Relaymedia

New Southern Baptist Leader maybe Kinder, but No Less Conservative

( [email protected] ) Jun 17, 2006 10:10 AM EDT

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Frank Page is an outsider among the conservative leadership that has held tight control over the Southern Baptist Convention for more than a decade.

But the pastor from South Carolina cautions that his surprise election this week to the presidency of America's largest Protestant denomination does not represents a move toward the political middle for a group known for fervent opposition to abortion and gay sex, and its belief that the Bible is the unerring Word of God.

After winning election Tuesday over two better-known members of the SBC leadership, Page was quick to proclaim his credentials as a conservative. But he also was blunt about his determination to perform cosmetic surgery on the face that the denomination presents to the rest of the nation.

Asked how he would determine who would have a voice in Southern Baptist leadership under his presidency, Page cited "a sweet spirit" as the first requirement.

"I believe in the Word of God," he said. "I'm just not mad about it."

SBC leaders have often come off as filled with righteous fury in

recent years, a carry-over from the long, vicious battle for control of the denomination that conservatives and moderates waged in the 1970s and 1980s. The struggle ended when moderates dropped out of SBC politics in the early 1990s, but a confrontational tone had been set for the generation of conservative SBC leaders.

In 1995, the Southern Baptists adopted a resolution calling for a boycott The Walt Disney Co. - an icon of American wholesomeness - after the company's decided to offer benefits to partners of gay employees. The boycott lasted for eight years.

SBC declarations banned women pastors and declared that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands. Wednesday, a day after Page's election, the SBC's annual meeting adopted a resolution urging that anyone who drinks alcohol be barred from leadership positions.

Many within the SBC see the 53-year-old Page's victory as the start of a new era.

Wade Burleson, a 44-year-old pastor from Enid, Okla., was one of Page's most outspoken supporters. A conservative stalwart like Page, he was nonetheless dismayed at the way SBC leaders handled dissent within the powerful International Missions Board after he joined the panel.

Burleson was publicly reprimanded by board members for writing about the board's internal debates on his Internet blog and threatened with removal, which stoked his desire for change.

Burleson and other dissenting bloggers were given part of the credit for carrying the little-known Page to victory over Ronnie Floyd, pastor of a northwest Arkansas megachurch, and Jerry Sutton, a prominent conservative who leads one of Nashville, Tenn.'s most politically active congregations.

"They had their concerns, and their concerns were the battle for the Bible," Burleson said. "And you know what? I affirm my respect for them over that. But sometimes you win and you've got to move on. ... I think today we've moved on."

He said Page's election sends an important message about Southern Baptists to the rest of America.

"What they (other Americans) can say is that Southern Baptists are concerned about the good news getting out to people in need," Burleson said. "They can say of Southern Baptists, 'Man, those folks love people.' That's what I hope they hear, loud and clear."

Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and a frequent critic of SBC leadership, is less sure the Southern Baptists have reached a turning point. He noted that Sutton and Floyd likely split the traditional conservative vote, allowing Page to eke out his win.

"Whether it becomes a 'kinder, gentler' denomination, publicly, depends on how much the traditional leadership - especially certain seminary presidents - respond," Leonard said in an e-mail interview.

"Page's narrow election may give false hope to many," said Robert Parham of Nashville's Baptist Center for Ethics, which also opposes the SBC leadership. "Even if Page wants to pursue a reformation, he can't overturn decades of fundamentalist control and organizations stocked with fundamentalist employees."

Page says his election should not be viewed as a harbinger of a moderating of Southern Baptist philosophy. But he did say he hopes for a "broadening" of voices heard within the denomination and embraced the notion of a "kinder, gentler" SBC.

"For too long Baptists have been known for what we're against," he said. "It's time to say, 'Please, let us tell what we're for: That there is a life transforming, relevant-to-today's-people message that we have to share.'"