The Baptists of East Waynesville
A remarkable amount of media attention has been devoted this week to an incident at a small Southern Baptist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina. That's where a pastor, the Rev. Chan Chandler, known for strident sermons about the religious obligation of Christians to support George W. Bush allegedly tried to expel nine church members who objected to his politicization of the pulpit, and then resigned, apparently leading a group of "young adult" newcomers to the church towards some sort of split-off congregation, presumably to worship according to strict Republican principles.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Baptist tradition, congregational and even denominational splits are hardly unusual. Baptists have angrily parted ways over the scripturally prescribed quantity of water to be used in baptismal fonts. Down in North Georgia, the ancestral church of my in-laws split over the issue of admitting divorced persons, with the "conservatives" opening a new church about half-a-mile away. An entire denomination, the Primitive Baptists (which two of my great-grandfathers served as ministers) developed out of an objection to the missionary activities of the Southern Baptists. These are not people who put a high premium on unity, and who traditionally resist any higher authority than the individual congregation communing with the lively Word of God.
What's ironic about the outcome of the East Waynesville saga is that the schismatic preacher in question represented the point of view that has gone a long way towards snuffing out that robust sense of Baptist independence.
The "conservative" (i.e., biblical literalist and quasi-theocratic) takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that occurred during the 1980s involved a constant guerilla war against the independence of state Baptist Conventions, Baptist seminaries and colleges, and individual congregations. Its centralizing focus was alien to the historic ecclesiology of Baptists, much as its political agenda was alien to the historic devotion of Baptists to the principle of strict separation of church and state.
To be sure, most "conservative" Baptist leaders have stopped short of the ultimate religio-political stance of anathemizing every single individual churchgoer who might be inclined to support the heathen Democratic Party, just as some "conservative" Catholic Bishops have so far failed to carry out their threats to deny communion to those who vote for pro-choice Democrats. Time will tell if Chan Chandler is simply a few steps further along the current trajectory of the Baptist wing of the Christian Right, or represents a flashing warning sign to those who have subjected the Gospel to the fortunes of the GOP. --