NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In January, “reform” was the rally cry of the Democrat-controlled Congress that took office in 2007, but reform also was the prescription offered in sports with the late December release of the Mitchell Report detailing the wide extent of steroid and human growth hormone use in Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, the lack of reform about liberal homosexual policies within the Episcopal Church caused the first entire diocese to break with the denomination. In Southern Baptist life, reform involved debate about the extent and impact of Calvinism in the convention.
However, both political and religious news of 2007 most likely will be remembered for what it meant to events yet to come in 2008, and for the apparent strengthening ties between religion and politics at a time when public attacks against faith in the public square are on the rise. Southern Baptists, meanwhile, experienced tensions about theology and methodology, but also saw positive signs that cooperation in missions and ministries continues to be a tie that binds.
PROMISED POLITICAL REFORM
The year began in dramatic fashion, with the newly elected Democrat-controlled Congress passing in quick succession six pieces of legislation as part of a “100-hour” agenda to effect immediate change, but the reform-minded legislation met with mixed results in the end.
Three of the initiatives were signed into law: Raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 in three increments through 2009; halving interest rates on federally backed student loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over the next four years; and expanding scrutiny of air and sea cargo. However, the remaining three initiatives did not succeed outside of the House of Representatives: The Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act died in the Senate; tax increases proposed for drilling oil in the Gulf of Mexico were dropped from the energy bill sent to the White House; and President Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded funding for the type of stem cell research that kills human embryos.
Bad news about the continuing war in Iraq was cited as a key issue contributing to the Democrats’ return to power; however, Democrats’ calls for immediate withdrawal were turned back with positive news about the “surge strategy” directed by Gen. David Petraeus. Even the president’s most vocal critic on Iraq, Congressman John Murtha, D.-Pa., conceded “the surge is working” after a visit to Iraq. After an uproar from Democrat colleagues, he clarified to say the surge success was only one element to consider and the U.S. still was failing diplomatically in Iraq.
Briefing Congress, Petraeus cautioned “we still have a way to go,” but his testimony gave hope for eventual political and civil order in Iraq.
SPORTS SCANDALS PROMPTED CALLS FOR REFORM
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell issued a 20-month report into steroid use in professional baseball that blamed both players and management for the problem. Mitchell, appointed by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, identified 89 Major League Baseball players as users of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, including players who are professing Christians — most notably Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts and Paul Byrd, among others.
But the spotlight for many focused on Barry Bonds (who passed Hank Aaron as homerun king) — long suspected of “juicing” and now under indictment for lying to a federal grand jury about steroids, and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens — who adamantly denies any use of banned substances at any time.
For the record, Pettitte said he tried HGH for two days in an attempt to recover from an injury more quickly; Roberts admitted using steroids one time in 2003; and Byrd defended his use of HGH, saying he did so with a legitimate prescription from his doctor because he had a deficiency of adult-growth hormone.
Mitchell called on MLB to reform its drug testing program to make it independent of the league and players’ association and to randomize testing so players cannot time their steroid use to avoid detection.
MLB was not the only sport to face scrutiny:
— The National Football League saw Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick indicted for illegal dogfighting, and the league suspended high-profile Tennessee Titans player Adam “Pacman” Jones for the season for violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy (including alleged involvement in a triple-shooting at a Las Vegas strip club in which one man was paralyzed). Commissioner Roger Goodell enforced the policy to “protect the integrity of the NFL” and announced a new broader policy that will allow greater fines and longer suspensions for players and potential penalties against teams.
— The National Basketball Association was rocked when 13-year referee Tim Donaghy acknowledged using inside information to bet on NBA games and to passing predictions to a professional gambler for up to $5,000 per game. NBA Commissioner David Stern promised a thorough review of the league’s officiating program to “protect the integrity of our game.”
Not all the news in athletics was bad. Three sports figures reached the pinnacle of success in their respective spheres while setting a different example:
— Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI. “I’m very proud to be the first African American head coach in the Super Bowl along with my friend Lovie Smith,” Dungy said at an Athletes in Action pre-game event. “But more than that, the fact you have two Christian coaches who show you can do things a different way…. I’m more proud of that than anything else.”
— Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy after running for 22 touchdowns and throwing for 29, becoming the first National Collegiate Athletic Association player to rush and pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. The first sophomore to win the award, Tebow nonetheless had his priorities straight. “I am fortunate to have family members, coaches and teammates around who can help me stay focused on the right things for us to be successful,” he told the Florida Baptist Witness earlier in the season. “For me, every day includes four things: God, family, academics and football, in that order.”
— Jerry Moore coached the Appalachian State Mountaineers to a 34-32 upset of then-number 5 Michigan in the Wolverine’s home opener, and then to a third straight Football Championship Subdivision (formerly 1-AA) national title. “When I get up in the morning, I’ll pour myself a cup of coffee and I won’t read a newspaper,” Moore told BP earlier this year. “I won’t watch the news. I won’t read a flyer that may be laying there. I won’t read anything until I’ve read my five psalms and one proverb. I haven’t been a hundred percent, but I’ve started nearly every day that way since 1989.”
Coincidentally, all three are members of Southern Baptist churches.
LACK OF REFORM LED TO DIOCESE’S CHANGE
The Episcopal Church continued to be rocked by defections because reform of liberal policies concerning homosexuality failed to materialize. In December, the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin became the first entire diocese to defect from the Episcopal Church, although 360 churches around the U.S. already had departed the denomination to affiliate with the Anglican Communion (the Episcopal Church is part of this larger body) under the protection of conservative bishops in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Uganda and Kenya. The Diocese of San Joaquin voted to align with the Province of the Southern Cone (in South America).
The 2003 election and consecration of an openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, to the Diocese of New Hampshire catalyzed the spate of separations that have happened the last four years. However, the 2006 election of a liberal woman, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, as presiding bishop of the national body added energy to this year’s defection of conservative churches because she favors normalizing homosexuality within the church.
Three other dioceses have taken initial steps toward splitting from the U.S. church. They are Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and Pittsburgh, Pa.
The Episcopal defections followed similar unrest in 2006 among congregations in the American Baptist Churches denomination, which saw one of its regions (300 churches of the Pacific Southwest) separate because the national body failed to discipline churches and regional bodies over acceptance of unrepentant homosexuals as members and leaders.
REFORMED THEOLOGY DEBATED IN SBC
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries, an affinity group formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology in the SBC, co-sponsored the conference “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Speakers shared sharply differing views about the influence of Calvinism in Southern Baptist churches while answering such questions as “Does God choose who will believe?” and “For whom did Christ die?”
At the core of the debate are competing contentions about what the doctrine of election means to salvation. In general: Can every man accept or reject Christ’s gift? Or, is grace a gift for a few created specifically to receive it?
An informal survey at the end of the three-day event showed no one’s mind was changed.
Some news from the conference could lead to heightening tensions between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC. During the meeting, LifeWay Research released information showing a dramatic increase in Calvinism among 1998-2004 graduates of SBC seminaries. Nearly 30 percent in a survey claimed to be five-point Calvinists, with 34 percent of the most recent year’s graduates holding such beliefs. The data contrasted sharply with results LifeWay released from an earlier survey that found among all SBC pastors relatively few pastors (about 10 percent) embrace five-point Calvinism. Neither survey collected information about the number of seminary professors who are five-point Calvinists.
No cause was offered for such a shift among graduates and no effect mentioned about the influence of Calvinistic beliefs on the local or cooperative missions and ministries of Southern Baptist churches.
OTHER NEWS AND NOTES
‘RADICAL ATHEISM’ SURGED
Open attacks against God seemed greater than ever.
British-American author Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” was accompanied by Victor J. Stenger’s “God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does not Exist,” and both follow a slate of 2006 releases such as evolutionary biologist and Oxford professor Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”
Such attacks are not new and these books generally are viewed as “preaching to the choir” and not seen as generating converts to atheism.
However, the recently released movie “The Golden Compass,” based on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, targets youth with an “anti-Narnia” theme and exposes them to his stated effort to “undermine the basis of Christian belief.” Pullman has said unashamedly, “My books are about killing God.”
British audiences have crowded theaters, but U.S. box office results have been disappointing, opening with $25.7 million in ticket sales the first weekend — short of the hoped-for $30-$40 million — dropping to $8.8 million the next weekend and precipitously falling since. The film cost $180 million to make.
By comparison, Disney’s first “Chronicles of Narnia” film also cost $180 million to make but brought in $65.5 million its first weekend and $31.8 million its second weekend. Domestically, it grossed $291.7 million.
‘FAITH’ CENTER STAGE IN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
While atheism was on the rise in the media, in presidential politics candidates were only too eager to talk about their respective faith traditions in order to capture a share of values voters who many predict are up for grabs, partly because of the deaths of prominent evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy.
Democrats have adapted faith language to communicate their social welfare message, but it remains to be seen if repackaging the same ideas will sway conservatives. Researcher Arthur C. Brooks found that evangelicals are more likely to contribute personally to charities, and that government redistribution of money in the name of social justice tends to appeal mainly to liberals.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has always been transparent about his Mormon faith, but he did reform his position on life issues, saying he made a mistake supporting legalized abortion as late as two years ago.
The surprise among Republicans has been the emergence of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a former SBC pastor, to rival perceived frontrunner Romney and better known former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson.
Despite his lack of foreign policy experience and questions about his record on tax policy, Huckabee’s consistency in his support for traditional marriage and pro-life issues seems to have resonated with values voters.
‘NEW’ BAPTIST VOICE PROPOSED
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (who described himself as only a “cheerleader” for the event) announced a confab of liberals and moderates, called the New Baptist Covenant, to push an alternative to what Mercer University President Bill Underwood described as “the Baptists who have the microphone.”
The planned meeting has been criticized for apparent political and anti-SBC leanings of organizers and speakers. In addition to Carter (who twice renounced his SBC membership), former Vice President Al Gore (who also renounced his ties to the SBC) is scheduled to speak. Other speakers include Baptist pastor Julie Pennington-Russell, a critic of the SBC’s belief that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” and Tony Campolo, who described the same statement of belief as “evidence of demonic influence.”
Organizers point to the participation of Sens. Lindsey Graham (a Southern Baptist from S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (of Iowa and a member of a Baptist General Conference congregation) as evidence of reaching out across political and theological lines.
Mike Huckabee initially agreed to attend but withdrew shortly afterward citing the involvement of the “very, very liberal” Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. He also criticized harsh comments Carter made against President Bush as adding to his concern that his appearance would be “giving approval to what could be a political, rather than spiritual agenda.”
SBC President Frank Page rebuked organizers’ criticism of the SBC, admonishing New Baptist Covenant organizers to focus more on evangelism and “less on a tug of war to see who can get most microphone time.”
The gathering is scheduled for Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Atlanta. Only after the meeting will observers know whether the event was a catalyst for a “true Baptist witness” or a political event to push social activism that shortchanges sharing the Gospel of Christ.
SBC EXPERIENCED CONTROVERSY, CONVERSATION …
Southern Baptists engaged in a number of debates, disputes and discussions that contributed to a vigorous examination of points of agreement and contention within the convention that is in fact a voluntary fellowship among like-minded churches.
— Southeastern Seminary sponsored another event dealing with a contentious issue. The “Convergent” conference addressed topics related to the emerging church movement and included controversial non-SBC pastor Mark Driscoll, president of the Acts 29 Network, which has Calvinistic leanings and also allows for drinking; some member churches promote poker nights. Driscoll also is viewed askance for his former reputation as the “cussing pastor.”
Principal speakers alternately urged participants to understand the void alternative churches fill that traditional churches cannot and cautioned that some lack doctrinal teaching, being missional without being intentional in sharing the Gospel, and disrespecting the modern church.
— Missouri Baptist Convention leaders took a decidedly sterner position regarding the emerging church movement, voting to cut off state convention Cooperative Program support to Acts 29 Network churches. Citing an abuse of Christian liberty, MBC Executive Board members took issue with alcohol use by some Acts 29 churches and a movie ministry by at least one that includes R-rated films.
A $200,000 loan to an Acts 29 church was part of the controversy surrounding the dismissal of MBC Executive Director David Clippard.
— Southwestern Seminary captured headlines over the withholding of tenure from former professor Sheri Klouda. Klouda has sued alleging she was dismissed because she is a woman, claiming breach of contract, fraud and defamation. SWBTS responded that its action is protected by the same religious freedom accorded churches by the First Amendment, and disputed various claims in Klouda’s suit.
The seminary also received criticism for establishing a homemaking program. Both CNN and FOX picked up the story, sharing detractors’ criticisms that the program diminishes women’s roles in the church, while carrying the seminary’s response that it is needed “because of the low standard of family and home life in contemporary culture.”
The undergraduate concentration includes General Homemaking, Biblical Model for the Home and Family and The Value of a Child, seven credit hours in meal preparation and nutrition and seven hours in the design and sewing of clothing. Students also must take 23 hours in biblical studies, two years of Greek and Latin and do extensive reading in history’s great philosophers.
— For a second straight year, the International Mission Board’s trustees were embroiled in a conflict about fellow trustee Wade Burleson, a pastor from Oklahoma. Meeting in executive session, trustees voted to censure him and suspend him from their next four meetings for multiple violations of the trustees’ code of conduct. For his part, Burleson offered to apologize for unintentional remarks that disparaged fellow trustees but declined to apologize for expressing dissent with board actions.
In 2006, IMB trustees, citing issues of “broken trust and resistance to accountability,” voted to ask the SBC to remove Burleson, but eventually rescinded its vote in favor of placing some restrictions on his participation as a trustee.
— At the annual meeting, SBC messengers passed a motion supporting the BF&M as the “only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention.” Messengers alternately argued for and against the statement, referring to it at different times as a maximum and a minimum requirement for SBC entities.
The motion quoted a statement passed by the SBC’s Executive Committee that characterized the paragraph as affirming both the SBC’s trustee system of governance and its confession of faith, in effect suggesting that trustees do well when guided by the BF&M in crafting doctrinal policies:
“The Baptist Faith and Message is neither a creed nor a complete statement of our faith nor final or infallible. Nevertheless we further acknowledge that it is the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and as such is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the Convention.”
… CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP …
— The North American Mission Board announced a sharpening of focus, reducing its objectives from the six envisioned in 1997 when the Home Mission Board was reshaped into NAMB, naming three areas of concentration — evangelism; church planting; and missions. The move came after criticisms from the previous year about the entity’s more innovative initiatives and decisions, which resulted in the resignation of Bob Reccord as president.
Trustees also named a new leader, unanimously electing third-generation missionary Geoff Hammond to take the helm of Southern Baptists’ domestic missions entity at a time when annual baptisms, 364,826, were announced as the lowest total since 1993.
In addition to experience as an international missionary, Hammond served as a director of missions in Arkansas, church planting specialist for the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia convention, missionary with the North American Mission Board and SBCV’s senior associate director.
… AND INCREASED COOPERATION
While U.S. baptisms hit a low, 600,000 new believers overseas were baptized because of Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions. The combined 964,826 baptisms in the U.S. and abroad amounted to one baptism every 38 seconds.
During annual meetings in the fall, 16 state conventions increased the portion of Cooperative Program funds forwarded to worldwide Southern Baptist ministries. The announcements followed similar actions by 17 states in 2006.
Cooperation in shared missions resulted in record contributions to national causes in 2007. During the last fiscal year Southern Baptists surpassed for the first time the $400 million mark in combined Cooperative Program and designated giving. Three records were set:
— Gifts through the Cooperative Program for national causes reached $205.7 million, up 2.55 percent.
— When the books closed in May, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions hit $150,178,098.06, an 8.9 percent increase over the previous year’s $137.9 million.
— The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions topped $58.4 million, over $2 million more than the goal.
WHAT IS LIKELY FOR 2008?
In the SBC, strong debate about theology and methodology combined with the strong showing of financial support in cooperative missions paint a picture of Southern Baptists still refining boundaries on consensus beliefs while not breaking ties that keep Southern Baptists working together to share the Gospel around the globe.
The theological and methodological lines that have been drawn are not trivial. What is yet to be seen is whether the various camps see their respective spheres overlapping in like-mindedness sufficiently enough to continue cooperating within the fellowship of Southern Baptists. In the past, Southern Baptists have shown a tenacity for cooperation when it comes to ministering to the hurting and sharing the Gospel with the lost…and that likely will prove true in 2008.
The mix of politics and religion again will be a dominant theme.
The New Baptist Covenant celebration proposes to give a new voice. However, the lineup of speakers is dominated by the same moderate and liberal voices whose message has yet to energize outside of the base it appeals to now.
The star power of the politicians in the lineup guarantees high media attention, however, a message of social activism that ignores or redefines the Gospel likely will not draw a larger crowd under the New Baptist Covenant tent.
Similarly, observers who predict a sea change in evangelicals’ voting because of the deaths of such national leaders as Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have missed the character of values voters.
The mid-term elections that changed control of Congress included victories by pro-life Democrats such as Bob Casey Jr. to the Senate, and Heath Shuler, Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth to the House. Additionally, state ballot initiatives that constitutionally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman passed overwhelmingly in seven of eight states — 27 overall now; the lone loss was attributed in part to confusing language on the ballot.
People of faith have firm positions on key issues that drive how they evaluate candidates and parties. Evangelicals may reveal differences in preferences as they seek the man or woman who best represents their values. However, there is no evidence those values as priorities have changed, and that will be a part of the story in the 2008 elections.
Finally, the massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech, the pair of shootings — at a megachurch and at a missionary training center — that killed four in Colorado, combined with the assassination of the former prime minister of Pakistan show one theme will continue in 2008 … the need for change beyond any reform humanly possible.
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.