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Baptists open another front in the culture wars

With theological and political conservatives fully in control, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination this week discharged another salvo in the culture wars, taking on the volatile issue of the family and drawing fire from moderates within the Baptist fold and liberals without. During their three-day meeting in the heart of […]

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) — With theological and political conservatives fully in control, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination this week discharged another salvo in the culture wars, taking on the volatile issue of the family and drawing fire from moderates within the Baptist fold and liberals without.

During their three-day meeting in the heart of Mormon country, Southern Baptists elected an architect of the denomination’s conservative resurgence as their president and spoke out against policies ranging from women in combat to President Clinton’s recent executive order barring discrimination against gay federal employees.

But nothing the more than 8,500 messengers, or delegates, did drew as much attention _ and controversy _ as the stand they took on the family, declaring in a new article in their statement of faith that wives should “submit … graciously” to their husbands.

The statement, which notes that husbands and wives are of “equal worth before God,” also declares that the husband is to be the provider, protector and the leader of the family. “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” reads the addition to the Baptist Faith and Message.

Focus on the Family President James C. Dobson, a keynote speaker at the annual meeting that ended Thursday (June 11), congratulated the Baptists on their stand and warned them not to let the critics get to them.”They practically made you Neanderthals that are dragging women by the hair,”he said. And, indeed, a USA Today editorial cartoon published the day after Dobson spoke depicted them just that way.

But Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene, said Southern Baptists and others who agree with their article on the family are”simply taking the Scripture at face value.”If it says it, we believe it!” He got a standing ovation.

Southern Baptist leaders, for their part, also were unapologetic for their stance, which could be viewed as a stand not only for wives’ submission but against homosexuality, divorce and feminism. “There’s really no question that the Bible … does define the family as one man for one woman for life,” said Paige Patterson, the new president of the 15.9-million-member group. “That’s where the committee (that drafted the article) stood and obviously where the overwhelming majority of messengers stood.” Critics, however, were appalled by the family statement.

Among them were the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Alliance of Baptists, a moderate group, and the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based organization that counters the religious right.

“Simply put, it is biblically indefensible, morally questionable, theologically heretical and politically extreme,” said Gaddy, who also serves on the general council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, another moderate group. “There is no doubt in my mind that the new statement added to the Baptist Faith and Message doctrine is an attempt to give religious justification to a partisan political agenda.”

President Clinton, one of the nation’s most famous Southern Baptists, also does not agree with the new position on submission, his spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Noting Clinton’s views are often “not identical” to the denomination’s stands, McCurry said, “this is clearly one of those cases.” Leaders of the liberal United Church of Christ also took issue with the statement.

The Rev. Lois M. Powell, executive director of the UCC Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society, considers the statement to be a reaction to efforts over the last few decades to increase women’s rights. “The women’s movement has been inaccurately blamed for the breakdown of the family,” she said. “The transformation of society which would be occasioned by true equality between women and men is still too threatening for many people to envision.”

In addition to the family article and Patterson’s election, the presence of Dobson and another conservative Christian leader, Jerry Falwell, were clear demonstrations of the staying power of right-leaning members of the SBC.

Falwell, whose Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., has supported a conservative group of Southern Baptists in Virginia since 1996, is now eligible to attend the convention as a voting messenger. He did just that, along with other representatives of his church, said his spokesman, Mark DeMoss.”It’s the first time they exercised voting rights,” DeMoss said in a phone interview. “He said he did so primarily in support of his longtime friend, Paige Patterson.”

Patterson, stating his belief that the two-decades-old war between conservative and moderate Baptists is largely over, said he is turning his attention primarily to increasing the evangelistic efforts of Southern Baptists.

“The evangelism goal is going to preoccupy my attention and occupy my mind almost all together,”he said of his plans to convert 1 million people in the U.S. and abroad by the year 2000.”That’s my passion.” More than 2,000 Baptists passionately evangelized residents of mostly-Mormon Utah and neighboring Idaho through an effort dubbed “Crossover Salt Lake City” before, during and after their annual meeting.

On Thursday, Baptist officials were reporting that there had been more than 1,200 conversions to Christianity as a result of their campaign.

To the end, Mormon officials maintained a welcoming tone, and tended not to comment on Baptists’ belief that they are not Christians.”It’s been a pleasant experience,”said Don LeFevre, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Southern Baptists passed seven resolutions, including one calling on Congress to stop”public funding of religious bigotry,”that cited Tony winner Terrence McNally’s work-in-progress, “Corpus Christi,” in which the Jesus-like character reportedly is depicted as having off-stage sex with his disciples.

They also urged government leaders to maintain the”highest standards of morality”in a resolution denominational officials later acknowledged included Clinton, though not by name.

In other business, messengers:

_ adopted a motion urging Southern Baptist agency heads to form a task force to recommend solutions to the nation’s drug problems.

_ voted to cut back the annual meeting from its current three to two days, starting in 1999 when the convention will gather in Atlanta.

_ approved a name change of the Baptist Sunday School Board to LifeWay Christian Resources.

_ cheered on their boycott of Walt Disney Co. and asked the SBC executive committee to consider moving the annual meeting in 2000 away from Orlando, Fla., the location of Disney theme parks.