A Chilling Precedent

Let's make one thing perfectly clear. Jerry Falwell is not a Southern Baptist. He is an unaffiliated, independent Baptist from the South. That distinction is often lost in national perceptions of the denomination known as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

This month the Southern Baptist Convention will be meeting in Dallas, Texas. And if its last few conventions are any indication, at Dallas the distinction between the SBC as a denomination and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority may be further obscured within the SBC itself.

With 14 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. As the name indicates, the vast majority of its members are in the South. In fact, the SBC is a sort of de facto established church in much of the South. That means it generally reflects the "broad center" mainstream of white Southern opinion.

As that Southern mainstream has moved away from the plantation system and Jim Crow segregation, and toward economic and cultural accommodation with the rest of the country, the SBC has moved with it. The SBC would never join the National Council of Churches, but within its regional context, it has been very much a mainline church.

Part of the role of a mainline church is to serve as an umbrella organization sheltering, and containing, dissident tendencies on the Left and Right. Like the Democratic Party, the SBC has served that function in the South. The denomination always had its fervent, ultra-conservative fundamentalists and its less numerous, but equally fervent, social activists. But the center always held, strengthened as it was by the traditional Baptist commitment to congregational autonomy and individual freedom in interpreting scripture.

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