A Shift Among the Evangelicals
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 16, 2006; A25
Sometimes very important elections receive very little attention.
When the Southern Baptist Convention elected the Rev. Frank Page as
the group's president at its meeting this week in Greensboro, N.C.,
the news appeared on the back pages of most secular newspapers -- or
it didn't appear at all.
But Page's upset victory could be very significant, both to the
nation's religious life and to politics. He defeated candidates
supported by the convention's staunchly conservative establishment,
which has dominated the organization since the mid-1980s. His triumph
is one of many signs that new breezes are blowing through the broader
evangelical Christian world.
No, this is not some liberal victory. Indeed, the Baptist Press
reported that Page went out of his way to tell reporters that he was
not elected "to somehow undo the conservative resurgence" in the
convention. But he also signaled that the spirit he hopes to embody is
quite different from that of the angry, right-wing, politicized
preacher who has been a stock figure in American life for more than
"I believe in the word of God," Page said. "I'm just not mad about it."
The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American
religious story of this decade. The evolution of the evangelical
movement should not be confused with the rise of a religious left.
Although the margin of the Republican Party's advantage among white
evangelicals is likely to decline from its exceptionally high level in
the 2004 election, a substantial majority of white evangelicals will
probably remain conservative and continue to vote Republican.
But the evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices
insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the
fights against AIDS and human trafficking. Among the most prominent
advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren,
pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The
Purpose Driven Life."
In the meantime, Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs
at the National Association of Evangelicals (and a self-described
"Ronald Reagan movement conservative"), has been a leader in urging
evangelicals to make environmental stewardship a central element of
their political mission. This has earned him attacks from such
prominent leaders on the Christian right as James Dobson.
In the Southern Baptist election, Page, pastor of First Baptist Church
in Taylors, S.C., defeated two candidates more closely associated with
the convention's conservative leadership, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of
Springdale, Ark., and the Rev. Jerry Sutton of Nashville. The election
was important because the Southern Baptist Convention has been the
locus of fierce struggles between moderates and conservatives in which
the right emerged triumphant.
In response to the resulting purges and acrimony, moderate and
progressive Baptists formed new organizations such as the
Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics. Robert Parham, the center's
executive director, argues that it would be a mistake to read too much
into Page's triumph. "This was a race between the right and the far
right," Parham said. "One election neither makes a positive trend nor
unmakes the essence of fundamentalism."
Bill Leonard, the dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School,
largely agrees with Parham's analysis but argues that many Baptists
are sensitive to "static or declining" membership numbers and the
rising popularity of nondenominational churches such as Warren's.
The election, he said, indicates that "the leadership of the
denomination that pushed it hard to the right on theological and
social issues is aging or passing from the scene and is unable to
rally the troops as they once did."
"Some people," Leonard added, "are tired of just fighting liberals.
You need a reason to be a Southern Baptist other than just fighting
liberals in the culture or in the church."
One other force was at work in this year's Baptist voting: the rise of
Over the past several years, an active network of Baptist bloggers has
opened up discussion in the convention and given reformers and
moderates avenues around what Parham called "the Baptist establishment
papers" and other means of communication controlled by the
convention's leadership. Thus may some of our oldest and most
traditional institutions be transformed by new technologies.
Religious movements stay vibrant thanks to the complicated interaction
of fidelity, reflection and reform. The evangelical world is going
through a quiet evolution as believers reflect on the perils of
partisanship and ideology and their reasons for being Christian. This
will probably affect the nation's political life, but it will
certainly affect the country's spiritual direction. My hunch is that
not only moderates and liberals but also many solid conservatives
welcome the departure.
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