Call it the great mouse schism. Last week 16,000 delegates of America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, kept very busy in Orlando, Fla. They elected the 16 million-member Convention's first baby-boomer president, James Merritt, 47. They announced a couple of headline-grabbing conservative policies: support for the death penalty and an explicit ban on women pastors. But for all its productivity, the meeting was awfully quiet. This was because most of the usually rancorous, relatively liberal opposition sat it out. The rebels, who call themselves the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, will also meet in Orlando. They will be lodged at Disney World, enemy territory for the main body of Baptists, who have been boycotting the park for three years because of its "Gay Days." The rebel baptists are getting a group discount.
The Cooperative Baptists swear that the decision to hold their counter-meeting at Disney World was inadvertent, not a symbolic insult. Few believe them. "It was a Mickey Mouse move," cracks Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC's premier teaching institution. "It was like children rebelling against their parents." In fact, the gesture is a reaction to the right-wing takeover of the Southern Baptist movement.
In the 1960s the Convention's leadership, although conservative by most standards, allowed a loosening of its strict biblical interpretation. It aligned itself--loosely--with moderate Southern Democrats. Then, in a now famous meeting at New Orleans' Cafe du Monde, two scandalized conservatives, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, hatched an insurgency. Packing the annual convention of 1979, they elected a conservative president and unearthed bylaws that amplified his power. "Baptist battles" consumed each convention until 1990, when the right wing prevailed decisively. The SBC then allied itself with the Republican Party, insisted on word-for-word biblical inerrancy and produced a drumbeat of provocative pronouncements on topics like wifely submission and the need to convert Jews. All that remained was for the losers to leave the field.
This month's events, however, may not qualify as a true secession. Many Cooperative congregations cling to their SBC affiliation, if only in name. The 1,800 Cooperative-affiliated churches are a drop in the SBC's 41,000-congregation bucket. Nonetheless, they have set up separate missions, seminaries and publishing houses. Cooperative executive director Daniel Vestal predicts an eventual "exodus" from the Convention.
The mood in the nation's most Baptist state supports that threat. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is a 6,000-congregation powerhouse. No liberal refuge, it supported the outlawing of abortion and expelled a congregation that ordained a gay deacon. Nevertheless, it thinks nothing of ignoring SBC edicts. When the SBC demanded wifely subservience, the Texans simply took their own vote and let the women stand tall. And the Texans' patience seems to be wearing thin. Speaking of his organization's $40 million contribution to the national convention last year (roughly a quarter of the SBC budget), David Currie, leader of the Texas group's moderate majority, growled, "That will change."