For the past three decades Southern Baptists have been, for the most part, faithful political conservatives. Like other believers on the religious right, culture-war issues have made them reliable supporters of the Republican Party. This party loyalty has been especially evident during the annual Southern Baptist Convention. Visits and calls from sitting presidents have become routine. President Bush beamed in this year via satellite.

In spite of all that, however, this year’s convention could mark the beginning of a subtle shift away from party loyalty and toward political independence. A moderating group within the fundamentalist ranks of Southern Baptists is seeking to move the denomination to become less political.

Take Frank Page, for instance. Page is serving his second term as president of the 16.5 million-member denomination. In his first term he moved the denomination slightly away from the rigid fundamentalism that has characterized the group since the late 1970s. His appointments to boards and committees included Baptist leaders outside the tight inner circle of leaders that has virtually dominated convention politics. This year he appears to be doing the same thing about national politics.

Because of his role as convention president, Republican presidential candidates are calling on him. Everyone in the race on the Republican side knows they cannot win without evangelical support, and Baptists are the largest body representing that group.

And Page is meeting with candidates. In an interview with the Washington Post, Page told reporters that when given the opportunity he would be glad to talk to candidates about their salvation. But he said there would be no endorsements. Noting that he also wants to talk to Democratic candidates, Page said, “The nation’s leaders need to hear a Christian viewpoint.”

If Baptists are moving away from blind partisan loyalty, it could seriously jeopardize Republican chances of keeping the White House. The margins in the last two elections were razor thin. The defection of a voting bloc the size of Southern Baptists would be catastrophic for them. Republicans will obviously be working hard to keep the sheep in the fold.

If Baptists adopt a more moderate stance on social issues, the temptation for Democrats will be to mimic Republican candidates for the past few years and cater to evangelicals. We are already seeing some of this with Democratic candidates speaking freely about their faith. In a recent CNN debate where religion was the specific topic, John Edwards was asked what was the biggest sin he had ever committed.

If Baptists choose to stay on their present path of partisan loyalty, they will continue to politicize their faith. The politics of denominationalism has already de-railed a major mission thrust that began in the ’70s that was intended to carry the message of Jesus to the whole world. Now the rancor of politics and religion is beginning to have an effect on growth. Membership numbers have flattened out for Baptists in recent years, and why wouldn’t they? After all, who wants to be baptized into the Republican Party?

Only time will tell if the pendulum is swinging back towards the middle for Baptists. They will certainly remain conservative theologically. But if they broaden their social concerns to include matters such as poverty and the environment, they could greatly help political discourse in this country move in a positive direction. They may even improve their own image in the process.

James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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