Old guard and new wave fundamentalists battled this week over the perimeters of exclusivity in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Contrary to headlines, the battle was not between moderates and fundamentalists. That struggle began to wane 19 years ago at another San Antonio meeting, when fundamentalists defeated moderates in the presidential race by fewer than 700 votes out of 32,727 registered “messengers.”
The victors took control of SBC agencies, aligned the denomination with the Republican Party and launched a two-decade crusade of exclusivity and negativity.
Southern Baptists boycotted Disney, ruled against mothers working outside the home, opposed the ordination of women, asked the GOP to consummate its relationship with the convention, targeted Jews for evangelism, refused to participate in interfaith services after 9/11 and withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance, the world’s largest Baptist body. A growing number of Southern Baptists support an exit of Christians from public schools, which they call “the enemies of God.”
Even convention president Frank Page has recognized that “Baptists have too long been known for what they are against.”
Yet little was done at the meeting to change that perception.
Page himself expressed thinly veiled opposition to the old guard, who took over the SBC, when he compared them to the French generals who built the Maginot Line, a pictogram for prideful failure.
His negative comparison was one of many signs of the simmering intensity among the 8,581 messengers over denominational boundaries.
New wave fundamentalists won a motion that makes room for the employment of missionaries who speak in tongues, a practice associated with charismatics. The old guard disfavored such lax perimeters and desired tighter requirements for baptism to ensure doctrinal integrity.
The first vice-presidential race pitched a missionary, who favored broader boundaries and whose father had led the battle against the theological moderates in the 1980s, against an angry hardliner, who had fought the younger generation over the acceptance of alcohol consumption at last year’s meeting. The hardliner won.
Factions scrimmaged with motions that instructed SBC employees to avoid involvement with the “emerging church,” an approach with which the new wave resonates and the old guard despises. Another motion admonished Baptist-owned bookstores not to sell C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
A new wave blogger had said the SBC was too aligned with the Republican Party and expressed support for a resolution calling SBC leaders to avoid partisan political advocacy.
That resolution was turned upside down into a statement that basically affirmed what the old guard has done for years.
Not surprisingly, the old guard paraded their partisan alliance. A fundamentalist agency head disparaged both Bill and Hillary Clinton in his report, while he praised George Bush as a moral leader.
Bush addressed the convention for the sixth straight year via satellite from the White House, saying little but clearly relishing the long applause.
The meeting resolved little. The SBC’s trajectory is set toward more conflicts between the old guard and new wave fundamentalists.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s note: This editorial appeared as an op-ed piece in Friday’s Tennessean.