When Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne called me after the presidential election of Frank Page at the June 2006 Southern Baptist Convention, he asked if Southern Baptists were moderating. I scoffed at his suggestion.
He cited me challenging his thesis with two quotes: (1) “This was a race between the right and the far right;” and (2) “One election neither makes a positive trend nor unmakes the essence of fundamentalism.”
Undeterred by my argument, Dionne observed that “Page’s upset victory could be very significant, both to the nation’s religious life and to politics. He defeated candidates supported by the convention’s staunchly conservative establishment, which has dominated the organization since the mid-1980s. His triumph is one of many signs that new breezes are blowing through the broader evangelical Christian world.”
Like many reporters, Dionne had bought into the narrative that evangelicals were shifting away from the Christian Right and developing a broader agenda, a narrative that some in the Christian community and Democratic Party spun vigorously.
“The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American religious story of this decade,” wrote Dionne. “[T]he evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the fights against AIDS and human trafficking.”
Dionne and others saw in Page a non-angry, non-politicized preacher who said he was an inerrantist about the Bible but wasn’t angry about it.
“Dr. Page’s election will not change the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention at all,” I said a few days later on a radio program. “Frank Page is trying to affirm his roots as part of the fundamentalist movement as well as to posture a different perspective: a kinder, gentler position.”
I said the SBC wasn’t going to change its anti-public school agenda, hostility to women as ministers and hardwiring to the right wing of the Republican Party.
Four years later, I still think I was right then. But I’m wondering how to read events from last week.
Has the SBC pivoted away from its position over the past 20 years of fidelity to angry fundamentalist leaders and faithfulness to the political right? Are the results of last week’s meeting an aberration or a new positive trend?
Four things happened at the SBC meeting in Orlando.
First, the SBC offered a thundering silence about Disney.
When the SBC launched its 1997 Disney boycott, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned, “Michael Eisner, Donald, Mickey and company had better listen – there is a thunderous outrage building outside the Magic Kingdom.”
Of course, he was wrong. When the SBC met in Orlando in 2000, convention officials admitted that they knew that “a bunch of them [Southern Baptists] are going to go” to Disney. By 2005, the SBC declared a hollow victory and ended its boycott.
Second, Southern Baptists elected a new president who is not known for fringe statements on social issues and bombastic theological declarations.
Third, Southern Baptists elected Frank Page as their new chief executive officer, someone who wasn’t part of the takeover group, someone who was elected on a vote of 44-30. That vote margin suggests real opposition to him, probably among the old right.
By themselves, these three things suggest a tilt away from negativity and reactivity.
But the more compelling evidence, the fourth event, appears in the SBC’s resolution on the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. That statement suggests a new day is dawning for Southern Baptists on the environmental front.
The 2010 SBC resolution differs sharply from the 2006 SBC resolution on the environment that was essentially an attack on environmentalists and an attempt to distance Southern Baptists from prioritizing environmental stewardship.
The 2006 statement
· attacked environmentalism as a “neo-pagan religion;”
· said the “scientific community is divided on the effects of mankind’s impact on the environment;”
· expressed confidence in private enterprise;
· warned against alliance with those outside the conservative evangelical community; and
· suggested that earth care would distract from evangelism.
The 2010 SBC resolution
· calls for the protection of the environment;
· points out that human beings do adversely affect the environment;
· encourages everyone to work together; and
· notes that nature is an interdependent system in which human beings have a moral responsibility to guard nature and to protect resources for future generations.
Most surprising, the 2010 SBC resolution refuses to trust blindly in private enterprise. It offers a moral critique of the free market. The resolution
· says “all industries are…accountable to higher standards than to profit alone;”
· underscores that corporations have “full…accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration;”
· hopes that “government and private industry are not again caught without planning;” and
· calls for “future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety.”
SBC resolutions are nonbinding on Southern Baptists. They are at best a snapshot of what one group thought at one meeting. Nonetheless, the Gulf catastrophe snapshot might signal a recommitment to the biblical imperative to care for the earth.
We will know soon enough if these signs are an aberration or a new normal. For the sake of the common good, we can hope that they represent a constructive tilt.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.