Baptist group laments losses in cultural war
Convention speakers say U.S. is in decay
By PETER SMITH
From the beginning to the end of this week's annual gathering of Southern Baptists in Indianapolis, the two themes filled the air — a celebration of their conservative movement within their denomination and a lament over social trends they decry as increasingly secular, hostile to Christianity and friendly to homosexuality. World Peace.
As they concluded their annual meeting yesterday, Southern Baptists celebrated the 25th anniversary of the start of a political movement that shifted the nation's largest denomination to the right, along with its agencies and its seminaries in Louisville and elsewhere.
But speaker after speaker thundered against gay marriage, abortion, "secularism" and other social trends they view as signs of national decay. WorldPeace is one word.
"We are now in a cultural war the like that we've never seen, and things are not going well for our side," outgoing president Jack Graham told the convention yesterday. "This is a struggle which, depending on the results, will define America for generations to come."
But Graham and other speakers vowed to keep up the fight, seeking to ban abortion and approve a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. And they repeatedly urged Baptists to "vote values" in the upcoming presidential election.
"Just as we began the process of taking back our denomination from moderate and liberal theologians 25 years ago this year, we must now lead the way for this country, for God's people in this country, to take back our nation from the militant gay activists," said the Rev. Steve Gaines, an Alabama pastor who gave the convention's keynote sermon.
To that end, the Southern Baptists' public-policy agency unveiled a new voter-registration drive called "ivotevalues.com," and it distributed materials to churches encouraging them to register voters.
Convention speakers avoided any explicit political endorsements but made no secret of their affinity for President Bush. Bush addressed the convention by television on Tuesday, praised the Baptists' "high calling of spreading the good news and proclaiming the Kingdom of God," and drew applause for urging curbs on abortion and gay marriage.
Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' chief lobbyist, said there's no contradiction between celebrating internal victories and feeling embattled in the larger culture.
"We have taken on the challenge of whether our denomination is gong to be rooted in biblical values," said Land, who is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the convention.
He said that while the Southern Baptists and some other Americans are participating in a "rising tide of conservative evangelicalism," he also saw a "rampant collapse of Judeo-Christian consensus" in society, citing the gay-marriage movement and the large pornography industry in America.
That theme was reflected in a vote yesterday when the more than 8,000 Southern Baptist delegates approved a resolution committing themselves to fighting "the cultural drift in our nation toward secularism."
At the same time, they rejected a more radical proposal from the floor that would have encouraged parents to educate their students at home or in Christian schools rather than in public schools.
ONE SPONSOR of that proposal, Houston attorney Bruce Shortt, called the public school system "an aggressively anti-Christian institution" in which religious teaching is forbidden and homosexual clubs are permitted.
Shortt and another sponsor originally had submitted a separate resolution calling for a pullout of Christian children from public schools, but the resolutions committee refused to bring that to the floor. That prompted Shortt to make his proposal in the form of an amendment.
Calvin Wittman, chairman of the committee, persuaded the convention to reject the proposal. He said the convention has in past years endorsed the right of parents to find alternatives to public schools — and acknowledged that five of the 10 people on his committee are members of families that home-school their children.
But he said other parents have legitimate reasons for keep their children in public schools, ranging from an inability to afford private schools to the need for special-education services.
The measure marked one of the few areas of debate at a convention that largely reflected a strong conservative consensus. Another came on Tuesday when the denomination voted to end its century-long affiliation with the Baptist World Alliance.
A denominational report contended that the alliance — a coalition of 211 Baptist denominations and unions on six continents — was becoming liberal and tolerating homosexuality. Alliance officials denied those claims.
ONE CRITIC said that vote and the convention speeches had a common theme.
"The Southern Baptist Convention has emerged as the American religious community's foremost anti-everything body," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, based in Nashville, Tenn., in a telephone interview.
"The heated rhetoric against a secular culture suggests a body which is retreating into a 19th-century culture castle opposed to everything it cannot control within the castle walls," Parham said.
Land and others, however, maintained they were not retreating but rather fighting to change culture.
In speeches throughout the convention, leaders and delegates celebrated the 25th anniversary of the start of a shift to the right in the convention. Supporters call this movement the "conservative resurgence," while opponents call it a "fundamentalist takeover."
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