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The Rise of Baptist Republicanism.

Oran P. Smith, New York and London: New York University Press, 1997. 212 pp.

The thesis of The Rise of Baptist Republicanism is "The Republican party and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are not only in firm alliance, they are sometimes indistinguishable from each other" (p. 2). By the time the author reaches his last chapter, he has eliminated the "sometimes" and states boldly "The terms (SBC conservative leadership and the conservative bloc [Republican]) are interchangeable" (p. 207).

In Smith's definition of fundamentalism, he distinguishes Southern Baptist fundamentalists as part of the Emerging Fundamentalist Right from the Movement Fundamentalist Right of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the Separatist Fundamentalist Right of Bob Jones.

He traces the political events of the SBC during three eras of conservative agitation--the 1920s, the 1950s, and 1980s. During the first two, Conservatives and Moderates were able to coexist with little rancor except for the J. Frank Norris exception. The year 1968 was a watershed after which the two forces came into conflict with the introduction of secular politics into denominational life by the Conservatives, particularly Paige Patterson, Judge Paul Pressler, and Charles Goolsby. Their methods paid off in 1979 when Adrian Rogers was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

With less success he argues that external forces, defined as church-state change, political change (rise of the Republican party in the South and the New Right's culture war hysteria), and cultural change (growth of the middle class) combined with the internal theological struggle to move the SBC rank and file to the right politically," abandoning their own Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan" (p. 24).

Smith asserts the Convention's conservative faction is strongly tied to the Republican party, and the moderate faction to the Democrats. A Southern Baptist, President Bill Clinton has allied himself with the moderate wing, inviting leaders of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to the White House for "warm fellowship, but suffering through a meeting with SBC leaders that neither side rated productive" (p. 56).

He points to James Dunn, director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs which was until 1992 the political lobby in Washington for all major Baptist denominations. In June of that year, the SBC withdrew and set up a lobbying organization of its own. With somewhat jarring enthusiasm, Dunn, a "progressive reformer," says he takes comfort in the fact that two men he calls "a couple of buddies" came to town (Washington) in January 1993: the Southern Baptist moderates Bill Clinton and Al Gore Jr. (p. 57). In contrast, the SBC leadership and the White House have not been "buddy-buddy" at all (p. 57).

The author then uses South Carolina as a case study, showing voting patterns and their relationship to the rising power of fundamentalism in politics. His discussion of the separatism (from the culture) of the Bob Jones type as opposed to the involvement of the other two fundamentalist factions is enlightening. His failure even to mention Strom Thurmond, long-time senior senator from that state and an unobtrusive Southern Baptist, is a curious omission. In addition, he gives only passing notice to Congressman Floyd Spence, who succeeded Southern Baptist Albert Watson to the House of Representatives in 1970.

In his discussion of the changing self-identification of Southern Baptists, he acknowledges certain weaknesses in the questions posed in the surveys. When told to describe theological bent, the respondent was given choices among fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic, mainline, and moderate/liberal. I am in agreement with the author that the last should have been separate categories. I would suggest also that many Southern Baptists, unsure of the meaning of evangelical and the distinction Smith makes between mainline and Baptist, would be prone to choose mainline.

The author has been honest with the reader. His "moderate" Democratic stance is clear from the beginning. In the Appendix he has carefully chronicled events he judges important in the rise of a militant "go for the jugular" conservatism among Southern Baptist elites. His bibliography is impressive. But with his deterministic emphasis on the forces he claims govern human decisions, he ignores the individualism as well as the deeply held spiritual and intellectual convictions (however misplaced) that play an important part in our democratic process. Even though many religious conservatives have found in the Republican party their only possible resting place, identifying fundamentalist Baptists with the GOP without qualification leaves many factors unaddressed. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading for its carefully collected data and for what it demonstrates of the bitter polarization occurring among Southern Baptists.--Faye Wellborn Robbins, adjunct professor of history, Martin College, Pulaski, Tennessee.
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Author:Robbins, Faye Wellborn
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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