The Southern Baptist Convention is transitioning from the far right to the further right.
Fifteen years after fundamentalist leaders wrestled denominational control from Southern Baptist moderates and created a new power structure, they find themselves being yanked into an even more conservative direction by those outside the establishment.
Anti-public school advocates submitted a resolution for the second year in a row to the SBC’s resolutions committee, urging Christians to abandon the nation’s public education system.
Last year, the SBC president opposed the resolution and the committee refused to report it to the messengers for their consideration. This year, the SBC’s news agency, Baptist Press, has refused to mention the newly submitted resolution that alleges a homosexual threat to public schools.
Baptist Press’ decision led Wiley Drake, pastor of First Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., to charge in an e-mail two weeks ago that “Some of the die hard liberals have managed to get on the Resolutions Committee.” He said he, for one, would not be “lulled into believing that liberals all left” the SBC.
Drake, one of the driving forces behind the SBC boycott of Disney, accused the SBC establishment of using a filibuster strategy to oppose the anti-school resolution. He said Southern Baptist leaders had made the system of submitting resolutions “more difficult for the ‘little’ messengers.”
While SBC leaders have voiced private support for the anti-school movement, they have publicly resisted it, fearing a backlash from school teachers in Baptist churches and resenting a challenge to their tight control.
On another front, the SBC establishment quickly reined in two North Carolina pastors. They condemned one for advocating the flushing of the Quran on his church’s street sign, even though three years earlier they applauded a former convention president who voiced the same kind of anti-Muslim comment.
SBC leaders also stepped away from another pastor who excluded from church membership those who voted for presidential candidate John Kerry, despite the denomination’s aggressive campaign to portray President Bush as the Christian candidate.
Maintaining convention control against two politically powerful leaders has been another matter, however. SBC leadership has been unable to corral Roy Moore and Rick Scarborough, who are competing with Southern Baptist agency leaders for control of the denomination’s moral agenda.
The fact that Roy Moore is speaking at the SBC’s pastor’s conference speaks volumes about those who are pushing the convention more rightward. Moore, a hard-right Alabama fundamentalist, is expected to challenge another conservative Southern Baptist, Gov. Bob Riley, in next year’s Republican primary.
An Alabama pastor gave Moore a spot of the program over the sitting governor, implying that Moore is the preferred Baptist candidate.
The SBC’s transition occurs on another front with the retirement of key fundamentalist leaders, one of whom is Adrian Rogers.
Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church outside of Memphis, Tenn., has announced his plans to step down from the pulpit from which he launched the takeover of the SBC with his presidential election in 1979. The SBC elected Rogers to an unprecedented three terms as president.
Two other fundamentalist presidents are joining Rogers in retirement: Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.
Jimmy Draper, president of the denomination’s publishing house, announced earlier this year that he planned to retire effective Feb. 1, 2006, a date that would coincide with his 15th anniversary at LifeWay Christian Resources.
Within fundamentalist circles, the pendulum of leadership succession always swings rightward. Successors must inevitably prove that they are more theologically and culturally conservative than their predecessors, creating a firewall of protection against charges of liberalism from laity disgruntled with new leadership. This dynamic ensures that the SBC will move further to the right.
No amount of political arm-twisting and denominational spin control will redirect the course of the Southern Baptist Convention away from the outer edges of American life.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.