Are Southern Baptists Flirting With a Schism?

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Are the Southern Baptists, one of America's largest Christian denominations, trying to scare away their moderate members? Nobody knows for sure. But watching the proceedings at the national convention in Orlando this week, it's hard to ignore an overarching — and exclusionary — conservative theme. Just in case anyone had any doubts about the church's take on a woman's place in religious life, for example, the Southern Baptists' national assembly has scheduled a sure-to-pass vote at its meeting this week that will concretize the denomination's opposition to female pastors. It's not a move that's bound to affect many people in practical terms; there are only about 100 female pastors among the 40,000 churches that make up the denomination. But its message — which will be accompanied by affirmations of Southern Baptist distaste for racism, homosexuality, pornography, abortion and mercy killing — is unmistakable. "This week's vote will propel previously de facto attitudes into the realm of church law," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "It's another step toward a complete conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist convention."

The Southern Baptist leadership has struck an unapologetic stance on its policies. "Somebody said the other day that we were trying to set things back 200 years, and we felt like that was a big mistake," convention president Paige Patterson told reporters this week. "We're trying to set them back 2,000 years. We want to go all the way back to Jesus and the Bible." Liberal and moderate state conventions (including those in Texas and Virginia) will continue to squirm, Van Biema predicts, as the national convention slides irrevocably toward a more right-wing philosophy. And while moderate Southern Baptists are unlikely to execute a complete break from the national leadership, there are signs of internal schism, culminating in quietly defiant practices among moderates. "Many Southern Baptists view their affiliation with the church as primarily cultural, rather than religious," says Van Biema. This deep connection with the church, he explains, makes it much less likely that there will be a massive, formalized exodus. Only time will tell, of course, if the church's rightward shift will cause serious damage. For the moment, anyway, church leaders don't seem to be losing much sleep over any threatened departures; they're predicting that any churches that choose to leave over the vote will be immediately replaced by new, eager additions to the flock.