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Education and the SBC Lifeboat Ethic

Baptist Christians in America should take notice: the strong, well-fortified and constituent-rich lifeboat called the Southern Baptist Convention is pulling away from a sinking culture, one burning with sin. This lifeboat comes in the shape of the “exit strategy” resolution supported by the Southern Baptist leadership.

Once a noble drama, the current life boat reenactment by Baptists leaves the weakest and most vulnerable of our society to burn and drown, while the strongest and most organized sail on to find safety in home-schooling, voucher programs and charter schools.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
This is just one more instance of the well-known conservative, American and Protestant version of what might be described as “lifeboat ethics.” Lifeboat ethics has a trenchant place in Baptist social thought in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America, although it was formally defined by scientist Garrett Hardin in the 1970s.
 
American Christians have come to believe, contrary to the bulk of the history of Christian moral thought and practice, that individuals have “no right … to be cared for apart from individual efforts being applied to the natural opportunities for material substance and advancement,” as Baylor business professor Richard Chewing once explained in the context of economics.
 
By placing the responsibility for education in the family–which is a narrow interpretation of the I Timothy 5:8 passage admonishing those who do not provide for family members as having denied the faith and as worse than unbelievers–Southern Baptist leaders are practicing in-group utilitarianism.
 
Many SBC leaders claim the controversial “exit-strategy” for Southern Baptist members and their children to be a legitimate Baptist response to antithetical value systems. Homosexuality is only the most recent value corruption to signal the need for Baptists to caste themselves away from public schools, however.
 
Rick Scarborough, founder of Vision America and a leading Southern Baptist activist, acknowledges the decades-deep moral tension that’s been building.
 
“Public schools have long ceased to be a positive reinforcer of traditional values,” Scarborough said in a press release. Instead, he said, “Education in the public sector now aggressively undermines biblical values.”
 
Al Mohler of Southern Seminary believes the time has come to take the resolution seriously. In a commentary on his Web site, Mohler describes the breakdown of the public school system as a national tragedy.
 
“An honest assessment of the history of public education in America must acknowledge the success of the common school vision in breaking down ethnic, economic, and racial barriers,” he says. “The schools have brought hundreds of millions of American children into a democracy of common citizenship.
 
“Tragically, that vision was displaced by an ideologically driven attempt to force a radically secular worldview,” Mohler says.
 
Mohler could not be any more wrong in blaming public education’s problems on a radically secular world view. American public education–which Mohler rightly describes as a common vision–was and is being destroyed by the rugged individualism of American Christians and their strong in-group loyalties.
 
The culprit is Christian secularism: a radically theological world view. Conservative American Christians are actively removing God from society, fulfilling the very principles of secularism they disdain.
 
Their deliberate social withdrawal is seemingly based in certain kind of millennialism. One of its consequences is white flight, a sinister form of racism. Social segregation practiced by Christians has ensured that vouchers, home schooling and charter schools are “necessary.” Largely black-populated, urban schools left with a deficit of resources are no place to educate Christian children, they argue.
 
In his defense, Mohler provides a moral caveat to the looming abandonment. He believes that churches must give particular attention in the development of such exit strategies to the needs of orphans, single parents and the disadvantaged.
 
The SBC appears to tolerate structural sin in other areas–unjust corporate profits, unjust wars, vices in our public officials, deceit by government officials. Why is education their particular crusade at the moment?
 
I believe the issue is more about power and identity than goodness. Education–far from being a sinful story threatening to endanger the purity of Southern Baptist values and virtues–is a poignant parable to the past and present sins of American education structures and practices.
 
Unfortunately, SBC leadership and organization views itself as an island of righteousness in a sea of sin. It has consistently taken this attitude in its relationship with other Christians and non-Christians in the United States for 30 years.
 
By way of reminder, Baptist ethicist Henlee Barnette once described America as an island of plenty in a world of poverty. This fact was, for him, bittersweet: Sweet because America had much to give; bitter because America wasn’t giving much.
 
Southern Baptists might do well to adopt this attitude toward education, but not for the purpose of “giving” religion or faith to a sinking ship, but for the purpose of healing its past abandonments.
 
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at BelmontUniversity.