San Diego Viewers tuned to the June 12 broadcast of CNN's Larry King Live were treated to an exercise in confusion. King's guests were at such opaque odds, spoke at such broad cross-purposes, that the program seemed subconsciously geared to self-destruct, or, failing that, at least demolish the "free market of ideas" as a reasonable expectation for a democratic society at the end of the 20th Century.
On hand that evening were the Reverend Jerry Falwell, NOW president Patricia Ireland, Vanity Fair contributing editor and former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren, Crystal Cathedral reverend Robert Schuller, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Reverend Albert Mohler. Their ostensible topic was an amendment made on June 9 by the Southern Baptist Convention to the Baptist Faith and Message, the closest thing Southern Baptists have to a creed. The amendment, known as Article XVIII, in part stated, "A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."
With great speed the discussion turned peculiar: Greta Van Susteren worried if it wasn't "rude" for people to criticize Southern Baptists for their amendment; Dee Dee Myers perceived in recent events "a sort of coming together of, sort of, Christian theology and politics"; Reverend Mohler announced that the Bible was "God's perfect treasure of truths"; Patricia Ireland repeatedly fretted over the Promise Keepers and intimated that the amendment might incite wife-beating; Reverend Falwell stated that in addition to a husband, Patricia Ireland also had a lesbian lover; Ireland said she didn't discuss her sexuality; King dogged a long digression about slavery; Reverend Schuller informed his audience that there were more than 300 Christian denominations in America and among them Biblical interpretation tended to vary.
The banalities King and guests traded, their frantic irrelevance, obscured the larger issues behind Article XVIII to the Baptist Faith and Message. In fact, Article XVIII, directed at defining "the family" and conduct within it, contained nothing that conservative Baptists and many evangelicals haven't traditionally taught or believed. Which was precisely its point. One of the issues neither Larry King nor his guests showed any interest in addressing was that the ratification of Article XVIII by the SBC signaled the absolute triumph of conservatives within the denomination. Their struggle for control began in 1979. Their success has been characterized by religious historians as the "most significant event in American religions in the 20th Century."
The conservative ascendancy has resulted in the firing of dozens of liberal and moderate faculty at Southern Baptist seminaries, the voluntary withdrawal of at least six seminaries from the SBC, and the departure of 1500 liberal and moderate churches who are considering forming their own denomination. The SBC's change is felt in small, odd ways, too. When calling around before writing this story, I contacted the local Southern Baptist Association office, which had been helpful in the past with suggestions and information about local Southern Baptists. When I asked for names of local churches that might be considered moderate or liberal, I was told "No." When I pressed further -- how could the Southern Baptist Association office not know of any liberal or moderate congregations? -- I was coolly informed that there weren't any.
The reticence was unusual. During the conservative takeover, Southern Baptists have tried more than ever to make their message heard. They declare themselves patriotic, Bible-believing citizens who want nothing more than a prosperous, happy, and moral America. But try as they might, the message is met with studied resistance. The message, as Larry King Live illustrated, is often misunderstood. The America that conservative Southern Baptists speak from is not always the America that listens.
Pastor Tony Crisp of First Southern Baptist Church on Park Boulevard comes from that conservative Southern Baptist America that's trying hard to make itself understood. He, 42, and his wife Karen, 38, were born and raised in Riceville, Tennessee, a small rural town near the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. On the hot late afternoon I met them in Pastor Crisp's cool, orderly office, Karen had endured a hectic day. The air-conditioning had gone out in their El Cajon home. She'd had to scramble to make our appointment. But sitting next to her husband on a small leather couch, a pale arm draped discreetly behind his shoulders, she was poised, calm, lovely. When I asked her what she made of the feminist charge that Article XVIII might encourage husbands to beat their wives, Karen made a helpless gesture and rolled her eyes in dismay.
"I just don't know," she sighed, "where they came up with that.
"Everything in the amendment was what the Southern Baptist Church has taught as far back as I can remember. It's what the Southern Baptist Church has always taught. It's the way I was raised. The principles are ones that were practiced in my family. My father was a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church. My mother was church organist. Our lives revolved around church."
"But mine didn't," said Pastor Crisp. "I came from what you might call the 'wrong side of the holler.' Karen was a member of the National Honor Society. Her family owned the general store, were middle-class. I came from who you call nowadays a dysfunctional family. Divorce. Abandonment. We were very, very poor. We had nothing. Karen's family helped us out. We lived from season to season."
"He was raised by his grandmother, who was a godly woman," said Karen. "But he grew up without supervision. We met when I was 14 years old. He was 18. I think he kind of had a crush on my best friend. I think I had a crush on him the first time I met him. He was this older fellow. He had a car. He'd drive me and my friend to our church's youth group."
"I really came to the Lord through Karen. God used her as an instrument in my life," Pastor Crisp said. "I grew up, as she said, without much supervision, and my conversion did not go unremarked upon in our little town."