For two decades, Southern Baptists have been so busy fighting about the Bible that they've been some of the only church folks who weren't fighting about sex.
Those days are gone. A band of conservatives recently broke away from the moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas and formed a new body called the Southern Baptists of Texas. The rebels said the BGCT wasn't tough enough on abortion and homosexuality.
"We've got to get away from this thing of getting away from God's word," said the Rev. Miles Seaborn of Fort Worth, the group's president.
This convention, which currently includes 183 churches, immediately proclaimed that "all human life is sacred, specifically life in the womb" and pledged it would reject churches that condone homosexual acts or have "pastors or deacons that are practicing homosexuals."
This makes it sound like the old Texas convention, with its 5,700 churches, has openly backed abortion and gay rights. At its recent gathering, the BGCT backed laws requiring parental consent 48 hours before minors could have abortions. But it declined to vote on condemning abortion "in all cases except when the mother's life is in danger" and leaders ruled out of order a motion to deny funding to any Baptist medical institution proven to perform abortions. It also defeated a call to affirm the right of local churches to ordain gays and lesbians.
Texas is one of the last fronts in the 19-year civil war in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist right - which is weak in Texas, but runs the national body - remains united on social issues and committed to "biblical inerrancy," the belief that the Bible is without errors of any kind.
"They know who they are. They are the people who are opposed to what they see as theological liberalism and modernism," said philosopher Mike Beaty, who teaches at Baylor University in Waco, a hub for Texas moderates. "But the moderate camp includes all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs and these people have been united more by what they're against - fundamentalism - than by what they are for."
Facing a national conservative tide, moderates have rallied around the "four fragile freedoms" of Baptist life - "Bible freedom," the "soul freedom" of individuals to interpret the Bible, "church freedom" that focuses power at the local level and "religious freedom" that strictly separates church and state. The result is what Beaty called a "tradition-less tradition" that fears any effort to coerce individual believers and congregations.
Thus, the University Baptist Church in Austin protested last spring when the BGCT said its gay-rights stands clashed with "scriptural guidelines." The Rev. Larry Bethune asked: "What could make these Baptist principalities and powers act in such an un-Baptist way, throwing aside our deepest Baptist ideals of soul freedom, liberty of conscience and local church autonomy?"
And there's another issue that won't go away - Bill Clinton. Many Southern Baptists are furious about a Newsweek article arguing that the president's moral flexibility is linked to his Baptist heritage. A key conservative, the Rev. Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., even said Zippergate is an "indictment of the generation of moderate and liberal Baptist leaders who served as Bill Clinton's moral advisers, and are now his enablers in a lifestyle of gross immorality and irresponsibility."
The Texas Baptist newspaper called this "despicable demagoguery" and noted that conservatives haven't drawn similar conclusions from news accounts of scandals in their own camp. Editor Toby Druin noted that "the Bible I read says, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' " and this sin has touched both moderates and conservatives.
Then again, that depends on how one defines "sin" and "adultery."
Once upon a time, Southern Baptists lived in a Bible Belt that seemed isolated from most troubling trends. It was easier to stress the positive, such as evangelism and missions, when only liberal churches far away quarreled over nasty, negative issues such as abortion and sex.
"It seemed like we could all read the Bible for ourselves and then we pretty much agreed on what it said, at least on these kinds of issues," said Beaty. "It seemed like the culture was on our side and we were speaking the same language. It was easier back then."