-- The Southern Baptist Convention rejected a proposal this week that would have urged parents to pull their children out of public schools, and it approved a call for a federal amendment to ban gay marriage.
Another resolution hailed the marked rightward shift in America's largest Protestant denomination that began 25 years ago. But alongside celebration, as the convention's two-day annual meeting drew to a close Wednesday, some speakers wondered whether the denomination is stagnating.
Newly elected SBC President Bobby Welch, a pastor in Daytona Beach, Fla., told a news conference Wednesday it would be a compliment to say the SBC has "plateaued." In fact, he said, baptism figures are declining.
While the 8,500 representatives at the meeting staked out strongly conservative positions on a variety of issues -- voting to quit the Baptist World Alliance because its members are too liberal, for instance -- the public school effort seemed too radical.
Retired Air Force Gen. T.C. Pinckney of Alexandria, and attorney Bruce Shortt of Spring, Tex., had proposed a tough pullout statement that criticized the "officially Godless" public schools. Instead, the resolutions committee wrote a blander, broader warning against America's drift toward secularism.
Pinckney moved a floor amendment encouraging parents to provide "a thoroughly Christian education" through either private schools or home schooling. Representatives defeated that by show of hands.
During the spirited debate, Pinckney said "we are enabling Satan to destroy our children." Shortt cited statistics on sexually transmitted diseases and loss of belief among youths, and denounced the "2,000 homosexual clubs in our middle schools and high schools."
The resolutions committee opposed pulling children out of public schools, even though half its members had home-schooled children.
Welch and others considered it a mistake to withdraw Christian influence from public schools because that would hinder evangelism. Welch said he was raised in a non-believing home and began visiting church through a schoolmate's influence.
The meeting's closest vote was a 55 percent to 45 percent rejection of a proposed study on whether to change the denomination's name and drop "Southern." Some have worried that the "Southern" in the denomination's name alienates some people who could be evangelized.
The gay marriage resolution, passed without debate, commended President Bush, who spoke Tuesday via video, for backing a federal marriage amendment.
The resolution declared that "the union of one man and one woman is the only form of marriage prescribed in the Bible as God's perfect design" and called this traditional family the "foundational institution that builds and maintains strong societies."
The measure commemorating 25 years of conservative control of the SBC thanked leaders who "led us back to our historic biblical moorings." In 1979, conservative Baptists elected the first of a string of traditionalist presidents for the denomination.
* Urged all Christians to register and "vote in accordance with biblical values."
* Expressed "pride and strong support for our American military."
* Praised former president Ronald Reagan for his "strong belief in the Bible and its answers to life's problems" and pledged to "perpetuate the positive values" he exemplified.
Before his election Tuesday, Welch told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper his presidency would stress evangelism to counter "this malaise we're caught in now of floundering and struggling."
Because of a combination of factors, the SBC's total membership of 16.3 million has grown slightly in recent years, while more liberal U.S. denominations have slowly shrunk. But the Rev. Jimmy Draper, president of the SBC publishing house, told the meeting that Southern Baptist baptisms declined the past four years.
That reflects "a denomination that's lost its focus," he said.
Though income continues to grow, a report in September warned that finances of Southern Baptist agencies "could degenerate into a crisis in very few years."
Associated Baptist Press, operated by moderates who oppose the convention's conservative leadership, analyzed statistics showing a slowdown since the "resurgence" or "takeover" began in 1979.
It said membership increased by 22 percent since 1979 but by 64 percent during the preceding 25 years. In 1954, the convention recorded one baptism per 22 church members; it had one per 43 last year. Statistics also show that the denomination's constituency is aging as fewer children under 12 attend Sunday school.
The Rev. Paige Patterson, a prime strategist of the 1979 shift and now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, acknowledged that report in a Sunday talk. But he contended that numbers would be far worse if moderates had remained in control.