The Wall Street Journal Online


Holy War: Fundamentalists Fight To Capture the Soul Of Southern Baptists --- Purges and Censorship Grow As Zealots Try to Finish Takeover From 'Liberals' --- Where Women Went Wrong


By Peter Waldman, The Wall Street Journal
Mar 7, 1988


Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Mar 7, 1988

In 1636, before Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America, he had to flee the Massachusetts Bay Colony to escape a Puritan posse bent on shipping the religious dissenter back to England.

Last year, a Memphis, Tenn., pastor named Nancy Sehested was run out of the Shelby County Baptist Association by a band of Bible-quoting elders. They argued that Eve's behavior in the Garden of Eden made women ineligible to head congregations.

Mr. Williams and Mrs. Sehested are soul mates in a running American story of pious persecution that has the Baptists, again, at center stage. Zealous fundamentalists, insisting on a strict biblical literalism, have for several years been steadily gaining control of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest sect. Now their movement has reached a critical point, as they embark on a bitter crusade to consolidate their gains and impose their vision throughout the denomination.

The fundamentalists have driven dozens of more moderate pastors, teachers, writers and missionaries from posts in the denomination. Nervous editors at its publications censor the slightest references to controversial subjects like evolution. New employees at some church agencies must swear a theological loyalty oath.

Frightened seminary professors tape-record their classes and avoid distributing lecture notes to students, hunkering down against the threat of a future heresy inquiry.

"It's publish and perish in the Southern Baptist Convention these days," says Glenn Hinson, a historian at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

More is at stake here than in most intrafaith struggles. With 14.6 million members, the Southern Baptists form one of the nation's most influential denominations, controlling more than $10 billion of assets, employing thousands and coloring many aspects of Southern life. The fundamentalists have used the denomination's resources not only in mainstream conservative religious causes like school prayer but also to blunt the drive for equal rights for women. From the pulpit, preachers rally support for individual politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson (though he is no longer a Southern Baptist). Their influence on the voting in some Southern primaries tomorrow could be significant.

"The denomination is becoming a pawn for political far-rightists," contends John Baugh, founder and senior chairman of Sysco Corp., a food-products concern based in Houston. Mr. Baugh, a lifelong Southern Baptist, is active in the failing moderate resistance. "This is the saddest, most bizarre period of my life," he says.

But to fundamentalists, these are heady times, as they go about the task they describe as saving the denomination from the scourge of modern secularism. "We cannot allow ourselves to be the judge of Scripture instead of Scripture the judge of us," says Paul Pressler, a Texas appeals-court justice in Houston who is a fundamentalist master strategist.

Founded in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention is a confederation of some 37,000 autonomous, mostly white churches that pool their resources for education and evangelism. Although Christian, it preaches no particular creed or doctrine, in deference to the Baptist principle of "soul competency," the notion that individuals should worship in their own way. The Southern Baptists are distinct from other Baptist denominations such as the American Baptists.

Their decentralized and non-dogmatic structure has often fostered heated argument among members over issues like evolution and civil rights. But religious historians say that as long as the denomination's "cultural bulwarks" remained intact, such battles were settled amicably. Now, those bulwarks are breaking apart.

"The denomination's constituency is no longer just Southern, and even the Southern part of it is no longer the homogeneous, white, mostly lower-middle-class, rural and minimally educated group of a generation ago," writes Nancy Ammerman, a religion professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Today's fundamentalism, she adds, embodies an Old South backlash against the region's Yankee-style modernization.

What fundamentalists say they are doing now is cleansing the leadership of a small cadre of liberals who have tried to subvert traditional Baptist belief in the complete literal truth of the Bible. These fundamentalists call themselves "inerrantists," after their position that Scripture contains no error.

It was Justice Pressler who figured out a way to "recapture" control. The Texas jurist realized that less than 5% of eligible delegates usually showed up at the denomination's annual convention. He says those who came, many of them denominational employees on expense accounts, brought about a "liberal drift" by electing liberal officers who in turn appointed liberal trustees to the boards of church agencies.

Justice Pressler and like-minded fellows became circuit riders, traveling from church to church to exhort inerrantists to attend the annual convention. The strategy worked. Since 1979, fundamentalists have elected every denominational president. And as trustee terms have expired, inerrantists have gained control of the largest agencies.

"What we're doing here is basically returning the Southern Baptist Convention to the people," contends Justice Pressler, interviewed on a preaching trip to rural Tennessee. "If return of the convention has a detrimental fallout in some areas, that's a small price to pay."

That fallout is everywhere. In January, George Sheridan lost a job with the Atlanta-based Southern Baptist Home Missions Board because of his views on Judaism. He had been the evangelical agency's ecumenical representative in the Northeast for 12 years, working closely with Jewish groups in metropolitan New York, his home. In 1986, he wrote an article stating that Jews retain a "covenantal" relationship with God, as spelled out in the Old Testament, and therefore shouldn't be targets of evangelism. Recently the Home Missions Board, in a letter citing Mr. Sheridan's beliefs about Judaism, gave him three weeks' notice to accept a non-ecumenical post in Atlanta or resign. He quit.

"There's a good aspect to my case," he says. "It was never openly stipulated before that the denomination has official theological positions. At least they finally took a public stand."

Women are especially affected by the fundamentalist drive. In 1984, the convention passed a resolution stating that because Eve initiated sin in the Garden of Eden, women should be forever subject to men. Accordingly, the Home Missions Board announced it would refuse financial aid to churches hiring female pastors. In Fort Worth, Texas, emboldened trustees of Southwestern seminary denied a faculty appointment for a prominent local pastor because women served as deacons of his church.

The Home Missions Board resolution also prompted the Shelby County Baptist Association's move against Mrs. Sehested in Tennessee. The local group voted to "disfellow" her Memphis church, Prescott Memorial, for having hired a woman pastor. "It's bizarre for people to call themselves Christian and act this way," Mrs. Sehested says.

Many employees have been purged at denominational publications. "There's been a conscious attempt by Paul Pressler and others to intimidate the {Southern Baptist} media," says Wilmer C. Fields, a 28-year employee who recently retired as vice president of public relations for the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee. He also directed the Baptist Press news agency, where, he says, fundamentalists two years ago forced a full investigation of their allegations of liberal bias, only to be rebuffed by a committee of journalism professors. Now there is talk of putting the agency through another review, this one before the fundamentalist-controlled executive committee.

Such threats have muzzled writers in publications once known for their diversity of opinion. Everett Hullum, who left in 1986 after 16 years as a reporter and editor for the Home Missions Board, says his later years there were marked by "constant tension." Fearing a financing cutoff or worse, editors heavily censored articles on such topics as the Ku Klux Klan, the religious right and women's issues, he says -- to the point where references to female pastors were automatically deleted.

"By censoring ourselves, we helped the fundamentalists gain control," Mr. Hullum says ruefully. "We were hoping they'd go away."

They haven't, nor have they spared Southern Baptist schools. In Wake Forest, N.C., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's president, W. Randall Lolley, resigned in October in protest over efforts by a fundamentalist-controlled board to impose a strictly Bible-based curriculum. Four other administrators followed him.

At Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis, a flap over evolution cost a beloved science teacher and former dean his job. Leroy Madden, a chemistry professor for 18 years, says he took early retirement rather than agree to teach Genesis as science. The college's president, Patrick Copley, says, "We teach the biblical account of creation, and we teach evolution as a theory."

Often, pressure comes from the outside. After vilification by a newspaper editor and some local pastors, Paul Simmons, a professor of Christian ethics at Southern seminary in Louisville, agreed to stop saying publicly that there is no clear biblical basis for forbidding abortion.

It is students, moderate professors contend, who lose most in all this. One professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, who says he doesn't want to be named for fear of repercussions, argues that "the theological controversy has crippled the engaging, questioning mind," and now students have to worry about whether "they are being educated in a way that is marketable in Southern Baptist life."

Some Southern Baptist moderates see a bit of hope for their side. Last fall, several state conventions elected mainstream Baptist leaders over inerrantist rivals. But the moderates who turned out in record numbers on the state level were galvanized largely by local concerns, such as Mr. Lolley's resignation at Southeastern and a fundamentalist attack on "debauchery and lewdness" at the Mercer University campus in Macon, Ga.

It is questionable whether this moderate strength will carry over to June's national convention in San Antonio.

"Your average moderate knows the contest we are in violates basic Christian principles," says Cecil Sherman, the pastor of the Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth. "On the other hand, a fundamentalist wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says, 'Let's go stomp out liberalism.' That's tough to beat."

Credit: Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal