SBC hits a wall on the right

The resolution never hit the floor of the 2004 Southern Baptist Convention for debate.

An effort to insert some of its biting language into another resolution was easily defeated, with enough church messengers from across the nation raising their peach-colored voting cards on June 16 that a formal ballot was not required.

No doubt about it, Southern Baptists are upset about the state of American culture and, to get specific about it, the moral climate in public schools. But leaders of the nation's largest non-Catholic flock were not ready to start another media tsunami by saying the SBC "encourages all officers and members of the Southern Baptist Convention and the churches associated with it to remove their children from the government schools."

This failure to produce a major story in Indianapolis was a story in its own right.

"It seems like year after year, the Southern Baptist Convention has been passing one or more resolutions that kept getting more counter-cultural and polemical," said philosopher David Gushee, senior fellow of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. "That didn't happen this time. It seems like they found an outer boundary and couldn't go over it."

It's crucial that the debate centered on separation from public schools, institutions woven into every corner of American life, said Gushee, who helped draft a famous SBC resolution condemning attacks on abortionists and another calling for racial reconciliation in churches. Questioning the quality of public schools is one thing. Urging educators to show openness to the views of religious traditionalists is another. But sounding a last trumpet of retreat?

"That would be tantamount to saying, 'We are going to withdraw from all of American culture,'" he said. "You can't say that. Southern Baptists don't want to say that."

The original resolution came from Bruce Shortt of Spring, Texas, and retired Air Force Gen. T.C. Pinckney of Alexandria, Va., a former SBC second vice president. This was the second year in which guidelines prevented messengers from proposing resolutions on the floor, so reporters saw this controversial text in advance.

While praising Southern Baptist adults who "labor as missionaries" in public schools, Pinckney and Shortt argued that the "government school system that claims to be 'neutral' with regard to Christ is actually anti-Christian, so that children taught in the government schools are receiving an anti-Christian education. ... The government schools are by their own confession humanistic and secular in their instruction, the education offered by the government schools is officially Godless."

When his resolution failed to survive the resolutions committee -- which included five home-schooling parents, out of 10 members -- Pinckney tried to add an amendment to another resolution mourning the secularization of American life. This time, he urged Southern Baptist pastors, parents and churches to commit to providing children with a "thoroughly Christian education." The amendment defined this as "home schooling, truly Christian private schools or some other innovative model of private Christian education." It was defeated.

Resolutions Committee chair Calvin Wittman noted the approval of 11 resolutions on education issues in the past two decades, which offered ample evidence of concern about issues in public, private and home schooling. In a press statement he said: "Southern Baptists have spoken to this issue sufficiently, and it does not need to be readdressed."

Gushee said it is crucial to note the images and the issues that were written into the secularization resolution, as well as those omitted. The convention said "God expects His people to embrace and reflect His passion for societal justice, relief for the oppressed, and protection of the helpless." It urged Southern Baptists to "cry out in desperation to God and seek His face in repentance and forgiveness for our part in the cultural decline that is taking place on our watch."

"This is a call to engage the culture in love, not hate," said Gushee. "Yet that 'desperation' reference stands out. It's obvious by now that Southern Baptists are very upset about the junk that's out there in the culture and our schools. I mean, all you have to do is turn on your television. ...

"So it's like the convention is saying, 'Dear God, will you please intervene before we head off a cliff?'"