An eight-year power struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has given the key figures in the new Christian right control over the nation's largest Protestant denomination and is likely to result in stronger ties between the religious body and the Republican Party.
The election last week of the Rev. Adrian Rogers to the presidency of the SBC brings to near completion a religious and political transformation of the denomination that has major consequences for the GOP and its potential candidates for president.
The SBC has become a fertile hunting ground for prospective candidates for the GOP presidential nomination. SBC supporters of Vice President Bush conducted private meetings with the group's current leaders and with pastors likely to win office in the near future. Television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Roberston made a personal appearance here two days before the start of the convention and reappeared on the final night.
Supporters of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) did not send any emissaries, in what aides consider a significant mistake. Kemp's inaction, combined with strong efforts by Bush and Robertson, threatens to erode a potential base of Kemp support among Christian evangelicals, according to sources here both for and against his prospective candidacy.
In addition to wooing such present and former SBC presidents as Rogers, Charles Stanley and Jimmy Drapper, campaign workers for many of prospective GOP candidates are targeting the next generation of Southern Baptist leaders including Ed Young of Houston, O.S. Hawkins of Florida, Dwight Reighart of Georgia and Jay Stack of Florida.
The victory Tuesday of Rogers, a Memphis pastor, in a heated contest for the SBC presidency not only affirmed conservative domination of the elective offices, but it guaranteed success for the long-range goal of the denomination's right wing to take over the massive publishing and academic empire serving 14.5 million members.
At the moment, much of the SBC professional staff and academic community does not support the growing politicization of church leaders. The professional staff now faces a tough fight holding jobs as the conservative leaders gain power this year over key boards of trustees empowered to govern the bureaucracy.
"We are not trying to tell any seminary professor what he must believe, or any denominational employe, that is between him and God," Rogers said. "But we are saying that those who work for us and those who have their salaries paid by us ought to reflect what we want taught."
Affirming a belief in the separation of church and state, Rogers said at a news conference that he believes "none of us who are Christians are disenfranchised because of religion . . . . " Refering to his own advocacy of legislation to allow prayer in schools and to his opposition to abortion, he said, "Some of the things we do may seem overtly political, but to us, they are moral and spiritual issues."
Since 1979, the conservatives led by Houston Judge Paul Pressler and W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Chruch in Dallas, have successfully promoted the SBC presidential candidacies of Rogers, tanley, Drapper and Bailey Smith.
These men have been closely tied to Republican-Christian Right politics, serving of the board of the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV), the organization that coordinated the registration of an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million evangelical voters in 1984, the vast majority of whom voted for Republicans.
Joe Rodgers, former finance chairman for the Republican National Committee and the Reagan-Bush '84 committee, raised more than $1 million for ACTV.
In addition, almost all these conservative leaders were active supporters of President Reagan's reelection.
The steady movement to the right among Southern Baptists has been a key element in Republican elective gains in the South. The almost all-white denomination has provided large numbers of votes to Republicans, and it is a critical element of the long-range GOP goal of gaining majority status.
But while the Southern Baptists are a source of numerous votes, their growing alignment with the GOP is not entirely an unmixed blessing, some Republicans said, because of their religious views. "I wouldn't give you half a hallelujah for your chances in heaven if you don't believe in the virgin birth," Rogers said in a sermon last week.
The Baptist Convention has been going through a process "very much like what the Republican Party went through" during the period Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) won the presidential nomination in 1964, a Republican strategist said. "It is a conservative conversion of a major American institution," he added, pointing out that this year conservatives are expected to gain majorities on at least half the governing boards of the SBC, and on three quarters of the boards next year.
"The leadership is basically with the new religious right and the right wing political movement," Wilmer C. Fields, SBC news representative who is to retire later this year, said.
"With the changes going on the in SBC, you are going to see the steady departure of staff members who do not support the growing conservative political activism of the denomination," a well-placed SBC staff member added.
The Exeter- and Princeton-educated Pressler, who over the years has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the preeminent backroom boss and strategist of Baptist politics, contends that his goals are religious, not politicial. He said his purpose is to "create an atmosphere, to create a direction" in the SBC so that "the people whose salaries we pay will be responsible to their constituents."
While Pressler's goals may not be political, a consequence of his success has been a "quantum jump" in political activity within the already highly politicized SBC, Republican strategists agreed.