The Bloggers' Favorite Southern Baptist

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For those who follow the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) somewhat less avidly than the NBA playoffs or even the World Cup, perhaps the most interesting news out of their annual meeting, held this week in Greensboro, N.C., is that bloggers elected a president.

Of course, it's really more complicated than that. The SBC, the largest (with nearly 16 million members) Protestant denomination in the country, has been run for the last 27 years under the very tight control of a handful of aging "rebels" who purged the denomination of most of its moderates in the 1970s and '80s, turning it into the ultra-conservative organization it is today. The succession process was usually about as exciting as the Kremlin’s used to be: someone was anointed, and he won, unopposed.

This year, however, that all changed, with the upset victory of Dr. Frank S. Page, a megachurch pastor form Taylors, S.C. The establishment’s original choice, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, ran into early trouble, over an SBC policy calling for members of the leadership to earmark more of their churches' budgets, perhaps 10 percent, to the SBC's Cooperative Program, through which member churches contribute to the Convention and its programs. Floyd’s church gave less than 3 percent.

Pounding this and other issues home was a new power bloc in the Convention: bloggers. Southern Baptist-focused blogs began popping up about a year ago, when a group of younger (under 40) Baptists frustrated at the inaccessibility of the levers of power began meeting to discuss their concerns. Suddenly about a dozen blogs bloomed, perhaps the most influential being sbcoutpost.com, run by Rev. Marty Duren, a younger Georgia pastor. Last year they publicized a gathering that eventually put together a manifesto called the Memphis Declaration, which consisted of a list of Public Repentences, many of them for the SBC's arrogance within and outside its organization, and even included a repentance for "having condemned those without Christ before we have loved them."

This week's winner, Page, could hardly be called a young Turk, at age 53. Yet the Declaration signers clearly saw him as the most attractive candidate, and the blogs posted positively. Says Bob Allen, a veteran Baptist journalist and now the managing editor of Ethicsdaily.com, part of a more moderate Baptist group that pays close attention to the SBC, scene, "Without the bloggers Page wouldn't have been elected. He was a relative unknown, and the bloggers really have created the whole conversation. It's very much a generation shift."

Whether it indicates a true political or theological shift remains to be seen. Page, although he reportedly acknowledged the bloggers' help in winning, is not one of them or beholden to them. Page did tell reporters after the election that "I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement." But he added, "[But for] too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for."

Even the most liberal of the young blogging Turks, of course, are probably a good deal more conservative than the thousands of moderate Baptists who were pushed out of the SBC over the last few decades. But it is a landmark of sorts. After all, nobody came out of last year's papal conclave saying that bloggers had helped the Holy Spirit choose a new Pope.