The Iowa caucuses brought some surprises to the U.S. presidential campaign and established Barak Obama and Mike Huckabee as the early front runners in the world beyond opinion polls.

They did not, however, decide the presidency: there’s a long way to go. Several states that host upcoming primaries don’t necessary share Iowa’s inclinations, and several candidates who finished near the top still have boatloads of money. The race is far from over, and we will have to suffer through many more political advertisements before the final results are in.

Barring an unexpected surprise, however, the contest to be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention has most likely been decided: after being rumored as a candidate for more than a year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler has publicly declared his candidacy, going the traditional route of having a supporter announce that he plans to make the nomination. In this case, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, did the honors.

Like Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson, who was twice elected to the SBC’s top office while serving as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (1998-2000), Mohler is a primary architect of the Convention’s extreme makeover .
Mohler differs from Patterson primarily in being an outspoken proponent of five-point Calvinism. Like many other contemporary Calvinists, however, he somehow manages to simultaneously believe in both the reality of predestination and the need for evangelism.

Mohler has received occasional (mostly anonymous) criticism from professors and staff who find his leadership style to be abrasive and tempermental, but he has been in the position long enough to weed out most opposition to his view of what theological education should be. That view, among other things, is so opposed to the idea of women as pastors that female students at Southern are not allowed to enroll in preaching classes, or so I’ve been told by folks in Louisville.

Mohler is as well known for his frequent guest appearances on national news programs, vying with Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to be the “go-to” guy to weigh in on Southern Baptist thought. Look for both of them to get lots of face time in discussing the candidacies of former SBC pastor Mike Huckabee and faithful Mormon Mitt Romney.

In addition, Mohler writes a popular blog in which he reviews movies and comments on social issues such as family life, once arguing that couples who are childless by choice are guilty of sin.

There will be opposition to Mohler in Indianapolis: how potential opponents fare depends on who they are and what they bring to the tablel. Little known William L. (Bill) Wagner, president of Olivet University International in San Francisco, announced Sept. 7 that he will allow his name to be put in nomination, but he is unlikely to be a factor. Perennial SBC gadfly Wiley Drake may give it a go, but while messengers laughingly elected him to the meaningless post of second vice president two years ago, they are unlikely to put him in the top spot.

Perhaps the most spirited challenge would come from Oklahoma pastor and influential blogger Wade Burleson, who would be a favorite of many Southern Baptists who have chafed under the SBC’s current steamroller status quo. Burleson, who was recently censured by the fellow trustees of the International Mission Board for daring to speak his mind, has not publicly indicated a personal interest in running.

In a New Year’s Day blog, however, the first of 10 predictions Burleson made is that “A pastor with a strong commitment to the Cooperative Program will be elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008, defeating Al Mohler.” Burleson correctly predicted on Jan. 1, 2007 that Mohler would become a candidate, noting that the 2009 SBC meeting is slated for Mohler’s home base in Louisville.

Will Burleson run? Will another pastor with a strong giving record, like current president Frank Page, rise to the challenge? Or will Mohler mow them down? I suspect the latter, but with Baptists, most anything is possible.

The upside is that the decision can be made without subjecting the populace to political ads on television, and it will all be over in six months.

Let’s give thanks for small favors.

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