If you look at a timeline of events in American culture, there is no question that the great revolt by Southern Baptist conservatives was linked -- in part -- to Roe v. Wade and the rise of Ronald Reagan and his mid-1970s campaign against the GOP country-club establishment.
But if journalists want to understand the priorities of the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, they need to back up and look at some other events as well. It's important to understand what young SBC conservatives (male and female) want to change and what they don't want to change.
OK, let's start back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when SBC conservatives became worried that theological trends in liberal Protestant denominations were seeping into their own seminaries. Truth be told: There were not many truly liberal Southern Baptists out there -- on issues such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus -- but they did exist.
Southern Baptists who were worried about all of that, and SBC agencies backing abortion rights, kept running into institutional walls. They were called paranoid "fundies" (short for "fundamentalists") and hicks who lived in the sticks and they had little input into national SBC committees and agencies.
In reality, there was a small SBC left and a larger SBC hard right, framing a vast, ordinary evangelical SBC middle. But the "moderates" were hanging onto control.
Then the Rev. Jimmy Allen organized an establishment machine that pulled his own loyal "messengers" into the 1977 Southern Baptist Convention, insuring his election and control over the committee on committees that shaped SBC institutions. He won again in 1978.
Leaders on the right -- like the (now all but exiled) Rev. Paige Patterson, Judge Paul Pressler and others -- took careful notes and decided they could play that game before the fateful 1979 Houston convention. They built a church-bus machine that beat the old "moderates," then they did that again year after year.
Now, what does that have to do the big issues in the current crisis? Let's walk our way through a passage in a pre-SBC 2018 background piece at The Washington Post, a story that also details recent events linked to the fall of Patterson from power.
... Patterson knew how to make things happen in the late 1970s and ’80s when he and others on the far right grew increasingly worried about the convention becoming more moderate on the key question of the Bible’s inerrancy, including on the place of women and the family.
Correct. Now attach the biblical inerrancy issue to some basic doctrines -- like the resurrection and virgin birth of Jesus -- and the weaknesses on the SBC left become a bit more obvious.
As for "family issues," abortion was a large part of that, along with the ordination of women as pastors. Let's read on:
The takeover, which lasted over a decade, was no holds barred, with Patterson keeping files on ideological opponents and cultivating spies in seminaries, according to historical accounts. A 1991 profile in D Magazine -- which covers the Dallas area -- said Patterson had been “likened to the Rev. Jim Jones and Joe McCarthy” by his critics in the denomination. “He’s been reviled as a power-mad fundamentalist on a witch hunt for heretics.”
Spies in seminaries? Yes, there were students who reported what some of their professors said and what professors wrote in papers usually seen only by chosen participants in academic conferences. Heretics? Yes, Patterson and others played hardball, not just against the left but also with anyone who was a leader in those academic structures. It was brutal.
By the time it was over, Patterson and other leaders “got the spoils of war” and were able to transform Southern Baptist institutions to their specifications from the inside, said Boston University religion sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who has written extensively about the convention.
That's absolutely correct. However, I would note that Ammerman is a great source on one side of these academic discussions. There are conservative historians worth consulting, as well.
So, yes, the great conservative SBC revolt was also:
... Deeply by the rising American feminist movement and increased debate about abortion.
In the early years, a core issue was the role of women, in churches and in the workplace. Until the 1980s, Southern Baptist women were still being ordained, although there were just a relative handful of female pastors. Polls into the 1970s also showed the vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors supported some access to abortion. That, too, changed with the takeover.
I would note that SBC views began to evolve after Roe -- period. Also the fierce anti-Catholicism on the SBC establishment began to fade a bit, as the modern, ecumenical Right To Life movement emerged. The SBC churches that ordained women (I was active in several) were almost always small in number and rather small in size.
In the end, the SBC right defined the issues in terms that spoke to many people in the SBC middle. Today, the Baptist left is small and, like its liberal Protestant cousins, fading and aging. The vast SBC center is, basically, conservative and evangelical. However, there is no way that it is as strident as the old guard on the old right. The young SBC leaders are concerned about evangelism and race, about abortion and the splintering American family. Many do not believe that honoring the leadership gifts of women is the same thing as ordaining women as pastors.
Now, with that in mind, read this important passage in a pre-SBC 2018 piece at NBC, which contains full-text references to some crucial documents linked to these debates. The headline proclaims:
#MeToo goes to church: Southern Baptists face a reckoning over treatment of women
"Many women have experienced horrific abuses within the power structures of our Christian world," Beth Moore, an evangelical teacher, wrote in a letter.
Read the following carefully:
As the convention gathers against that backdrop to elect a new president, it will also consider the resolution to denounce sexual impropriety and abuse, as well as "anyone who would facilitate or knowingly cover up such acts." The resolution was written by Jason K. Allen, president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and it was signed by Steve Gaines, the convention's outgoing president; seven other former convention presidents; and both nominees for convention president during next week's election.
It asks the convention to confess that throughout the church's history, men have "wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women by ungodly comments and ungodly acts, preyed on women, left women unprotected, failed to report injustices and evils committed against women to civil authorities established by God and failed to act out of the overflow of the image of Christ."
Will there be debate on this resolution? If so, reporters should listen to remarks about the "silenced women" reference. It will be important to listen to what conservative SBC women have to say about all of this.
With that in mind, consider the following from The Tennessean.
At least two pre-meeting panels Monday will tackle the treatment of women and abuse in church, and a midday rally is planned for Tuesday.
Protest organizers, who say they are backed by Southern Baptists and others, are calling for women to be respected and honored within the denomination. They also want a clergy sex offender registry created and mandatory training for pastors and seminaries on domestic abuse and sexual assault.
The creation of a clergy sex offender registry would be huge news in the freewheeling world of Baptist and independent-church evangelical life. Click here for an important Washington Post essay linked to that.
Mandatory legal training in seminaries would also be a step that many, many doctrinal conservatives will back. Many "pastoral counselors" just don't know the law.
Two resolutions submitted to the committee for consideration garnered attention in advance of the meeting. ... Dozens of Southern Baptist leaders .. support a resolution affirming the dignity of women and the holiness of ministers.
Kathy Litton, a pastor's wife from Alabama, co-wrote another resolution that celebrates the 100th anniversary of women serving as messengers, which are the voting representatives sent by Southern Baptist churches to the annual meeting. While it is unrelated and has been in the works for years, the resolution carries added weight after the Patterson controversy.
In conclusion, read one more Tennessean passage that gives a pretty good picture -- in my opinion, at least -- of offering the views of the new, younger, emerging SBC establishment:
Pastor Dean Inserra, who leads City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, thinks a statement from the convention is necessary given the weeks of turmoil surrounding Patterson. But resolutions are not enough, he said.
"I think it begins by refusing to be in denial that there's a serious problem," Inserra said. "As a convention as a whole, there's a culture problem."
Inserra thinks leadership changes will help. While he does not believe women can be pastors, Inserra thinks women should hold leadership roles across the network of churches. He also thinks electing North Carolina pastor J.D. Greer this year as president of the Southern Baptist Convention will go a long way to creating a more diverse denomination and one that emphasizes the Gospel above politics, personal preferences and traditions.
"I just believe it will communicate to those who are watching that it's a new day if J.D. wins, and we critically need that to happen," Inserra said.
In conclusion, read the resolution texts and study emerging proposals for real change in SBC agencies and seminaries. Note the ages of the people who propose changes and those that oppose them. Listen for the voices of African Americans inside the SBC.
Journalists: Are you ready to hear the voices of the new SBC conservatives, as well as cover the collapse of the old?