Extensive debate has swirled around the purpose, effectiveness and even the very existence of what has been called “cancel culture.” The phrase itself may have originated as a joke. But the phenomenon is rooted in what has been characterized as efforts by political progressives to “call out” individuals and organizations engaged in offensive or damaging behavior. It entails public efforts, usually on social media, to shame the perpetrator and instill consequences and has been seized on by many on the political right as a wedge issue in the so-called culture wars.
In fact, cancel culture should have a ring of familiarity for Stetzer, a Southern Baptist. As a scholar of practical and political theology, I see echoes of the phenomenon in the history of the church.
From their origins in the 17th century through the late 19th century, Baptists in America – most especially in the South – vigorously engaged in the practice of church discipline. Believers who had allegedly sinned would be accused, tried and then convicted by their peers – the verdict was decided by democratic vote. While the repentant were restored to fellowship, the obstinate were excommunicated, or to borrow from today’s parlance, “canceled.”
Cleansing the Body Politic
Baptists prosecuted their own for a panoply of offenses, including alcoholism, social dancing and erroneous beliefs. They disciplined white males for mistreating their wives and slaves, but they also disciplined wives for disobedience to their husbands.
At its height, the church discipline generated a massive turnover in membership. The historian Gregory Wills, in his book “Democratic Religion,” claims that Baptists in Georgia excommunicated more than 40,000 members in the years preceding the Civil War.
Church discipline relaxed over time and essentially disappeared by the end of the 1920s. But some Southern Baptists today aim to restore its place in congregational life as a bulwark against what they see as “moral relativism” and a way to address what they see as offenses such as homosexuality, sex outside of marriage and false teaching.
At first glance, evangelical disciplinarians and progressive “cancelers” may seem worlds apart. Yet I believe they share certain key features. They both express what can be described as a purity ethic that aims to root out behaviors deemed to be harmful from the body politic.
Both struggle with the question of appropriate response. Do the offender’s actions warrant exclusion? Is there an opportunity for rehabilitation and, if so, how is this achieved?
Both disciplining and canceling are also, in my view, acts of meaning-making that may be called religious. As the sociologist Peter Berger famously argued, religion erects a “sacred canopy” that provides order to one’s experience of the world. Secularization has, in many cases, transferred the function of religion to other domains, especially politics.
So, just as a Baptist in 1821 maintained his sacred canopy, the Kingdom of God, in part through upholding church discipline, a political activist in 2021 might maintain their “sacred canopy” – whether it is called “social justice” or “freedom” – by calling out opinions they consider too abhorrent to be tolerated in contemporary society.
Chance of Reconciliation
We not only discover a form of “cancel culture” in the history of American evangelicalism, but also some examples of how to overcome the polarization that often defines its contemporary expressions.
In 1817, one “Brother Lancaster” was brought before the membership of Powelton Baptist Church for allowing dancing at his daughter’s wedding. Lancaster admitted his guilt but turned accuser, declaring that the church had neglected to address weightier sins, including favoritism of the rich over the poor. The pastor, Jesse Mercer, was brought to tears and prayed for reconciliation. The church welcomed Lancaster back in to the fold, then broke into song.
For a fractured nation, Lancaster’s story provides an important reminder from Stetzer’s and my ancestors in faith. The quest for moral accountability finds its greatest successes – and surprises – when rebuke and counterrebuke give way to authentic listening.