On March 24 I out up a post titled Will the Real ____ where I asked who gets to define a term or tradition. I touched on my tradition - the Baptists - and I want to revisit that part of the discussion.
One of my Facebook friends recently made a number of comments about Christians in general and Baptists in particular in a thread about compassion that I want to address without further hijacking that thread. In a first comment he mentioned Westboro Baptist as an example of Baptist "compassion." When I complained about that, he told a story of some very negative experiences with Southern Baptist churches and wondered why Southern Baptists don't speak out about Westboro.
I am not a Southern Baptist. Never have been. Wouldn't be. Couldn't be. Can't speak for them. As I hinted in the earlier thread, I'm not sure they deserve to be called Baptist at all... but that too is another discussion.
So... let me address my friend's statements from my perspective.
I belong to the American Baptist denomination. Pre civil war days, there was basically one large, loosely connected, Baptist group in the US which split over slavery into the Southern Baptist Convention and the group that became the American Baptist Churches, USA. Since that time there have been multiple split offs and new configurations of Baptists. A few years ago I was told that there were 49 Baptist bodies in the United States alone and there are thousands more "independent Baptist" churches that do not formally relate to any larger groupings. Theologically, most are conservative but not all. Some groups, like the Alliance of Baptists, fall solidly in the progressive/liberal camp. Most of the Black Baptist groups are a mix of liberal on issues of economics and race and conservative on sexuality and theology. Many groups are wildly diverse. My denomination, ABCUSA, has no racial group comprising over 50% of the denomination, includes churches that would proudly call themselves fundamentalist and others that are dually aligned with the Unitarian Universalist Association, has had ordained women leaders since the 1800's and many congregations that do not allow women leaders of any kind... you get the picture. Worldwide, there are 218 groups that are members of the Baptist World Alliance.
Some prominent names in Baptist history illustrate that diversity - Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Walter Rauschenbusch, Fred Phelps, Albert Mohler Jr, Jerry Falwell, and Roger Williams.
Early Baptist commitments were summarized by Walter Shurden in his book The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms where he identifies four core commitments that define the Baptist movement - soul freedom, church autonomy, freedom of the scripture to speak for itself, and separation of church and state.
All of that is to show that the Southern Baptist Convention is by no means representative of the entire tradition, and indeed, I would argue that they have strayed so far from the main stream of the tradition that they are no longer Baptists at all.
As to the second question - why don't Baptists speak out against Westboro Baptist and its actions? They do. The last time Westboro was making national news the General Secretary of the ABCUSA had a press conference and sent news releases everywhere condemning Westboro's actions and telling everyone that Westboro is not related to ABCUSA. I don't know whether other Baptist groups did the same but I would expect they did. The actions of a denomination condemning Westboro Baptist doesn't have nearly the sex appeal of their despicable actions and so didn't make the news anywhere. It happened, you just didn't hear about it. Blame the media for that, not the Baptists. As far as I know, Westboro Baptist Church is an independent church and is not affiliated with any larger Baptist body and I'm sure they couldn't care less what the ABCUSA has to say to them. Indeed, they likely see the ABCUSA condemnation as a mark of honor.