This week, some 12,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention -- the ground troops of conservative fundamentalism in America -- gathered in Greensboro, N.C. to pick a new leader, debate theology, and set their direction for the coming years.
The event offered a revealing look into the heart of right-wing religious politics, and there were some interesting surprises.
First was the unpredicted victory of soft-spoken pastor Frank Page in his bid for President of the SBC. In the first highly contested race since 1994, Page cleared 50% of the vote to beat out better-known leaders of the conservative fundamentalist movement, Ronnie Floyd of Little Rock, Arkansas and Jerry Sutton of Nashville, TN.
Rev. Page won on a platform encouraging local churches to put more money into the Cooperative Program, which funds national and global missions. Because he beat out nationally-known conservative leaders, some speculated the vote was for political moderation, although Page insisted that "I'm not trying to undo a conservative movement that I have supported all of these years." But he also said he seeks to "broaden the base" of Baptists.
Bloggers take note -- he also gave credit to the blogosphere for his victory:
A New York Times reporter asked Page about the role bloggers played in his election. Page said he was not certain of their influence but suspected it was "perhaps an inordinate amount of influence given the number" of weblogs devoted to SBC life. He predicted it would be a growing force or phenomenon in SBC life.
While "a small amount of people" write on the blogs, Page pointed out that "leaders in the SBC do read those blogs to try to get a barometer of what certain subgroups are thinking or saying."
Some other highlights from the week's festivities:
*** While many in the U.S. think the Southern Baptists are a growing force, in reality the Convention was marked by fear that Baptists are a shadow of their previous influence. Rev. Page noted that his own Church peaked in 1993, and in his bid for office noted that "between 75 and 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches are in decline." The figure is somewhat misleading -- given the growth of mega-churches, the issue may be consolidation and monopoly -- but the fears of decline are real.
*** Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received several standing ovations for her speech to the convention affirming the wisdom of the Iraq war and U.S. foreign policy. As the AP reports:
Rice's speech was partly an attempt to appeal to Bush's political base after a series of disappointments for conservatives, including the administration's handling of the Dubai ports deal earlier this year. [...]
She referred often to God and prayer, and cast U.S. work overseas, from Iraq to Sudan to the attempts to stem the trafficking of human beings for forced labor or sex, in religious terms.
Those in the room may have been on board, but not all their fellow church-goers are. As the AP also notes,
Only 68 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of white evangelicals and 51 percent of self-described conservatives - key groups in Bush's base of support - approved of his handling of Iraq.
*** In another possible sign of moderation, the Convention refused to bring forward a resolution proposing an "exit strategy" from public schools, and to encourage Southern Baptists to take up home-schooling and private education. The SBC resolutions committee instead put forward a resolution encouraging members to "engage the culture of our public school systems" by exerting "godly influence."
The Convention also discussed where to hold their next gathering. A leading contender: New Orleans, which one minister says is "ripe for the gospel." This fits with the vision of Franklin Graham, Billy's son, who said this after the storm:
"God is going to use that storm to bring a revival. God has a plan. God has a purpose... I would certainly pray that the gay and lesbian movement, the people that have this lifestyle, will come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior and experience their sins being forgiven."
Franklin was on hand as the Convention unveiled a 7-foot statue of Billy in closing ceremonies today.