No matter which side -- fundamentalist or moderate -- captures the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention next month in Atlanta, the nation's largest Protestant denomination is doomed to prolonged conflict, said a religious sociologist who has made a year-long study of the Baptist battle.
Nancy T. Ammerman of Emory University's Candler School of Theology found that the bitter fight for control of the 14.2 million-member church is rooted more in the massive cultural and demographic changes sweeping the South than disagreements over the Bible.
The study also found fundamentalist beliefs recede as education and income levels rise and that moderates are more likely than fundamentalists to stay with the denomination if their side loses the battle for control at next month's massive annual meeting, expected to draw 60,000 "messengers," or delegates.
"The conflict in the nation's largest Protestant denomination cannot be separated from the vast cultural changes that have revolutionized the region that is its home," said Ammerman in a report on her study in the nondenominational Christian Century of May 14.
After a population influx from other parts of the country that has lasted more than 20 years, the South has became "increasingly heterogeneous and religiously pluralistic," Ammerman said. "Traditions that once kept blacks (and others) 'in their place,' that slowed the pace of change . . . are giving way to attitudes that reflect a more tolerant, urban and rapidly changing region," she said.
A "new Southern Baptist Convention" emerged, Ammerman continued, as seminaries, colleges and other church institutions "began to be populated by well-educated, mobile professionals who were gradually introducing ideas about integration, an expanding role for women and the importance of reading the Bible in its historical context."
The fundamentalist movement developed as a reaction, she said. "Fundamentalism has always been a response to a more 'modern' way of believing and behaving."
Now each side accuses the other of not being true to historic Baptist principles. Fundamentalists say moderates don't believe the Bible is literally true; moderates say fundamentalists, by insisting on their view of the Bible, are trying to establish a creed, something that has always been anathema to Baptists.
In the Candler study, which included responses to detailed questionnaires from 415 Southern Baptist clergy and 589 laypersons, Ammerman and her associates found that "as the level of education increases, fundamentalism decreases."
Clergy with master's or doctoral degrees "are eight times as likely to hold a moderate theology as are those with less than a bachelor's degree," she said. "Laypeople in households headed by professionals or managers are five times as likely to be moderate as those in farm or blue-collar households," she said.
"And people with family incomes of $35,000-plus are more than twice as likely to be theologically moderate as those with family incomes of less than $10,000. As southerners move toward the higher educational levels and income that accompany a white-collar, professional economy, fewer and fewer will maintain a fundamentalist theology," she said.
Among self-identified fundamentalists, she said, "nearly three-quarters would seek to disfellowship a church that ordained women and would advocate action against SBC agencies that favor women's ordination." She added that 60 percent said they would leave the denomination if the convention "cannot be brought back to biblical soundness."
Although the moderates express anger over fundamentalist inroads in recent years -- "It's like a gang of thugs is raping my mother," said one -- few are ready to leave. They believe "their denomination is big enough for a variety of beliefs, and the very character of their pluralistic view prevents them from seeking to expel the fundamentalists," Ammerman found.
While the moderates are willing to hunker down and wait for time and social change to work in their favor, they may not have the chance, Ammerman suggested.
"Fundamentalists have already altered the character of the boards of trustees that direct the convention's work," she said. If another fundamentalist is elected in Atlanta and the Southern Baptists make "two years worth of purely fundamentalist appointments, most if not all the boards will have clear fundamentalist majorities."