Southern Baptists on Sept. 24 are launching a 40-day Prayer Vigil for Spiritual Revival and National Renewal. The daily prayers will include requests for God's guidance in voting, for the election of more "godly" Christians, for God to "help churches find ways to help Christians get to the polls" and for public officials to be protected "from the attacks of Satan."
More than 1,300 churches [out of the SBC's reported 42,000] have allegedly signed up for the prayer campaign, which the denomination is promoting through Internet links, conference calls with pastors and a promotional DVD. Since an in-house survey found that over 80 percent of Southern Baptist pastors are supporting the Republican candidate for U.S. president, Sen. John McCain, and hardly any the Democrat, Sen. Barack Obama, one might expect most of the churches will get on board.
Justifying the action, which many impartial observers say is little more than carrying out precinct politics under a prayer cloth, Richard Land, head of the SBC's public policy arm, declared: "Our vision statement is an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority. America will be better off if people who are voting are seeking God's guidance."
The SBC moguls obviously are getting nervous because, although surveys show that the majority of white evangelicals support McCain, they are doing so with less enthusiasm than they had for previous GOP presidential candidates. Interestingly, McCain responded to this problem with his electrifying announcement that first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate.
A Christian conservative who could easily jump through all the ideological hoops of the SBC bosses--100 percent anti-abortion, favors teaching creationism in the schools, fearful that environmentalism might limit oil drilling in her state, etc.--the only question that might be raised is whether she, baptized in an Assemblies of God church, uses a "prayer language," something that the SBC management regards as an absolute no-no.
The fact that she has had precious little experience--mayor of a town half the size of the one in which I live, and a year and a half as governor of a state ranked 48th in population--but yet actuarially has a strong chance of succeeding to the U.S. presidency bothers neither the Republicans nor their Baptist allies one iota. That she says all the right things, has a pretty face and lots of children and is regarded as an evangelical is sufficient.
The SBC already is facing problems with declining numbers. The architects of the "conservative resurgence" or the "fundamentalist takeover," depending on one's perspective on the SBC's transformation in the 1980s and 1990s, are aging. A Democratic victory in November would be a catastrophe for the hard-line conservative leaders of the SBC. Their standing in American religious life would be undermined, and they would lose access to the halls of power in Washington.
Essentially, the SBC leadership is "betting the ranch" on the election this fall. They will be going all-out to marshal the troops and get them to the polls to vote for Republican candidates.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University and general editor of the centenary history of the Baptist World Alliance. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.