Using the Bible as their weapon, fundamentalist forces this week took control of the Southern Baptist Convention and began pushing the 14.4 million-member denomination toward the political and social agenda of the new religious right.
In the final hours of their tumultuous three-day convention, messengers (as delegates are called) adopted with little or no debate resolutions that praised the attorney general's Commission on Pornography, condemned "censorship" of Judeo-Christian heritage from school books and rejected "secular humanistic" sex education programs.
But dozens of other concerns on topics ranging from apartheid to Central America to ordination of women died at the hands of the resolutions committee.
Alan Sears of Louisville, the resolutions committee chairman, explained that in order to restore "unity" to the denomination, the committee accepted only those items that it "feels confident that all Southern Baptists can agree on."
Sears, incidentally, was executive director of the attorney general's pornography commission, praised in the Baptist resolution.
Among the resolutions rejected by the committee were several that would have censured the Rev. Foy Valentine, veteran head of the Christian Life Committee, for allegedly espousing positions on abortion "diametrically opposed" to the church's current stand.
Southern Baptists have traditionally condemned abortion on demand, but have repeatedly sanctioned measures necessary for the welfare of the mother. But as right-wing forces have increased in strength in recent years, succeeding resolutons have moved closer to all-out opposition to abortion.
Under Southern Baptist rules, resolutions reflect only the opinions of those at the conventions that vote them. But abortion foes repeatedly referred to them as the "policy" of the denomination.
Valentine has been under fire by right-to-life groups for a statement on sanctity of life he wrote for Baptist papers earlier in the year that expressed concern for the mother's rights as well as those of the fetus.
Also targeted by the right-to-life group was the Rev. James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which barely survived an effort to be cut off from Southern Baptist support. Dunn was faulted for not using his Washington office to lobby for antiabortion legislation.
Despite the seemingly intense interest in the abortion issue throughout the meeting, fewer than 100 persons turned out for a Wednesday meeting of the unofficial Southern Baptists for Life at a downtown church. A leader of the group told Baptist Press that it had 3,000 names on its mailing list.
The election here of the Rev. Adrian Rogers as president marked the eighth year in which the presidency went to a candidate from the fundamentalist camp. The Rev. Paige Patterson of Dallas, one of the chief strategists of the group, which has used "Biblical inerrancy" as its watchword, said their goal remains "to change the complexion of the boards of trustees" of Southern Baptist seminaries and institutions such as mission boards and publishing houses.
There was general agreement by both moderates and fundamentalists that such boards are now about "half and half." Rogers said after his election that his appointments would reflect a ratio of "90 to 10" inerrantists to moderates.
The Southern Baptist Convention, with emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and the right of each individual to interpret the Bible according to his or her understanding, has traditionally been a bastion of freedom of conscience. But in recent years, fundamentalist forces have insisted that only those who view the Bible as "inerrant" are true Baptists.
The Rev. Marion D. Lark, chairman of the denomination's historical commission, challenged messengers to "know their heritage so they can stand firm in response to those who would take them into a foreign land . . . characterized by unfamiliar ideas . . . such as theological uniformity, Biblical inerrancy, creedal statements . . . civil religion and convention hierarchy."
His pointed remarks, a part of his commission report, drew cheers and applause from moderates. But they also attracted a demand from the right that the commission's governing body make sure Lark's views were in accord with the Baptist Faith and Message Statement.
At another point, after a report that the convention had spent $176,000 to defend the denomination in a lawsuit brought by messengers in a dispute growing out of a disputed parliamentary ruling against the moderates last year, a messenger moved that the convention "disfellowship" the plaintiffs.
"It's almost an Orwellian type of thing," said the Rev. Ken Chafin, a moderate veteran of the battles, now teaching at a denominational seminary. "All the labels have changed. 'Peace' becomes the word for 'war' . . . . 'Love' is the word for 'hate.'
"We used to be a fellowship," he continued. "The Southern Baptist Convention was never meant to be precinct politics."
Despite years of defeats, there is no talk among the moderates of leaving the denomination; they believe time is on their side. "You can't be in charge of a denomination and continue to attack it," Chafin observed.
Ultimately, he said, the fundamentalists "will not sustain themselves," although he predicted that the battle, particularly in the seminaries, "will wreck some careers and it will drive some bright men and women out of the ministry."
But Paul Pressler, a Houston judge who put together the politics of the fundamentalists' campaign, dislikes talk of a takeover. "In order to change a group as large as this, it takes a gradual and loving course-correction," he said.