Mainstream Baptists need a new “pan-Baptist network” built on technology and common ideals in order to stop “enabling” fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, says Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE, told the third annual Mainstream Baptist Convocation that two types of Southern Baptists threaten religious liberty. About 200 people gathered for the meeting, held last weekend under a theme “Religious Freedom: What Makes America America.”
“One type is well known to this gathering,” Parham said Friday night at a banquet at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. “Southern Baptist fundamentalists threaten religious liberty.”
But Parham suggested that threat is waning. “From my perspective, 9/11 ended the age of Christian fundamentalism,” he said. While he doesn’t expect the movement to disappear, Parham said, “As a poison well of political power, the 25-year run of fundamentalism as a reactive shaper of culture is running dry.”
“Most Americans will no longer tolerate extremism,” Parham said. “Like fascism in the 1940s and communism in the 1950s, fundamentalism is a dirty word. It is the first dirty word of the 21st century.”
Parham said the president of Bob Jones University has recognized that fact in proposing two years ago that fundamentalists start referring to themselves as “preservationists.” He said the same recognition is behind a recent proposal to rename the Southern Baptist Convention from the convention’s president, Jack Graham. “SBC leaders know they have a name problem,” Parham said.
But Parham identified a second group threatening religious liberty as moderates who “aid and empower religious extremism” as “enablers of fundamentalism.”
“The enablers work feverishly to save state conventions, which serve as collection agencies for the SBC,” Parham said. “State conventions also serve as distribution systems for LifeWay, the leading publishing house of the fundamentalist worldview.”
Parham said some state conventions claim they don’t promote LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing arm, but instead try to train church leaders to be effective teachers, regardless of what curriculum they use. “Apparently it’s OK to spread a fundamentalist worldview, as long as it’s done effectively,” Parham said.
“Of course, state convention enablers are enabled by congregational leaders who continue to fund the SBC with their gifts and LifeWay with their orders,” Parham said.
Parham said the solution to both the problems of “fundamentalism and its enablers” is to turn energies toward creation of “a pan-Baptist network with a common theology using the best of technology.”
Such a network should be committed to fellowship, missions, human rights and religious freedom, he said. “We need a domestic version of the Baptist World Alliance,” Parham said, which could become “the spring of fresh water for 21st century Baptists.”
Parham said the BCE is already modeling the concept through Internet-based information and education systems.
He said the BCE’s news-and-information Web site, EthicsDaily.com, communicates with “speed and rich texture” to Baptists not only in the United States, but also in other countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Britain, Bulgaria and Canada, to name a few where representatives have interacted with the site.
“We have many voices, not one voice,” Parham said. “We understand the best of the Baptist tradition, which says that no Baptist speaks for another Baptist.”
“The more voices in the public square, the less SBC fundamentalists can claim to speak for Baptists,” he said.
The BCE’s second wing, Parham said, is education, currently in form of online, ongoing, undated Sunday school curriculum.
“Online curriculum is the future,” he said. “It is more economical than print. It is more versatile than print. It is more flexible than print.”
“It is also global,” he said, noting that Baptists in Australia and Canada are among those using BCE curriculum.
Parham said Sunday school curriculum is “one antidote to the fundamentalism that endangers religious liberty and distorts Christian ethics,” but most non-fundamentalist churches still use SBC-produced materials purchased from LifeWay.
“If you believe that Jesus is not the criterion for interpreting the Bible, stick with LifeWay,” he said. “If you think June Cleaver is the biblical model for motherhood, stick with LifeWay. If you want to evade the teachings of Jesus, stick with LifeWay.”
“On the other hand, if you want your folk to drink fresh water for a new Baptist future, try our curriculum.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.