Evangelical evolution

San Francisco Chronicle/June 19, 2006
By E. J. Dionne Jr.

When the Southern Baptist Convention elected the Rev. Frank Page as the group's new president at their meeting last 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 that 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 Page as going 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 two decades.

"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 size 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 likely 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, the fight against AIDS and the battle against human trafficking. Among the most prominent advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and the 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, of Focus on the Family.

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 SBC 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 Divinity School, largely shares 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 the blogosphere.

Over the last 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 new departure.

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