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Column: Those liberal Southern Baptists

  • Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting on Wednesday, June 13, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

For the Valley News
Published: 2/29/2020 10:20:12 PM
Modified: 2/29/2020 10:20:09 PM

The Southern Baptist Convention has gone liberal. That’s the message of a new, insurgent group of right-wing Baptists called the Conservative Baptist Network of Southern Baptists. This group of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention announced the new network several weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day. The organizers claimed that 2,500 congregations signed on in the first two days.

“There are a lot of great people in Southern Baptist life leading, but there are some very concerning things happening in Southern Baptist life,” Brad Jurkovich, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bossier City, La., and spokesman for the new group, declared. The group is especially concerned about “the apparent emphasis on social justice, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the redefining of biblical gender roles” in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The group is also upset that some “messengers” (delegates) to the 2018 national convention in Dallas protested the presence of Vice President Mike Pence at the gathering. They staged a walkout when Pence began to address the assembly. All of this, apparently, is evidence of a drift toward liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Who knew?

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not mistaken. In the late 1970s, the tag team of Paul Pressler, a judge from Houston, and Paige Patterson, then the president of Criswell College in Dallas, decided that the Southern Baptist Convention had become too liberal. In 1978 they met at Café du Monde in New Orleans and plotted the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. They had studied the denomination’s bylaws and realized that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention possessed extraordinary powers to appoint members of various Southern Baptist agencies as well as board members of the denomination’s colleges and seminaries. If they could elect a succession of very conservative pastors as president of the denomination, they decided, they could change the trajectory of the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

And they did. Beginning with the election of Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church outside of Memphis, in 1979, conservatives (sometimes called fundamentalists) have elected a succession of conservative presidents down to the present. Those presidents, in turn, have used their appointive powers to recast the entire denomination.

The new leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention began with an insistence on biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is utterly without error or contradiction in the original autographs (which no longer exist). Then they set their sights on women’s ordination. Baptist polity dating back to, well, forever, held that individual congregations held the power of ordination. Conservatives nevertheless set about to eliminate the ordination of women. Finally, they purged “liberals” — I’ve always maintained that a “liberal Southern Baptist” is an oxymoron — from the faculties of Southern Baptist schools.

The carnage was extensive. Women were pushed aside from pastorates and from leadership positions. Longtime, often beloved, teachers were summarily dismissed from their faculty posts. Others tried to hold on, negotiating both for their own futures and the future of the denomination, but the pressures became too great. An entire generation of Southern Baptists bears the scars of the conservative takeover.

The Southern Baptist Convention turned to the hard right politically as well. Following the takeover in 1979, a delegation of newly elected leaders met with Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, at the White House. At the conclusion of the meeting, one of the pastors announced that they were praying for the president that he might abandon his religion of secular humanism. Carter’s diary entry records that when he retired to the living quarters that evening, he asked Rosalynn, “What’s secular humanism?”

The new leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention joined forces with the religious right against Carter, one of their own, in the 1980 presidential election. The denomination effectively abandoned its Christian Life Commission, which had been a guardian of the separation of church and state, in favor of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, headed for many years by a religious right figure, Richard Land, until he was forced out for racially insensitive comments about Trayvon Martin.

Now, it seems, the Southern Baptist Convention has gone liberal.

Jurkovich, the new organization’s spokesman, said the Conservative Baptist Network of Southern Baptists would be relying on “the sufficiency of the Word of God.” He continued: “It speaks to every issue, and when you believe it cover to cover and preach the truth of the Word of God you don’t have to apologize for any of that, but you’re going to speak to these issues.”

Does that mean that we can expect this new movement to take a prophetic stand on such issues as care for the poor, the orphans and the prisoners? Will they speak forcefully, as the Bible does, about welcoming the stranger and treating the foreigner as one of our own? Will they affirm the teaching of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female — that all are equal in God’s eyes? Will the Conservative Baptist Network push for racial reconciliation or defend God’s creation against the ravages of climate change?

Uh, don’t hold your breath. The new movement apparently wants to comingle theology with patriotism. “As Southern Baptists can we not love both Jesus and America?” Jurkovich asks in the press release announcing the new movement. “Is it no longer okay to be a pastor and a patriot?”

One of the website testimonials comes from someone who identifies himself as former policy director for Mike Huckabee, and another, a former seminary president, declares himself “excited about being a Baptist.” For centuries, dating back to the founding of the Baptist tradition in America by Roger Williams in 1639, being a Baptist stood for adult (or believers’) baptism, the separation of church and state and liberty of conscience. Those were radical, even “liberal” ideas at that time; for generations of Baptists, that was excitement enough.

“I wanna do something great for God,” the fast-talking Jurkovich declares on the movement’s website. He criticizes what he calls “socialistic justice,” whatever that is. “We are concerned about the current road our Southern Baptist family is traveling,” Jurkovich says in the press release. “It is a road that is twisting what God’s Word is saying about things like human sexuality, biblical racial reconciliation and socialistic justice.”

The Southern Baptist Convention has apparently gone liberal and is in need of another conservative resurgence. Who knew?

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth and co-author of Religion in American Life: A Short History.




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