Sarah Posner of The American Prospect devotes most of her weekly FundamantaList column today to various political developments within or affecting that hardy redoubt of the Christian Right, the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some of you may recall the buzz a couple of years ago when a South Carolina pastor named Frank Page was elected president of the SBC. Because he wasn’t a member in good standing of the insider “conservative resurgance” leadership that took over the SBC nearly three decades ago, some observers (erroneously) thought Page’s election might signal a retreat from the intense politicization of the denomination. Page’s successor, Rev. Johnny Hunt, pastor of a megachurch in Woodstock, Georgia, offers no such false hope of a big change in the SBC’s Christian Right identity. The only unconventional thing about Hunt is that he is a Native American (not completely unusual in northwest Georgia, my own familial stomping grounds, where many folks have Cherokee ancestry).
In truth, outsiders tend to confuse factional maneuvering within the SBC with serious disagreements over the denomination’s radical course in U.S. politics. Best I can tell, the big argument among Southern Baptists right now is over a neo-Calvinist movement rooted in the seminaries that frowns on some of the more exuberant quasi-universalist evangelical utterances of many Baptist preachers.
But Southern Baptist conservative political activism hasn’t abated. Posner notes a recent poll of SBC pastors that shows a preference for John McCain over Barack Obama by the rather comfortable margin of 80% to 1%. The good news is that Baptist conservatives don’t seem that fired up about McCain, as witnessed by this less-than-enthusiastic explanation of support for the GOP candidate by the SBC’s chief political commissar, Richard Land:
“My explanation of that is that I have heard variations of this theme too many times to count and the theme is, ‘I’d rather have a third-rate fireman than a first-class arsonist,'” Land said, echoing what people have told him.
The little-noted irony here is that the “third-rate fireman” John McCain is the first self-identified Southern Baptist presidential nominee of the Republican Party. But given the recent positioning of the denomination, it’s even more ironic that five of the last eight Democratic presidential nominations have gone to a Southern Baptist.
McCain, of course, could double down on his Baptist identity by choosing the Rev. Mike Huckabee as his running-mate. But as Posner explains today as well, Huck’s not terribly popular with the leadership of his SBC brethren. Partly that’s because Huckabee was long identified with the so-called “moderate” wing in the SBC factional wars, but the bigger problem is his highly public coziness with pentecostal Protestants, who represent a dire theological and membership challenge to the Southern Baptists. Doctrine and politics aside, the SBC’s chief problem is declining membership, which ought to give pause to those who assume that theological “liberalism” is the sole source of the membership losses of the non-fundamentaltist Protestant churches.