of controlling property crime, and a modern-day extension of purity taboos (in a world which was aware of violence against women in our era and possessing modern domestic surveillance technology) could greatly reduce the average person’s fear of others. With a greatly reduced population (some nefarious population control measures are dancing around in my head) and centralized control over media, a full-employment economy could be envisioned.

In a homogeneous society, future Southerners may even listen to what the Bible says about humans being stewards of creation and focus on environmental protection and conservation. However, property rights are likely to counterbalance this drive. As evidence, I’d cite the 2006 SBC Resolution “On Environmentalism and Evangelicals,” which includes the following clauses: “… we urge all Southern Baptists toward the conservation and preservation of our natural resources for future generations while respecting ownership and property rights … we encourage public policy and private enterprise efforts that seek to improve the environment based on sound scientific and technological research … we resist alliances with extreme environmental groups … we oppose solutions based on questionable science, which bar access to natural resources and unnecessarily restrict economic development, resulting in less economic opportunity for our poorest citizens… “

Bottom line: one doesn’t have to do as Margaret Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale and envision the future South as horrendously dystopic in all aspects. A better model might be Ursula Le Guinn’s The Dispossessed. If you’ve never read that, do; it’s brilliant. The protagonist travels from a colony world based on anarchist socialism back to Earth, still in the thrall of capitalism. Both societies have their faults—neither is perfect. One is utilized to comment on the other, and vice-versa.

My current novel develops the post-capitalist, socially stratified, militarist, anti-religious, imperialist, security-state dystopia in the Northern region that is nonetheless accepting of ethnic diversity; egalitarian with regard to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation; and pro-science, learning, and culture. So a Southern, semi-theocratic, anti-intellectual, racist and otherwise bigoted, religiously narrow society where most of the people are happy because the society has other positive and culturally affirming attributes? With both regions quietly dominated and managed by the real superpower, China?

Why not? Ray Bradbury said that one writes science fiction not to predict the future but to prevent it. Examination and criticism of the present day is the objective, achieved via following a “What-if?” question to its logical conclusions. A lofty goal, but one I hope to tackle—please help the reflection that must precede writing by commenting extensively on this post via Facebook and Twitter.

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