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."
"It was quite a dramatic change," Karen said, lightly touching the pastor's cheek.
"But her parents kept an eye on me," he continued. "At first Karen and I started out as friends. Good friends. I spent a lot of time with her family. Dinners. Sitting around watching television. I was just so happy to be around a normal Christian family. They were a loving family. I don't think we ever really dated. I didn't have any money to take her on a date. We spent most of our time with her parents."
"The fact that we started out as good friends," said Karen, "is one of the reasons our marriage has been so strong. We had a lot of respect for each other as people before the romance began. Our commitment to each other really grew out of our friendship. We developed trust. When he went away to Dallas for two years to go to seminary, we saw each other only four times."
"But," said Pastor Crisp, "she wrote me every day. Every day. Our relationship was able to endure that kind of separation because we had a very strong foundation. And it was the same for our marriage. Before we married we both, as believing Christians, made a mutual decision that we were going to do what the Bible taught.
"What the secular world -- what so many people really did not understand about the amendment is that our views aren't based on earthly experience. They are based on the Bible and our love of God.
"The roles for man and wife described in the amendment aren't something new that the Southern Baptist Convention dreamt up all of a sudden. They're what the Bible has taught, and what Christians have lived, for almost two thousand years. Listening to the media and our critics, you'd get the idea that the amendment was big news, and that Karen, as a Christian wife, was some kind of doormat."
Karen, again, gave an exasperated little sigh. She smiled and squeezed the pastor's shoulder. He turned his head and gave her a big, goofy grin. After 20 years of marriage, they are still nuts about each other.
"In a way," Karen said, "the amendment was taken out of context. What it describes is only a very small part of an entire Christian way of life. Our way of life. Tony is judged by God for how he fulfills his role as the spiritual head of our household, and I'm glad that I don't have that responsibility of being judged in that way."
"And because of that responsibility," said Pastor Crisp, "I don't take my role lightly. I don't come to it in an authoritarian, I'm-always-right way. I'm talking about responsible leadership. It's leadership that I have to earn. For my children, for my wife, I have to be the same man at home that I am in the pulpit, otherwise I have no authority.
"In any organization, in any institution, there has to be leadership. The buck has to stop somewhere. In those cases where, in the context of our relationship, we have reached an impasse, I've been the tiebreaker. But this has happened only a few times during the course of our marriage, and it's been over very minor things, and on the few occasions where I've been the tie-breaker I've done so because we've both decided to let me decide. And for the larger issues, the truly important things, we work equally hard at building a consensus. We pray about those things, individually and as a couple. We seek God's guidance. We reach the decision together."
"We're equal before God," Karen added. "The influence of feminism in our culture has created this misunderstanding that Christianity is about inequality, about making men into tyrants."
"Being a tyrant," Pastor Crisp said, "being abusive, wife-beating, are very un-Christian things, un-Biblical things. I am to love my wife as Christ loves the Church. It's part of an entire way of life. We love God, and we love each other, and the principles we live by work -- that's why I could come out of the horrible background I was from and marry someone as wonderful as Karen."