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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fun With Baptists

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.

3 comments on “Fun With Baptists

  1. Captain Dan on

    Fun with Baptists is an oxymoron. Actually my roommate at Officer’s Training School was a Baylor grad and he was a good guy at the time. The Saturday night that we became upperclassmen, I had to carry him back to the dorm. (We had our own clubs.)

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  2. edkilgore on

    David in Nashville:
    Thanks for the clarifications. I tried to keep my characterizations limited to the SBC leadership and clergy, not the rank-and-file (a whole ‘nother issue); you’ll note that I didn’t get into the polling on “evangelicals” generally. And my main aim was to deal with the confusion over the very different and very relative theological and political terms “conservative” and “moderate.” It’s that confusion that led a lot of interested non-Baptists–myself included–to overstate the significance of Page’s election in 2006.
    Thanks for the comment!
    Ed Kilgore

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  3. David in Nashville on

    I’ve pointed this out to TAP as well, but I’ll point it out to you: That poll of Southern Baptist ministers was conducted by an entity called Lifeway Research, which is an arm of Lifeway Christian Resources, formerly the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board. Like all the SBC agencies, it’s thoroughly under the conservative thumb, and those people are well known for their vindictiveness [I know people whom they’ve axed for inadequate fealty]. If *I* were a Southern Baptist minister and they called me up to ask my political views, do you think *I’d* tell them?
    On factionalism–I think it’s a bit unfair to say that Southern Baptists are all in lockstep behind their leadership. The conservatives have a stranglehold on the annual convention and the agencies, but it’s not because the moderates have disappeared; it’s because they’ve quietly and unofficially seceded and formed their own separate organizations. Since the SBC isn’t a “church” but basically an association of independent congregations, those congregations can make their own choices as to what they support, and I know quite a few who either have stopped paying into the SBC, contribute to both the SBC and the rival Cooperative Baptist Fellowship [much smaller, to be sure], or allow members to pick. And, finally, the rank and file, in my experience, largely ignore what’s going on over their heads.

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