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Fundamentalists lead Baptist convention

With a tumultuous welcome for President Bush on Thursday, Southern Baptists closed out one of their most peaceful conventions in a decade. It was peaceful mostly because one faction in the long interdenominational war among the Baptists didn't show up. After 12 years of uninterrupted defeats at the hands of fundamentalists, moderate Baptists called it quits last month and declared they would no longer run candidates for the Southern Baptist Convention presidency. Instead, they formed their own organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and many stayed away from the convention.

With the fundamentalists firmly in control, the Rev. Morris Chapman, a minister from Wichita Falls, Texas, was re-elected convention president with no opposition.

In an address Tuesday, Chapman told the delegates, or "messengers" as they are called, that the long theological debate within the 15-million member denomination "has been settled."

"Evangelical Christians all over this nation are applauding our stand upon the Bible," he said.

The fundamentalists' stand is clear: that the Bible is without error and is historically correct in every detail. Some moderates believe portions of the Bible are open to interpretation.

These are ancient divisions among the intensely evangelical Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. What turned these differences into a war was the effort by fundamentalists beginning in the late 1970s to rid Southern Baptist organizations of those who did not share their views.

During the convention, Chapman referred to this effort as a "course correction for the Southern Baptist Convention. . . . We believe it to be a return to the faith of our forefathers."

Moderates refer to it as a "fundamentalist takeover."

Whatever it is called, it is now complete, as this convention showed. Resolutions that would have been closely contested in the past meetings passed easily this week. One was a vote to eliminate financing for the 55-year-old Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a Washington-based lobbying organization that represents 10 Baptist bodies. Southern Baptists were among its founders, but fundamentalists have complained the group isn't committed enough to conservative views.

"The Baptist Joint Committee does not represent Southern Baptists," said the Rev. Fred Minix, a minister from Virginia. "In my opinion, they (the Joint Committee) better represent Norman Lear's organization, People for the American Way."

But for all the emotion and close votes of past conventions, there was little gloating by conservatives at this one.

When Chapman was asked by reporters what message he would send to the moderates who were boycotting the SBC, he demurred. "I'm not inclined to send a message to moderates," he said.

The Rev. Larry Thompson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, agreed that fundamentalists were not publicly celebrating their victory. "I don't think (gloating) is biblical," he said.

It also probably isn't good tactics. While moderates are no longer contesting for the SBC presidency, they are fighting for the hearts _ and financial support _ of individual Southern Baptist churches.

The moderate-controlled Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has its own financial arm, which will channel contributions to Southern Baptist programs and seminaries that moderate support. The fellowship will be asking churches this fall to switch their contributions from the SBC-controlled financial program to the fellowship's.

When churches are asked to choose, said Nancy T. Ammerman, "some of these church decisions will be traumatic." Ammerman is a professor at Emory University's school of theology and one of the leaders of the Baptist moderates.

Moderates are steadfast is declaring that their new organization does not represent a new denomination. Rather, some call it "a church within the church" and not a break with the 146-year-old Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalists aren't so sure. "I would agree with the assessment of many," said Chapman, "that when you go to the extent of legally creating a new (religious) organization, you have laid the foundation for a full-fledged denomination."

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