Cary McMullen: A survey of Florida Southern Baptists may surprise you


One of the most bitter and painful religious controversies in American history was waged between 1979 and roughly 1995 in the Southern Baptist Convention. Known as the “conservative resurgence,” among other names, it was an internal political fight for control of the convention’s leadership, its agencies and its seminaries, with a conservative wing that had long felt marginalized and ignored organizing and rising up to seize power.

The battle in the Southern Baptist Convention was largely about the doctrine of “inerrancy,” which says that the Bible is without error and to be taken literally. The conservatives were most incensed that their seminaries used modern methods of biblical interpretation that denied or explained away some passages that conservatives claimed were historically accurate. Once the conservatives consolidated their power, they made sure that the seminaries were purified of any professor who did not subscribe to inerrancy.

A crucial case in point: the first 11 chapters of Genesis. If those stories are symbolic rather than literal history, then it’s possible to accept that the universe is billions of years old and that life as we know it evolved as scientists theorize. But if you take Genesis literally, the earth is about 6,000 years old and human beings were created on the sixth day. Religious beliefs like this have big implications for public policy, such as what is taught in science classrooms in public schools.

Now a researcher has conducted a survey among his fellow Southern Baptists in Florida to see, 20 years later, whether the battle over inerrancy made any difference in what Southern Baptists believe and how they live. According to a Feb. 7 article in the Florida Baptist Witness, the state convention’s official newspaper, David McGee conducted the survey as part of his dissertation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He devised a 68-question survey and used a research company to obtain random samples of Southern Baptists in Florida.

In his summary, McGee wrote that while an overwhelming majority of Florida Baptists affirm inerrancy, “(t)here is an inconsistent understanding of Genesis1-11 and misapplication of the moral and personal living commands of the Bible.”

McGee found that regarding accounts of creation, 62.2 percent of Baptists agreed or totally agreed that the earth is millions of years old. One particular survey question – which poses a rather jarring mental image – yielded interesting results. More than half (54.9 percent) disagreed or totally disagreed that dinosaurs lived with Adam and Eve. Almost 42 percent said they think the earth is millions of years old because of science.

On moral questions, McGee found that 38.6 percent replied yes or “I don’t know” to the question, “Is there is an acceptable time to perform an abortion?”  Almost one-quarter (24.9 percent) believed living with a boyfriend or girlfriend is acceptable.

All this may sound surprising to those who have a certain image of Southern Baptists. But it’s worth remembering that McGee surveyed people who identify themselves as Southern Baptist, even though some of them probably have not set foot inside a Southern Baptist church since the day after they were baptized as teenagers.

Still, even the most devout Southern Baptist – like the devout Catholic or Jew or Lutheran – is not a walking doctrine textbook. Human beings are complicated. We change our minds. Sometimes we accept things contrary to what we’ve been taught or we say we believe. You may stoutly insist women who get abortions are murderers, but if your 14-year-old daughter becomes pregnant and doctors say she is unable to carry the baby to term, you are likely to reexamine your belief.

In addition, Southern Baptists are notoriously independent. It’s hardly surprising that large numbers of them would wander off in directions other than the one their leaders want them to go. That’s the irony of the conservative resurgence. Its captains knew what they were fighting for. Twenty years on, as they near retirement, they are looking around and finding a substantial number of their followers don’t see the big deal. They have to be asking themselves, “What happened?”

Cary McMullen is writer and editor who lives in Lakeland, Fla.

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