Don’t Stop Believing

Renegade Bloggers Besiege the Southern Baptist Convention.

The bartender may well be the loneliest person in this hotel on San Antonio’s Riverwalk. Just feet away from the darkened bar, people mill around the lobby with plastic glasses of lemonade in hand. “Oh, they’re all Baptists,” says Ben Cole, a 31-year-old pastor from Arlington, Texas. Or as he pronounces it, Babdists. Cole points out the dean of a Baptist seminary, then a man in a dark suit who Cole says is the armed bodyguard of a prominent seminary president. We’ve crowded into chairs with another pastor, Wade Burleson from Oklahoma, his wife Rachelle, and a pastor from Alabama, C.B. Scott, who knows hired muscle when he sees it. That used to be Scott’s line of work. It’s Sunday afternoon, June 10, and talk turns to what to watch on television tonight: the first game of the NBA finals or the last episode of “The Sopranos.”

Pastor Ben Cole at his church in Arlington

“Actually, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a Southern Baptist from ‘The Sopranos,'” Cole says. “Hold your friends close but your enemies closer. The person who sets up the meeting between you and your enemy is working for your enemy. You know, the whole ‘Godfather’ thing.”

Cole is boyish, slim and blond, given to wearing crisp pinstripe suits and sunglasses tipped back on his head, though to the thousands who have come to San Antonio for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering, he’s known more by his reputation than his face. He, Burleson, and a few others have decided they must save the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from the dangerous political and theological excesses of its leadership. For several years, they have challenged the aging conservatives who have guided the SBC since staging their own successful insurgency three decades ago.

The challengers’ quarrel is not with the SBC’s conservatism, which they embrace. They believe every word of the Bible, they believe homosexuality is a sin, and they despise abortion. But they also believe that power has become too concentrated in a denomination that prides itself on having no hierarchy. These young, conservative pastors want their independence back-they want to be Baptist again, which to them means belonging to a denomination in which everyone agrees on a few theological basics and argues, endlessly and lustily, about the details: drinking alcohol, the role of women in churches, whether rock hymns are holy enough.

To wage their battle, they have taken up the newest tool for loudmouths and deep-thinking outsiders of all stripes and faiths-blogs. Much of Cole’s visibility to ordinary Southern Baptist preachers (the “bubba-pastors,” he calls them) has been through his blog, baptistblog.wordpress.com, one of a handful written by reform-minded pastors that have sprung up in the past two years. The missives are widely read by many SBC leaders and are linked to by countless other bloggers, probably thousands, who add to the discussion. All this blogging energy has created a new power base within the SBC that circumvents the establishment, particularly the traditional Baptist media, and attracts fellow travelers. “You and I may have met at the coffee shop and talked about how frustrated we were with the Southern Baptist structure, but with blogs the conversation happens so that thousands of people can see they’re not the only ones who thought that way,” says Marty Duren, a pastor in Georgia who ran an influential blog, www.sbcoutpost.com, until recently.

Bloggers have become the new Baptist bogeymen. For non-Baptists, their ascendance may well mean that the voice of the Southern Baptist Convention, a potent political force for decades, will become more diffuse, less able to coordinate its attacks on secular culture, and less powerful in national politics.

At this convention, the young renegades have a plan for the next step in their campaign. It will be led by Cole, using skills he mastered when he was a protégé of the very leaders he now attacks.

In 1985, a skinny, blond kid walked into an after-school program in Longview, Texas, run by two evangelists, Billy and Winky Foote. He was 9 years old and living with an alcoholic father, whom he hated going home to find drunk. Two weeks later, Winky pulled the boy aside and told him about Jesus. Cole went home, closeted himself in the bathroom, and knelt by the toilet to pray. He believes he was saved by Jesus. “I was awakening to this issue, to this realization, that I wasn’t perfect,” he says, “and also if I go very far down this path that I think is before me I knew, even at 9, I was going to end up like my dad.”

He cared for his father until he died of cirrhosis of the liver. The 13-year-old moved to Sherman, Texas, to live with his mother and stepfather, drifting from church but tasting the power of words to move opinion in an eighth-grade history class’s mock trial. In 1988, he worked for former Gov. Ann Richards’ campaign and later supported Ross Perot; he and a friend stole Clinton and Bush signs from front yards. He also began drinking. The morning after one brutal, bloody party at Lake Texoma, he collapsed and began praying. Soon he was attending the First Baptist Church in Sherman, where he learned how to use parliamentary procedure. He graduated from high school early, at 16, spent a year at Baylor University, then switched to Criswell College, a smaller, more conservative Christian school in Dallas.

At 18, the promising young Baptist was introduced to Paul Pressler, a Houston judge who had helped a group of conservative Baptists take over the SBC from moderates in the 1980s, a revolution now called the “conservative resurgence.” Pressler often invited young people to accompany his disabled son to meetings, and he remembers Cole as “very bright, very resourceful, hardworking.” Pressler also took Cole to meetings of the Council for National Policy, which the Web site Sourcewatch calls “a secretive forum that was formed in 1981 by Tim LaHaye as a networking tool for leading U.S. conservative political leaders, financiers, and religious right activist leaders.”

In 1996, Pressler brought Cole to the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, where he met Paige Patterson, another conservative resurgence leader who would be elected SBC president in 1998. Patterson became a father figure, Cole recalls, offering counsel, calling him in his dorm room, bringing him to functions, telling him secrets. Admitted to the inner circle, Cole began to learn political tactics: reserving blocks of rooms in conference hotels to enfranchise sympathizers, building communication networks, enlisting the media in disinformation campaigns, and spying on enemies. After a year at Criswell, he transferred to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, where Patterson was president. Cole graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s in biblical studies. Two years later he moved back to Texas and took his first pastor’s job, at 21, in the tiny town of Luella, southeast of Sherman.

In 1999, a Jewish documentary filmmaker from New York, Steve Manin, discovered Cole when he came to Texas to take the SBC up on its challenge to evangelize Jews. Hoping to land Patterson as a spiritual adviser, he instead met Cole, a geeky, earnest true believer who prescribed a daily chapter of the Gospel of John and taught the skeptical Manin how to pray. (“If you cut me, I bleed Southern Baptist, pretty much,” Cole said at the time.) Manin filmed the 23-year-old pastor preaching, holding an opened Bible out to his congregation, insisting that “every jot and tittle of this word is from God, and when God says something, brother, he means it!” By then Cole was a Republican, and in 2000 served as a delegate to the Texas Republican Convention. “I always thought this was a guy who was somehow going to figure out how to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Manin recalls. “The problem is, he’s too much of a loose cannon, or at least he was as a kid.” (Cole professes no aspiration to an SBC leadership position.)

Paige Patterson addresses the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio

In his film Chosen Again, Manin portrayed Cole as devoted to Patterson, even helping gather information about professors who refused to sign up with the conservative resurgence. But Cole’s relationship with Patterson soon changed. What transpired is unclear. “To some degree, the absence of my father and his counsel drove me into a season of fundamentalism, because the structure, the order, the authority filled a void that I still lack,” Cole says, beginning to cry. “And I think what I came to with Paige, I looked to him as a father figure at times, and I valued his counsel and his affirmation, and I wanted to please him. One day I woke up and saw Paige, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be like this.’ And I walked away from it.”

Patterson now denies that he had any substantial relationship with Cole. “I’ve tried to think how much time I spent with him, but it was very little,” he says. “We went to a Franklin Graham meeting one night, and he wanted to go along, so I let him ride along.” In 2000, Cole returned to Southeastern for graduate work in theology. He began to spar with Patterson. In a creative-thought paper on the future of the SBC, Cole criticized its leaders for their narcissism, nepotism, isolationism, their embrace of national politics, and their internal squabbling. Patterson threw up his hands. “Why do I feel frustrated and unable to cut this baby shark loose from the net in which I perceive him to be tangled?” Patterson handwrote on the paper’s title page. “Ben, I still pray for you. I love you. I believe in you. But gifts, insights, zeal, and courage are all like guns. They are valuable and useful, but always dangerous to him who possesses them.” (He gave Cole a 98.)

In 2003, Cole returned to Texas to attend Baylor and found a job at Southwestern’s news department, but the next year Patterson (who had since become president at Southwestern) fired him for using the word “crap” on his blog. Ostensibly Cole had been vulgar, an ethical violation. But he had also become a liability. (In Manin’s film, Patterson says Cole has often “been inappropriate in the timing and direction of his remarks.”) Cole shot back a fiery, 14-page letter to school officials in which he accused Patterson of having dispatched Cole to gather evidence for the media that the International Mission Board, another Southern Baptist entity, was itself involved in “acts of theological subversion.” He also refused another job that Patterson offered him and became a pastor of the Parkview Baptist Church, a small, clean church in Arlington with a crumbling asphalt parking lot. When I visited one April Sunday, fewer than 30 people sat in the pews, most of them verging on elderly. Pastoring is a day job for Cole while he finishes a doctorate at Baylor in church-state studies. Then he plans to go to law school and look up that pretty Baylor co-ed he dated. His ambition is a role in national politics; he’s rooting for Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

The spark that drove Southern Baptists to read and write blogs in droves came in late 2005, when the SBC’s main missionary arm, the International Mission Board, attempted to oust one of its 89 trustees, Wade Burleson. Burleson is a slim, dark-haired man who favors cowboy boots, which gives a swagger to his hard-driving demeanor. He is so thoroughly Republican that when no Republican is on a ballot, he doesn’t vote. He runs a 2,000-person congregation in Enid, Oklahoma, that has outgrown its church space, but recently decided to devote energy to social ministries instead of raising the $25 million needed for a new building. His blog is kerussocharis.blogspot.com.

In 2005, Burleson discovered that the IMB planned to accept missionary candidates on new, stricter criteria. The IMB trustees eventually voted to require missionaries to be baptized in an SBC church (the theological particulars are complicated) and to not have what is called a “private prayer language”-a form of speaking in tongues that one does in private, or as the Baptists like to put it, in one’s “private prayer closet.” Speaking in tongues, also called glossolalia, is a form of ecstatic prayer that sounds like babbling. Baptists generally deride tongues in public worship, though they’ve had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to private prayer language because it isn’t explicitly forbidden by the Bible.

“I don’t speak in a private prayer language, I don’t have one, and I don’t want to have one,” Burleson says. “I think it’s a minor issue of the faith, but I’m not going to exclude from missionary service my brothers and sisters in Christ who pray in tongues in their prayer closet.”

At first the IMB justified its move, saying there had been reports that Baptist missionaries were threatening the purity of their churches by hanging out with Pentecostals and even speaking in tongues. (The IMB has since admitted there was no such evidence of a charismatic problem in the field.) Others say it was an attempt to embarrass Jerry Rankin, the IMB president, who claimed to have a private prayer language. To Burleson, it looked like an underhanded way of narrowing what it meant to be a Baptist.

The Baptist blogosphere rallied around Burleson, including his new friend Cole, who returned to a more active role in SBC politics and, in the spring of 2006, started posting satire, gossip, and theological commentary to his blog. When Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth announced it would be offering a bachelor’s in homemaking to future pastors’ wives, Cole posted YouTube videos of women threading sewing-machine needles. He supported Sheri Klouda, a professor at Southwestern who was fired because she’s a woman. He listed various malfeasances, many of them financial. “From the highest levels of denominational leadership to the smallest church and the numbers it reports on the Annual Church Profile,” he wrote in May 2006, “we are a convention of half-truths, hidden agendas, and careless misrepresentations.” In April 2007, he mocked Patterson for saying that the shootings at Virginia Tech might have been averted if students had carried guns. Cole often receives criticisms along the lines of what someone wrote in the blog’s comments: “Again, you fail to bring out any good in a situation, you only lift one portion of the service and use it to elevate yourself above all others. You fail again to point me to Christ, and you only make me feel sorry for you. Please, ask the Lord to show the evil in your ways. Your [sic] not doing Kingdom Work, and you are constantly bringing attention to yourself.”

Cole emerged as one of the most visible and notorious of the new Baptist bloggers. Their impact was felt. At the 2006 SBC convention, they flexed their political power by supporting an outsider for president, Frank Page. The night before the election, Cole and Burleson invited bloggers to their hotel suite for a strategy talk, an old esprit de corps tactic of the conservative resurgence. When Page won, he stopped by to visit. Then controversy enveloped another pastor, Dwight McKissic, when he admitted to practicing a private prayer language in a sermon at Southwestern. When Southwestern looked poised to kick McKissic, one of three African-Americans, off its board, the bloggers threw support behind him. And in May of 2007, Cole, Burleson, Duren, and Scott met with former President Jimmy Carter, who has called for all North American Baptists to unite in what is being called a “New Baptist Covenant.”

SBC President Frank Page speaks at the San Antonio convention

The SBC leadership has been less welcoming. Conservative Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and prominent Baptist talking head, observed that blogs “increase the level
f communication among Southern Baptists without a commen
urate level of responsibility.” As a result, he says, “a lot of stuff gets out there that’s irresponsible and inaccurate and misleads people.” Does he read the blogs? “I never read the blogs,” he says. “I have staff people who monitor them, and if they think there’s something I really need to read, I read it, but I’m too busy. I have a job to do, and I’m way too busy. I can’t read as fast as they blog. I have a full-time job.”

People like Land dismiss blogs because “they can’t control them, it’s that pure and simple,” says Duren. This isn’t surprising-blogs have had a similar effect in electoral politics, business, and health care. But among the hundreds of thousands of so-called “faith blogs,” the Baptist bloggers can have a bigger impact on denominational policy, says Brian Kaylor, a graduate student in communications at the University of Missouri. He says there’s a natural fit between the democracy of blogs and the individualism of Baptists. Catholic bloggers can merely rail against a bishop; enough Baptist bloggers can get an elected leader displaced.

If blogging exemplifies some essential Baptistness, the reactions against it magnify how often Baptist life isn’t so Baptist. “Many of the older leaders-some of them like the fact they have a position of influence, and I don’t think they want to give up that power, even though it’s not theirs to control,” Kaylor says. This contradiction was captured perfectly in a comment on a blog by Hershael York, a seminary professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. “Blogging has often stripped away a respect for older men of God that we used to value,” he wrote. “It has created a false sense of intimacy and led some to mistakenly believe that they have a right to criticize, to critique, and to challenge men who have done great things for God.”

The griping about bloggers is a distraction from real issues facing the SBC; baptisms are dropping, as is the number of delegates at the yearly meeting. Mission donations set a record high in 2006 ($408.6 million), but attempts to build multiracial churches (Cole quips that the SBC is “as white as a tractor pull”) have been slow. The biggest threat to Baptist growth comes from the “emergent church movement,” churches that emphasize singing, activism, and testimonials over rigorous Bible study. Instead of asking hard questions about how they will be relevant to the culture, the conservative resurgence leaders are still seeing liberals creeping under every pew. During his speech in San Antonio, Patterson employed a nautical metaphor to insist that the SBC was at risk of being swept downstream by its own liberal laxity. The crowd cheered.

In the San Antonio convention center, ranks upon ranks of chairs are set up in a room 200 yards long and 90 yards deep, where 8,618 delegates, or “messengers,” from churches across the United States gather. Giant video screens hang over the aisles so messengers can see people speaking on the platform or from the floor. This is the arena for Cole’s next move-and many people’s first introduction to his appearance. When he introduces himself from the floor, a mutter of disapproving recognition swells in the crowd.

He’s written a motion to put before the messengers a legalistic bulwark that will, he hopes, brake the SBC’s slide into ever narrower fundamentalism. Since he’s become one of the most divisive figures in the SBC, getting it passed will require mustering all his rhetorical skill, tactical savvy, and parliamentary knowledge.

The night before the convention starts, about 30 bloggers (mostly men), a few wives, and three journalists cram into Cole’s and Burleson’s Marriott suite. Spirits are high, but not giddy, as Cole explains his plans. The next morning, someone else will introduce a motion asking the convention to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message, a consensus statement of Baptist beliefs, as a sufficient document for Baptist life. It’s more than a symbolic move. Rather than trying to fend off the fundamentalists on any single issue, such as private prayer language, the reformers want the convention to support the notion that no one can introduce new constrictions on being Baptist.

The vote looks promising, but the intended effect seems like a long shot. Will it, as Cole hopes, keep the IMB, the seminaries, and other Baptist institutions from drawing theological lines in the sand wherever they please? As the assembled bloggers see it, Baptist institutions had been handed to people who were freely going beyond the consensus statement whenever their agenda dictated. During the meeting, Cole explains his rationale, then turns to tactics. For more than 20 minutes he holds the room’s rapt attention, inspiring them for a battle that he promises will make previous debates “look like a little fireworks show.” The meeting ends with a prayer punctuated by the beeps of text messages arriving on cell phones.

The next morning, on a street corner outside the convention center, members of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests hand out leaflets warning Southern Baptists to pay attention to sexual abuse by some of their pastors. All spring the issue has made news: In April, the ABC news program “20/20” broadcast a report about the wave of unreported sexual abuse among SBC pastors. David Clohessy, the SNAP national director, describes how Baptists’ decentralized churches are especially vulnerable to sexual predators. “When accountability is dispersed, nobody has to take responsibility for anything,” he says. In response, Burleson submitted a motion asking for a feasibility study of a database of SBC offenders so that churches can check on new pastors. (It passed.)

Inside the vast hall, thousands of men in shirtsleeves or suits, and a few women, begin two days of praying, doing business, and consuming propaganda. Heads of the various SBC institutions, which include six seminaries, two missionary organizations, the SBC investment arm, and a Christian retail outlet, give 15-minute reports, then answer questions from the floor. Baptists like to say that for two days they have the largest deliberative body in the world. Interspersed between the reporting and voting are multimedia extravaganzas promoting this or that Baptist institution, appearances by preachers, and thumpingly contemporary performances by musical groups.

On the second day, President George W. Bush beams in by video to address the enthusiastic crowd. (Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has already signed books in the exhibition hall.) American evangelicals may be distracted from national politics and disgruntled about the war in Iraq, but the Southern Baptists applaud Bush for a full minute, then interrupt him eight times when he throws them their red meat: support for the troops; the culture of life; John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court; no foreign aid for programs that provide abortions; abstinence only. That he has requested an expanded budget for AIDS prevention and treatment in “the poorest nations on earth” falls to stony silence.

Appearing by video, President Bush throws SBC messengers red meat.

The speech by Frank Page, the white-haired, cherub-faced SBC president, underscores conflicts that Baptists feel over their identity-and foreshadows the coming vote on Cole’s motion. Page, who campaigned in 2006 on a message of peaceful reconciliation, has encouraged Baptists to stand up for what they’re for, not just what they’re against. He delivers the traditional soul lashing that each person needs to get right with God on their own, but he also says the SBC has become complacent. “God wants balance,” Page thunders. “He wants us to speak the truth in love, and that applies to us-whether you blog or don’t blog, whether you use the phone or don’t use the phone, whether you’re having a hallway conversation, or whether you’re speaking in a hushed tone somewhere else, or whether you’re just using two tin cans and a wax string. I don’t care how you do it-God wants us to speak the truth in love. Satan wants to steal the godly balance.”

Near where I sit, only one man, a pastor from Lincoln, Arkansas, named Randy P. Magar, claps at the blog comment. He takes the comment as anti-blog. “I think some of the blogging has been very vicious and sows discord among the brethren,” he says. I ask if he reads blogs. “I don’t really read blogs,” he says, “except what they excerpt in the newspapers.”

Page, elected to a second term unopposed, explains in a press conference afterward that he’s agnostic on blogs. “Blogging is amoral,” he says. His most winning comment in the speech is when he pronounces himself a conservative Baptist. “I am not trying to undo the conservative resurgence. I believe the Bible,” he says. “I’m just not angry about it.”

As the vote on his motion nears, Cole sends out 300 text messages telling supporters to be in the hall and prepared to speak. Using mobile technology as well as the blogs has allowed him to coordinate action in ways his opponents do not. Debate proceeds swiftly, punctuated only by roaring Baptists on the floor who didn’t want discussion to end. Page, moderating from the platform, agrees to five more minutes of discussion, then wisely asks for a ballot vote, not a mere show of hands.

The next morning, the results are announced, and Cole’s resolution passes with 58 percent. Immediately Baptists are arguing on blogs and in speeches over exactly what it means. Now, weeks later, they’re still not sure. Opponents argue that most messengers didn’t understand the full importance of Cole’s motion and that it could result in more scrutiny of the institutions many messengers represent. Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern, told the Associated Press, “Ultimately, what you’ve got here is mass confusion.” Richard Land, head of the SBC ethics panel says the vote will change nothing. Patterson says, “What happened there was, the motion adopted by the convention lacked clarity. It was kind of unfortunate in that regard. I had 500 or 600 people say to me, ‘Would you tell me what we just did?’ They’re another casualty of the open town meeting.” But Page, who supported the motion, says in an interview later with a blogger, “I think the Baptists were simply saying, ‘We’ve gone far enough.’ We don’t need to put more strict parameters on everybody. We can’t agree on everything, and to constantly amend the Baptist Faith and Message will lead us into an absolute anarchy.”

The Southern Baptists will be absorbing this development for some time. If Burleson, Cole, and the others feel triumphant, they have cheered subtly, and even seem to have pulled back from blogging to focus on their churches and their families. Duren said he was shutting his blog down, but others intervened to take it over and morph it into a group blog. Cole swore he would stop blogging on SBC issues after June 15, but had too much momentum from the convention to stop cold. The successful vote on the Faith and Message was his valedictory-he plans to participate more at his church (the parking lot was finally repaved) and less in SBC politics. His legacy is the people he has empowered. “I wanted the folks who were my friends, who are staying in the convention, and even those who are tilted toward leaving, that it’s possible to be the pastor of the smallest church in the convention and bring some influence to bear,” he says.

At the same time, Cole calls the SBC a family, and the annual meeting is a reunion where they “bicker and boo and squabble and brawl and call names and take sides, but when we walk out of that family reunion,” he says, “don’t let anyone criticize the family.” There are biblical images that speak of the church as a family of God, he notes. “I think sometimes we operate as a family as God intended, and sometimes we operate like Cosa Nostra. This is ‘our thing,’ you know?”

Observer contributing writer Michael Erard lives in Austin. His book Um … Slips, Stumble, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean will be published by Pantheon in August.

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