PHOENIX - The Southern Baptist Convention headed into its annual meeting behind a strong pro-family message, arguing Christian faith can solve societal ills like divorce, domestic violence and alcoholism.
The nation's largest Protestant denomination dedicated its two-day meeting, which was set to begin Tuesday, to preserving marriage and strengthening families. A rally celebrating families was held Monday night.
"God designed the family to be the birthplace and the nursery of Christianity," said Dennis Rainey, of the FamilyLife ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. "We must return to God's truth on marriage and family. We need a family reformation."
The annual gatherings of the 16 million-member convention have become less contentious since conservatives consolidated their hold on the denomination several years ago.
Many Baptists who call themselves moderates have loosened or cut their ties with Southern Baptist leaders and now skip the meeting, but the debate between the two sides continues in smaller arenas.
At last year's convention, the Rev. Jerry Vines angered Muslims when he gave a speech proclaiming Christianity superior to Islam and calling the Prophet Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."
On Monday, Vines mentioned the controversy briefly in an address to pastors, calling Christianity the only true faith, but generally stuck to the meeting's theme, decrying what he called the corrosive effect of popular culture on the family.
"We've gone all the way from `Leave It To Beaver' to `The Osbournes,'" said Vines, a former Southern Baptist president who is now a Jacksonville, Fla., pastor. "We are a culture of perversions."
The Rev. Ergun Caner, a former Muslim who is now a Southern Baptist, spoke briefly about his conversion, saying evangelical Christians had the right and obligation to share their faith no matter who they offended.
At this year's meeting, the denomination is expected to consider cutting $125,000 of its annual $425,000 payment to the Baptist World Alliance over differences with moderates.
The alliance, which says it represents more than 200 Baptist organizations, is considering a request for membership from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which was formed by moderates in response to the Southern Baptists' conservative shift.
President Bush (news - web sites), who last year addressed the convention via satellite, will send a video message this year instead, said the Rev. William Merrill, a convention spokesman.
The Rev. Jack Graham, president of the convention and pastor of the 21,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, was expected to be re-elected Tuesday for a second one-year term. The meeting was scheduled to end Wednesday night, with attendees approving resolutions that express the denomination's view on issues but that are not binding on churches.
Last year, the resolutions included a statement of support for Israel and a response to the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis. The Southern Baptists urged their members to prevent molestation in their own churches.
A report is scheduled from the International Mission Board, the Southern Baptists' overseas missionary agency, which has eliminated jobs and some programs after a $125 million fund-raising drive fell $10 million short. The board's investment income is also down.
Expectations for attendance were lower this year, since Phoenix is not a Southern Baptist stronghold and is far from many states that are. Less than 10,000 delegates attended last year, down from a record of more than 45,000 in 1985.
By Albert H. Lee