Fundamentalists will try to complete their quest for control of the nation's largest Protestant denomination when the Southern Baptist Convention meets this week in New Orleans.
If they succeed in electing a president for the 12th consecutive year, the fundamentalists said, they will continue a "course correction" of the denomination's leading agencies and colleges that they said is bringing the religious body closer to God.
Their moves into positions of power have left scarred battlefields at Baptist institutions. Teachers have resigned. Fewer missionary candidates are signing up. Seminary enrollment is down. Churches are contributing less to the convention's coffers.
Some Southern Baptists have said they are so fed up that they are looking elsewhere for spiritual growth.
Angered by the fundamentalist takeover, the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans this spring became the first Southern Baptist church in Louisiana to align itself also with the denomination's northern counterpart, the American Baptist Churches/U.S.A.
"So many things have happened that have embarrassed and insulted us," said David Farmer, pastor of the 350-member, middle-class congregation in the city's university district. "Our move comes out of an intolerance of intolerance."
With fundamentalists in charge, the 14.9 million-member Southern Baptist Convention has been part of the marked drift to the right in the nation over the last decade. Leaders of the denomination, which broke from Northern Baptists over the slavery question in 1845, embrace conservative positions that have swept the Republican Party into power.
One of the fundamentalist faction's chief architects, Texas Judge Paul Pressler, makes no apology for the movement that has led to a purge in leadership ranks. Pressler said he became alarmed more than a decade ago at the "liberal theology" being taught seminary students in Baptist colleges.
Under the banner of biblical inerrancy, Pressler and several others have orchestrated a political campaign to impose their views of Baptist faith since 1979, according to moderate Baptists.
Pressler spoke throughout the country, accusing Baptist institutions and leaders of heresy. Disaffected preachers from small churches were galvanized to vote at the annual meeting for a new president.
Capturing control of the presidency is crucial because the Southern Baptist Convention president names the Committee on Committees. In turn, that group nominates the Committee on Nominations, which names trustees for the denomination's boards, agencies and seminaries.
The decline of the Southern Baptist Convention has been halted, Pressler contended recently. "Everything has improved," he said. Pressler said demographic factors can affect seminary enrollment as much as anything else.
Pressler predicted that the Southern Baptist Convention will have seen its final battle if the conservatives' choice for president wins.
But others are not so sure. As about 40,000 Baptists gather in the Superdome Tuesday for their three-day annual meeting, battle lines are firmly drawn.
Representing the moderates is Daniel Vestal, pastor of the Dunwoody Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. The fundamentalist choice, reportedly handpicked by a group of former fundamentalist convention presidents after they returned from a Bible conference cruise in the Caribbean, is Morris Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Tex.
Another key vote is expected when the convention's 77-member Executive Committee, on which Pressler sits as vice chairman, seeks approval of a plan to reduce dramatically the convention's involvement in the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, the multi-denominational lobby on religious-liberty issues.
Fundamentalist forces want to cut the convention's funding of the joint committee from $391,000 to $50,000, shifting most of the funds and responsibilities to the convention's Christian Life Commission, which deals with moral, ethical and social issues and maintains an office staffed by one employee here.
The denomination's leaders have faulted the Joint Committee on several points, including its opposition to a school-prayer amendment and its silence on the abortion issue.
"Beneath these things, prayer . . . abortion, is the ultimate problem that they can't control the Baptist Joint Committee," said James Dunn, director of the agency, which represents 28 million Baptists. "They have a very heavy secular political agenda."
Many Baptists said the denomination's very soul is at stake as this year's meeting unfolds. Some said infighting will cause growing numbers of Baptists to drift away, and others even suggest that a schism will occur in the denomination despite its loosely knit nature.
The denomination's leadership controls the agencies and six seminaries of the convention's national body. But at state and local levels, Baptists do not have governing authority over each other.
With Baptists weary from fighting among themselves, the next battle may become an economic one. Frustrated Baptists said they would show their increasing displeasure by withholding church offerings to the convention.
The losing forces may become like exiles in their own country, forming alternative agencies outside the national body, according to some church historians.
Two divinity schools to be run by moderates are in the blueprint stage at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
"We've got polarization rather than a swamping by the new majority over the old majority," said Samuel S. Hill Jr. a specialist in southern religious history at the University of Florida. "The Southern Baptist Convention has changed inalterably, forever."