I recently read that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitted a Muslim student to study there. This historic precedent came at the request of the seminary President, Dr. Paige Patterson. The move has been applauded by many and condemned by others. I believe there is a story here that is much larger than “Muslim student attends Baptist School.”
In the 70’s Dr. Patterson was a major leader and architect in a movement to gain control of SBC institutions. Many leaders were ousted because their views were too moderate to suit the new leadership in the convention. It was called “The Battle over the Bible.” We were told it was about theology. The new leadership held views that are rightly labeled Christian Fundamentalism. It is the same kind of fundamentalism with which I grew up.
It is policy and practice at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to deny admission to any student who does not hold traditional, orthodox beliefs about the Christian faith. This devout Muslim student obviously does not hold such beliefs. But, here is the interesting thing. Muslim Fundamentalists and Christian Fundamentalists have a lot in common when it comes to Ideology. When I lived in Atlanta I was fortunate enough to have some friends who were devout Muslims. They were opposed to drinking, smoking and all of the same things I was taught were sinful when I was growing up. There is a world of difference between the theology of fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians. However, their ideologies are very similar. For instance, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitted a Muslim student, but still won’t allow a woman to teach there. I am sure the Muslim student agrees with that policy. Others have pointed out that it seems ideology has triumphed over theology.
I was thinking about this same concept during the last USA Presidential election. Most Christian Fundamentalists in this country voted for Mitt Romney. Early on, the issue was raised that he was a Mormon. Later on, many in Baptist circles on the right described this as prejudice, exactly the same that was practiced against John Kennedy for being a Catholic. (It was a prejudice practiced by a lot of Baptists I might add.)
I grew up in the Southern Baptist tribe. I was taught in both Training Union (I am old!) and Discipleship Training classes on Sunday evenings how to witness to people of other faiths. We were taught to share our faith with people who were Mormon. It is the long held Southern Baptist belief that some of the theological tenants of The Church of Latter Day Saints disqualify it from being considered a sect of the Christian religion. I don’t want to have that debate here. I simple want to point out that Christian Fundamentalists had huge disagreements with Mormon theology. But, when a candidate that had the same political ideology came along, his theology was suddenly unimportant. Or, in many cases, the long history of considering Mormons non-Christians was reversed. Even if you consider Mormons to be Christians, the theological chasm between Mormons and the rest of Christianity is quite large. In my cynical mind it was theology taking a backseat to politics, which is what often happens when we mix our faith too closely with political parties.
Admitting a Muslim student whose social beliefs align with those of Fundamentalist Christians triumphs over his theology, which is vastly different. Voting for a Presidential candidate who agrees with Christian Fundamentalists on social issues triumphs over his theology, which is at best divergent. The lesson I’m learning here is that Ideology may be becoming more important than theology in the current landscape of American Christian Fundamentalism. What do you think?