Protecting a conservative culture was at the heart of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, not an uncommon move when a religious body perceives itself endangered.
With religion editors focusing on the exclusion of women as pastors and preachers arguing about the Bible, one aspect of the meeting received less than adequate commentary.
The real effect of the meeting was to raise the castle wall. From speeches to statements, from motions to resolutions, Southern Baptist fundamentalists retreated into an isolated fortress, pulled up the drawbridge and left many Southern Baptists on the outside of the wall.
The convention began with the president’s address on the theme of being ambassadors for Christ, a text about the ministry of reconciliation.
Instead of engaging other peoples in the pursuit of reconciliation, Paige Patterson pitched the issue in terms of supporting the home school movement, an educational effort that disengages from the public school system. He backed Liberty University.
He also endorsed the Chicago declaration, a recently adopted statement by conservative evangelicals that confused criticism of their evangelistic method of targeting other peoples of faith with the denial of their religious liberty.
Patterson’s minimalist theme of reconciliation was short-lived, however. The president of the SBC Executive Committee, Morris Chapman, launched a mean-spirited attack on an irenic and thoughtful motion to form a committee to work toward “reconciliation and restoration” among the various factions in the denomination.
Chapman argued against reconciliation on the grounds that the SBC had experienced seven consecutive years of all-time high giving to the Cooperative Program and to mission offerings. He claimed the SBC was reaching the big cities of America, only a few days after the SBC backed away from its commitment to send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago and said that only 1,200 would go on missions there.
When the convention turned to the Baptist Faith and Message statement, a messenger expressed the hope that the body would keep peace for the sake of cooperation by retaining the original preamble to the 1963 statement. Her peacemaking effort failed.
Having had less than a month to consider the revisions to a time-honored statement of faith and only an hour to “debate” it, Southern Baptists adopted a document that further tightened the security around the castle.
“You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to believe, and still call yourself a Southern Baptist,” said the head of the SBC ethics agency, interpreting what the approved statement means.
The president of the North American Mission Board promised the planting of new churches, churches in which the pastors would be men who believed in the new Baptist Faith and Message statement.
The fundamentalist cultural retreat was also reflected in resolutions.
“There is a . . . drizzle of persecution in the U.S.,” warned Hayes Wicker, chair of the resolutions committee. “Unless we turn our culture around, the storm will break in on us.” Passing resolutions was Wicker’s effort to defend Southern Baptists against the storm.
The resolution on the right of religious liberty and evangelism in a pluralistic culture served only to justify the SBC’s strategy of target evangelism, defending the SBC against widespread criticism. The resolution hinted that American culture and government might clamp down on witnessing.
For the first time, the SBC passed a resolution supporting capital punishment, as if the state needed the blessing of the Southern Baptist fundamentalists to pursue the death penalty.
Another resolution claimed that secularism, anti-supernaturalism, religious pluralism and political correctness had changed the traditional method of calendar dating away from the Gregorian calendar. Publishing houses are using B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (common era), instead of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (in the year of the Lord). The resolution resolved that Southern Baptists avoid this revisionism.
The oddest resolution, however, was on the threat of new age globalism. The resolution said this movement advocated one-world government, one-world religion and a one-world economy.
The resolutions committee said, “The Holy Scriptures have given us the example of Nimrod at the tower of Babel to show God’s displeasure with man’s idea of one-world government.” When a messenger pointed out that Nimrod did not have anything to do with the Tower of Babel or one-world government, that portion of the resolution was deleted.
The resolution noted the United Nations assaults on the family and urged Baptists to stand for national sovereignty.
Other actions included a motion commending radio personality Laura Schlessinger for her opposition to the homosexual lifestyle. The original motion commended her for upholding traditional Judeo-Christian principles. When discussion turned to her Jewish faith commitment, the motion was amended to only affirm her views on homosexuality.
Jerry Falwell warned, “We are about to lose America.” He said Baptist churches were needed to help defeat Al Gore in the November presidential elections.
On the closing night, the chief of the SBC ethics agency, Richard Land, predicted that Southern Baptists were at the beginning of a new golden age.
Such rhetorical optimism sounds hollow given the endless warnings of doom from within the SBC. Fundamentalists have wailed about the denial of religious liberties, the gathering cultural storm clouds, the drizzle of persecution, the threat of globalism, and the loss of America.
Certainly, those outside the castle wall see no golden era. For many, it may be a reign of terror.
Those who have remained loyal to (albeit disappointed with) the SBC can no longer say the takeover of the SBC does not really matter. Many of them must be bewildered, with little sense of where they belong.
In addition to these traditionalists are state convention supporters and employees. For years, many have served as salespeople for SBC products and collection agents to the SBC, all the while pretending they could avoid the bruising controversy largely waged at the national level. When state conventions are forced to embrace the new faith statement, these Baptists will have to swallow their previous faith convictions.
A third group outside the castle has already subdivided into neighborhoods. Some are Alliance folk. Others favor the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. And still others, perhaps a growing number, look to state conventions in Texas and Virginia to provide leadership and organizational relationships.
All three groups are now forced to decide if they share enough common ground in faith and practice to continue hanging around a sealed castle.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.