From ......... CHRISTIANITY and CRISIS

December 14, 1987

page 428

By Leon Howell


With the story on Nancy Sehested in this issue, we come belatedly to the Southern Baptist saga. Since 1979, the machinery of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. - 14.6 million members, 36,000 churches - has been gradually taken over by the fundamentalists. We arrive at a moment when the moderates have won their first victories in that eight-year period at the state conventions held in mid-November.

In 1979 Edward E. McAteer of Memphis joined poIitical conservatives such as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich to deveIop, according to Richard Hester - of Southeastern Baptist TheoIogical Seminary, "a politicaI agenda that came to be known as the New Right."

McAteer enIisted (non-Southern) Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, who formed the Moral Majority, and his pastor, Adrian Rogers, elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1979 and 1987. Every SBC president since 1979 has been part of this group.

That gave the Baptist New Right control of a budget of more than $200 miIlion and the power to make appointments to SBC boards and agencies, including the trustees at the six SBC seminaries that train 20 percent of all U.S. theological students.

What this meant hit home with full force in October.

The fundamentalists - who had Iong compIained that some seminary professors believe the divinely inspired Bible is open to scholarly interpretation - gained control of the board of trustees at Southeastern (Wake Forest, N.C.). Two respected men, President RandalI LoIley, and Dean of the FacuIty Morris Ashcraft, resigned.

Their action - and harsh attacks on the Ieadership of Mercer University (Macon, Ga.) apparentIy created a critical mass. In mid-November moderates surprised even themselves by overwhelmingly defeating fundamentalist candidates for president in state conventions in Georgia and North CaroIina and made considerabIe gains in severaI other states. Mercer University received strong affrmation from the Georgia convention.

The probIem is much deeper for Southeastern, directly supported by the SBC. But on November 19 the board of the Southern Baptist AIliance (SBA) voted to create a task force to study the estabIishment of a new serninary in the region, possibly using Southeastern's current facuIty as the core of the new school. The SBA was formed Iast spring to reafirm traditionaI Baptist principles.

The actions of thc state conventions - which decide what funds go to the SBC-could welI mark the beginning ofa comeback by the SBC's moderates. Leon Howell