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“To constantly amend the Baptist Faith and Message will lead us into an absolute anarchy.” ary 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 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. The speech by Frank Page, the white-haired, cherub-faced SBC president, underscores conflicts that Baptists feel over their identityand 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 uswhether 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 itGod 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 valedictoryhe plans to participate more at his church \(the parking 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 Urn … Slips, Stumble, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean will be published by Pantheon in August. JULY 13, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13