SBC's 'Public Theology' Failed to Win Support for Iraq War, Scholars Say


The Southern Baptist Convention spoke with a unified voice in support of the war in Iraq but failed to persuade Americans outside the denomination to join them in supporting an increasingly unpopular war, according to an article analyzing public statements by convention leaders.

Southern Baptists stood out among other denominations in strongly backing the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, communication scholars Brian Kaylor and Bryan Fisher argue in the Fall 2007 issue of the Speech & Theater Association of Missouri Journal. That is despite the fact that in the SBC's non-hierarchical structure, no individual has the authority to speak for any other Southern Baptist.

Kaylor and Fisher say leaders of the nation's largest Protestant body still managed to create the public perception that their pro-war statements were on behalf of 16 million Southern Baptists. They did it, Kaylor and Fisher say, by creating a "public theology" of support for the war.

Kaylor, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri and frequent contributor to EthicsDaily.com, and Fisher, a master's student in communication at Missouri State University, analyzed rhetoric by SBC leadership in light of a communication theory normally associated with small fringe groups and not large mainstream organizations.

In an article titled "Onward Christian Soldiers: Southern Baptist Convention's Support for Operation Iraqi Freedom," they build on a 1987 article by Marquette University Professor Steven Goldzwig.

Goldzwig defined public theology as "theologically based discourse intentionally targeted for mass audiences in an attempt to influence the attitudes, values and belief of both religious and secular publics." Goldzwig identified three strategies that Kaylor and Fisher also said they found in the SBC's perceived pro-war consensus.

They distinguish "civil religion," which focuses on the delicate balance between religion and politics with an unwritten contract that politicians will not be too religious and religious leaders will not be too political, from public theology, which examines leaders who explicitly mix religion and politics.

Kaylor and Fisher said SBC leaders couched support for the war in God-based appeals for support of "expedient simplicity," defined as the invocation of a "univocal and partisan god" that determines how one should worship and whom one should support.

"The SBC leaders clearly felt that their support of Operation Iraqi Freedom was more than just personal opinion, but that it represented the will of God and that God wanted to use the United States to bring about God's will in Iraq," they argued.

A second strategy, "existential conflict," builds on that foundation to advocate specific policy and belief changes. In the SBC, Kaylor and Fisher said, that included arguments favoring the war based on the long-accepted "just war" paradigm--even though many other religious leaders argued against the war on exactly the same principles--and attacks on those opposed to the war.

"Perhaps due to the fact that the SBC was virtually the lone religious voice in favor of the war, they felt they needed to not only build the case in the positive but also to attack those who opposed it," they argue. "Some of these attacks were also in response to other religious groups or individuals that attacked the SBC for its pro-war rhetoric."

Finally, Kaylor and Fisher contend, SBC leaders built "action rituals" to link to their audience, through frequent calls for Baptists to pray and fast for God's will to be done. They also used militaristic language like enlisting prayer "warriors" to "band together" as "special forces," an effort to "sanctify violence and deputize all Southern Baptists as they joined in the war effort."

The SBC's "detailed rhetorical support" for Operation Iraqi Freedom nevertheless was "largely unsuccessful," they say. Not only were outside groups unconvinced, but even some Southern Baptists--notably former President Jimmy Carter--opposed the war.

"This rhetoric seems only to have been successful with those already agreeing with the decision."

The reason, they surmise, is that "public theology rarely succeeds in persuading external audiences that may hold differing cultural and religious views than those of the rhetor."

"The SBC attracted headlines and condemnation for its support of the Iraqi war," Kaylor and Fisher conclude. "However, their rhetoric did not attract many supporters for the war as their arguments remained largely unpersuasive among the converted."

They also contend the SBC's persuasiveness was hampered by its own lack of credibility resulting from earlier unpopular stances such as opposition to women in ministry and the Disney boycott.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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