Inside The Baptist Beltway

    As so often, readers fill in the details about the election of the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I found this one helpful:

    Part of the background to the SBC presidential election was a recent controversy over "speaking in tongues": not what SBC policy was on it, but whether the SBC should have a policy. A miscellaneous official of the SBC had made a decision that anyone who spoke in tongues even in private should not serve as an international missionary from an SBC church.

    Central to the entire Protestant project, which the SBC is of course part of, is the notion of the priesthood of the believer: that absent the core matters of Christianity, the doctrine you personally adhere to is between no one but you and God. Many Southern Baptists saw the restriction of mission work based on strictly private belief as highly incompatible with this tenet. The recent widow of pastor Adrian Rogers, a well-loved old lion of the SBC, spoke forcefully against the restriction at this year's convention.

    Here's another take:

    As a lapsed Southern Baptist with numerous close relatives who are ministers, I can assure you that the election of Dr. Page signifies no real turning point there. It reflects merely a change of tone, not of policy.

    This phase of the Baptists' history can be traced back to 1980, when the hard-right wing seized control of the denomination and commenced a slow, methodical purging of any moderate leaders and congregations. The far right has maintained their dominance of the church even as their drive for new members has leveled off - a cause for real alarm, as Dr. Page's comments indicate. In recent years the moderate congregations - roughly 1/3 of the SBC - have formed their own alliance in the hopes of countering the extremism of the hard right. They haven't had much success, alas. In their courses and administrative policies, the seminaries have pushed to rid themselves of any moderating perspectives, which smack (to them) of humanism and relativism. (In private conversations I've heard the seminaries described, perhaps unfairly, as Baptist "madrasas.") One cousin elected to attend one seminary over a rival because of its commitment to extremist positions.

    In matters of reproductive choice, stem cell research, gay equality, science and technology, Ten Commandments in courtrooms and all the rest, the Baptists will work long and hard to advance their Christianist agenda. Their softer tone only means they're concerned that they won't be able to meet their membership quotas if they continue to be "against" things rather than "for" them.

    Thanks for the perspectives.