Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Baptists, Bloggers and John Calvin

I was a bit startled yesterday to read a Nathan Newman post at TPMCafe suggesting that bloggers had pulled off a coup in helping elect one Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I did a little research, and found that indeed there was a grassroots effort, spread in part by bloggers, to promote Page against the conservative establishment candidate Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas.

But it would be a bit too much to assume that Page's election represents some sort of sea-change in Baptist political theology. He's a supporter of "biblical inerrancy," and by his own account has supported the conservative theocratic takeover of the SBC. The big argument for his candidacy has mainly revolved around the need for congregational support for Baptist mission work, which has been lagging of late. And if you actually google around and read some of the blogs about the contest for the SBC presidency, there's an underlying tension among Baptists that Page exploited: a neo-Calvinist movement in the Baptist seminaries that threatened the denomination's commitment to evangelizing the world.

This is a very old conflict among Baptists; in the nineteenth century, it produced two denominational spinoffs: the Primitive Baptists (two of my great-grandfathers were ministers for this group) who rejected missionary activity as a waste of time given the doctrine of predestination of souls; and the Free Will Baptists who rejected predestination altogether.

The neo-Calvinists, who often overlap with the politicized right-wing leadership of the SBC, have exposed a lot of underlying Baptist angst about the drift of the denomination away from its roots. Page's outspoken resistence to neo-Calvinism, and his advocacy of a more open and inclusive Baptist attitude towards unbelievers, may have been crucial to the success of his candidacy.

So there's more going on here than some grassroots rejection of "fundamentalism." But Page's election does in fact indicate that internet-based organizing is particularly relevant to a denomination with a strong tradition of local, congregational autonomy (vitiated so much by the conservative takeover of the SBC). Moreover, the upset probably indicates an understanding among Baptist clergy that the denomination's massive growth in recent decades has slowed, and that Southern Baptists have lost the initiative to pentecostal churches, and to the nondenominational megachurches where right-wing politics are not the central message from the pulpit.

I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and know a lot about the denomination and its membership. And althought rank-and-file Baptists have not vocally dissented from their Christian Right leadership, there's a lot of snickering going on behind those Broadman Hymnals every Sunday on which the preacher suggests that divorce, feminism, extramarital sex, or homosexuality are unknown among the Godly. Maybe Page's election will ultimately help energize the sensible if silent majority of Baptists. I certainly hope so.
-- Posted at 9:42 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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