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Amidst the intense campaigning for the presidency of the United States, there is a smaller yet significant campaign of another type taking shape–the campaign for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The SBC meets annually in convention in different parts of the country. This year they will meet in Indianapolis, Ind. Messengers or delegates conduct business, adopt resolutions and budgets, commission missionaries and elect officers, including a president. These officers serve for one year but traditionally get two terms.

It is hard to imagine that one person could speak for such a large group of people. Nevertheless, the president of the SBC does become the de facto voice of the denomination.

This is a big deal. Since the takeover of the SBC by fundamentalists 30 years ago, the 17 million-member denomination has been a dependable ally of Republican presidential hopefuls. For that reason, the one who serves as president of the SBC has the opportunity to meet and influence individuals who could eventually hold the most powerful office in the world.

And until recently, that’s the way it has worked. But two years ago, something unexpected happened. Frank Page, an outsider to the inner circle of powerful leaders within the SBC, was elected president. He finishes his second term this coming June and has been something of a refreshing surprise.

Brought to office by a more traditionally conservative element within the SBC, Page has tried to steer the denomination back towards its traditional roots of missions and evangelism. Republican candidates have continued to knock on his door seeking his support, but Page has kept them at arm’s length. Again, pursuing a more traditional role, he has sought to provide spiritual counsel for candidates rather than seeking promises from them.

The conservative element that put Page into office is comprised mostly of younger Baptist ministers and leaders who are weary of the creedal battles of the past three decades. They are conservative theologically, and for the most part embrace the authority of the Bible as the word of God. What they don’t embrace as the word of God are the pronouncements of the entrenched leadership of the SBC. They want to see the denomination become a beacon for missions and evangelism rather than partisan politics.

The influence of these young leaders will be sorely tested at this year’s convention. The old guard of fundamentalist leadership is pulling out a big gun in an effort to reassert their authority. That big gun is Al Mohler, current president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Mohler, who is only 47, has had a meteoric rise in Southern Baptist leadership. A scholar with impressive credentials, he moved from the classroom to the president’s office in only few short years. Of course its not just impressive academic credentials that put Mohler where he is today. His commitment to ultra-conservative theology and his loyalty to the inner circle of leaders that engineered the takeover of the SBC account for his rapid rise.

His candidacy is likely to provide a watershed moment for the SBC, even more than the election of Frank Page. Young and articulate, and already possessing a presence on the national stage, Mohler exists as something of a Goliath figure among Baptists. If there is some David-like character, some obscure young pastor in the ranks that can defeat him, it will mark a new day for the denomination.

Behold the old is passing away, and something new has come–maybe.

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

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