The year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation's largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses. Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.
The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with "messengers" -- the convention does not have "delegates" -- from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don't want to know.
I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation's 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don't want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.
The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage -- "moderate" and "fundamentalist." Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:
... Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation's largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. "I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement," Dr. Page told reporters after his election. ...
Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. "I believe in the Word of God," he said. "I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for."
The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support -- think church buses again -- from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention's life.
This is one of those cases where the nation's newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services -- Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, "moderates" or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.
The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?
It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region -- driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian -- were in a position to swing the election.
And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:
Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, "I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number -- perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number -- but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life."
So two kinds of highways were crucial -- concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).
This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.