Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Race and Disgrace

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy I:  Jesus Off Broadway

Catholic Controversy II:  Handling Pedophilia

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

Submission in Salt Lake
by Jan Shipps

When the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in the heart of Mormon country last summer, Deseret News columnist Lee Benson welcomed the Baptists to the Utah capital by telling them they were particularly welcome. Alluding to his state’s substantial restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, he told them that theirs was "the first convention ever to come to Salt Lake City and not complain about the liquor laws." While few other journalists were so site specific, Benson was one of many to describe what is shared by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and the churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Readers across the nation learned that these two religious entities take almost interchangeable moral stances and that they have nearly identical social and political agendas. Both are conservative, agreeing in virtually every respect on family values (they’re for them), and abortion, pornography, protected gay rights, drug use, and legislated gaming (they’re against them). Voting Republican is likewise the normal pattern for great majorities of Baptists and Latter-day Saints, and many members of both groups are clearly part of the Christian Right.

The LDS Church and the churches in the SBC also share strategy in the religious arena. Both are mission minded. SBC and LDS leaders have often told their flocks that every member must be a missionary. Hence, Latter-day Saints and Baptists routinely share their good news with anyone willing to listen.

Both organizations have large numbers of adherents. With more than 15 million members, the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The LDS Church, which now has more than 10 million members (about half of them in the U. S.), is the nation’s fifth largest ecclesiastical body. Almost invariably, reporters ask me to explain Mormonism’s immense and-to many non-Mormons-astonishing growth in recent decades.

But judging by the half-dozen reporters who called for information before leaving to cover the SBC in Salt Lake City, neither Mormon-Baptist common ground nor Mormon growth was the main object of interest. What they wanted from me was a prediction about what might happen when these formidable religious behemoths faced off against each other in the very shadow of the Mormon temple.

Those who had already seen the press packet prepared by Baptist Press-the SBC news bureau-knew that Southern Baptists regard Mormonism as a form of counterfeit Christianity. Additionally, every reporter headed to Utah to cover the story seems to have been aware that the Baptists would be spending up to $600,000 on local evangelism before and during the convention. They knew that, in the weeks leading up to the conclave, radio and TV spots, huge billboard displays, and direct mailings to 400,000 Utah residents had been preparing the ground for the Baptists to launch a pre-convention mission blitz the weekend before the convention opened.

With pun intended, Southern Baptists called this evangelical onslaught "Crossover, Salt Lake City." Sports clinics, block parties, and other gatherings would precede and follow the main event: an all-out Sunday offensive in which Baptist missionaries planned to proclaim their message of salvation as they knocked on (presumably Mormon) doors all along the Wasatch front.

Local SBC evangelistic efforts were not new. In advance of the convention’s opening every year, an evangelism campaign is conducted in the city where it is being held. But this time the Convention’s executive committee had made a special effort to prepare their weekend missionary forces (the New York Times called them "Utah Shock troops") for their coming engagement with the Saints.

Interfaith Witness, a division of the SBC’s North American Mission, had overseen the production of The Mormon Puzzle, a 50-minute videotape that describes LDS beliefs and makes the charge that those beliefs differ so dramatically from evangelical dogma that Latter-day Saints are, in fact, cult members. Copies of this video, which includes instructions about how best to convince Saints that their church is not the way to salvation, had been mailed to all 40,000 Baptist churches who might be sending "messengers" (i.e., delegates) to Utah.

The SBC Sunday School Board also printed 12,500 copies of a new book, Mormonism Unmasked, which put the "puzzle" together to picture a pseudo-religion which threatened evangelical Christianity. It is no wonder that the journalists expected a battle. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a front-page article on June 6, "the sacred heart of the Mormon Church" would be "the site of a weekend showdown between American evangelicals and one of the world’s fastest-growing faiths."

According to SBC spokesman Herb Hollinger, one third of the 100 press credentials issued by the Convention went to members of the mainstream/secular press-the largest such contingent in SBC history. One reason is that the Convention’s annual gathering has become increasingly newsworthy. Over the past two years it has made headlines by resolving to evangelize Jews and to boycott the Disney Company. Hollinger said he thought what the Dallas Morning News called the "wrestling match between two of America’s evangelical juggernauts" would be an even bigger story.

Many of the articles published prior to the convention’s opening indicated the likelihood that a definition of the family would be added to the Baptist Faith and Message, the first addition since 1963 to the collection of statements that comes as close as Southern Baptists have to a creed. Some pre-convention articles mentioned the SBC’s continuing battle with Disney. But more often than not, the "lede" was the expected inter-religious mayhem that might occur as thousands of Baptists started going door to door in the Mormon heartland.

On May 31, the New York Times warned readers to "expect a lively rumble among some champion proselytizers." In an article that appeared widely in syndication, the June 6 Washington Post said that if things go as the Baptists want, the Utah capital "will end up with fewer Mormons." The Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Orlando Sentinel and many other papers published articles portraying the imminent combat in heated prose. I especially like the London Times’ description: "a missionary drive of biblical proportions."

But there was no drama. Two thousand Baptists took part in the "Crossover" campaign, but the expected confrontation failed to occur. From Church President Gordon B. Hinckley down to local ward bishops, LDS leaders asked their followers to respect members of all other faiths and encouraged them to be gracious hosts to Zion’s Baptist visitors. Fully cognizant of a general Baptist feeling that "Crossover, Salt Lake City" would be "payback time" for all those occasions LDS missionaries had knocked on Baptist doors, Mormon leaders appealed to the Saints to be courteous to those who stood at their doors and knocked. The Saints complied. The conflict story evaporated.(1)

With nary a skirmish to describe-not even doors slammed in Baptist faces-the mainstream press contingent shifted its attention to the convention itself and the overwhelmingly conservative character of the SBC in 1998. Thirteen years ago, the SBC was taken over by its conservative wing, thanks in part to the efforts of Paige Patterson, president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, who, on the first day of the gathering in Utah, would be elected SBC president. Just how far Southern Baptist moderates have been pushed to the margins of the convention is indicated by the low level of attendance in Salt Lake City. The largest number of messengers recorded as voting on any measure was 8,540, as compared with the more than 40,000 messengers who attended the 1985 convention, when the moderate-conservative struggle was at its height.

The virtual absence of moderates was clearly revealed in the vote to amend the Baptist Faith and Message by defining the family as society’s "foundational institution" and spelling out the Convention’s conception of the proper intra-familial relationship of husband, wife, and children. After a debate of only half an hour, more than 98.5 percent of the roughly 7,000 who cast votes (three-fourths of them male) voted in the affirmative.

Perhaps it was the absence of moderate voices as much as the need for a new story to justify the trip to Salt Lake City that caused journalists to focus as much attention as they did on "gracious submission." Whatever it was, when the mainstream journalists reported on the amendment’s passage, the lede was nearly always "Southern Baptists Declare Wife Should ‘Submit’ to Her Husband" (as the headline on Gustav Niehbuhr’s June 10 story in the New York Times put it).

The placement of Niebuhr’s story on the front page almost guaranteed that it would be included on the network news. Also thanks to the Times, Jay Leno put the story into his

The Baptist Faith and Message Adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention June 9, 1998 (an addition to the 17 sections adopted May 9, 1963)

During the 1997 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas a motion was made as follows: "That the President of the Southern Baptist Convention appoint a committee to review the Baptist Faith and Message of May 9, 1963, for the primary purpose of adding an Article on The Family, and to bring the amendment to the next convention for approval." In response, Convention President Thomas D. Elliff appointed The Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee, which presented the following motion to the Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake, 1998. The motion passed on June 9. This new section was the first change to the Baptist Faith and Message since its revision in 1963.

XVIII. The Family

God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood or adoption.

Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.

Gen. 1:26-28; 2:18-25; 3:1-20; Ex. 20:12; Deut. 6:4-9; Josh. 24:15; 1 Sam.1:26-28; Ps. 51:5; 78:1-8; 127; 128; 139:13-16; Prov. 1:8; 5:15-20;6:20-22; 12:4; 13:24; 14:1; 17:6; 18:22; 22:6, 15; 23:13-14; 24:3; 29:15, 17; 31:10-31; Eccl. 4:9-12; 9:9; Mal. 2:14-16; Matt. 5:31-32; 18:2-5; 19:3-9; Mark 10:6-12; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 7:1-16; Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-4; Col. 3:18-21; 1 Tim. 5:8, 14; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Titus 2:3-5; Heb. 13:4; 1 Pet.3:1-7.

Reprinted from the "Southern Baptist Convention Bulletin, First Day, Part II."

"Tonight Show" patter, and it quickly made its way onto the talk show circuit. References to "gracious submission" also started appearing in political cartoons. USA Today was surely correct in saying that the convention’s action had created "an unholy brouhaha."

Curiously, the news coverage recreated an older SBC nemesis-moderate-
conservative debate. The discussion of the amendment on the floor had been one-sided, essentially dismissing out of hand the moderate position on the relationship between spouses and where authority rests within the family. But in the media, moderates and conservatives once again did battle.

On June 9, even before the amendment was considered, a Louisville Courier-Journal story warning that the statement on families would divide Baptists included the observations of both conservatives and moderates. Conservative Debra Bell, a messenger who had been married 35 years, was quoted as saying, "I feel very strongly that if a man has been led by Christ, he should be head of the household," while moderate Robert Parham worried, "They’ve made June Cleaver the Biblical model for motherhood."

After the amendment passed, nearly all of the articles in the mainstream press described moderate positions as well as conservative ones. Notably balanced articles were written by Richard Vara and Cecile Holmes in the Houston Chronicle, Larry Stammer in the Los Angeles Times, and Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle. After quoting Rev. Patterson on the statement’s scriptural basis, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s David Briggs turned to Andrea M. Johnson, director of the Virginia-based Women’s Ordination Conference: "I don’t think they have a prayer of succeeding in pushing us back . . . but they are going to try." The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Kloehn placed Patterson’s position that "it’s only hot language to someone not familiar with the Bible" alongside the text of a substitute statement proposed by moderate pastor Tim Owings. The defeated statement read: "Both husbands and wives are to submit graciously to each other as servant leaders in the home"-a position close to one articulated by the American Catholic bishops.

As the story took off, many articles focused on what local Southern Baptists had to say about their denomination’s new definition of the family. These, too, balanced conservative observations with more moderate ones.

From time to time, in a newspaper article or a radio or TV transmission, some brief comparison of the SBC amendment and the LDS’s own statement on the family would surface. Dean Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University suggested that geography could have played a role in the decision to bring this amendment to the floor this year because Mormons have held the "high ground" on families. But as the attention of the media was increasingly centered on "gracious submission," the convention’s location became irrelevant.

Still, a comparison of the two religious bodies could be helpful here. If  the story had been about an addition to Mormon doctrine, reporting a range of LDS positions might have been interesting but would have had no effect whatsoever on compliance by Latter-day Saints in local wards (congregations). Whether they submitted graciously or grudgingly, Saints would have to accept such a change because authority in their church moves from the center out to the periphery.

This is not the case with the Baptists. However dictatorial the actions of the convention might seem to people who are not Baptist, Baptist congregational polity (to which the SBC subscribes) allows every congregation to decide whether or not it will adopt this or any other amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message. This means that, in a quite substantial way, mainstream press coverage of a convention action became a surrogate for open debate on the convention floor.

And here a moral can be drawn from what could almost have been an artificially structured experiment in religion reporting. Expecting a Mormon-Baptist clash, journalists prepared themselves with research on the Latter-day Saints as well as the Southern Baptists. A common conservatism and dedication to evangelism served as control variables. The outcome was that the print reportage of the gathering of Southern Baptists in Utah yielded surprisingly sophisticated treatment of the complex doctrinal and theological issues that separate the Latter-day Saints and the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

Said Marty King, Director of Public Relations for the North American Mission of the SBC: "On the whole, the media got the story of the difference in the belief systems of the Mormons and Southern Baptists accurately." The staff of the LDS Public Affairs Department likewise declared itself satisfied with the media’s characterization of Mormon theology and doctrine and the way these differ from Baptist belief. The encomiums are meaningful because they come from professionals whose business it is to monitor the way their belief systems are described in the press.

King was less happy, however, with what happened after the expected clash failed to take place. Once the media turned its attention to the amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message, he said, "The story was so focused on the passage about the gracious submission of a wife to her husband that it failed to point to the way the amendment defined the family so that it excluded same-sex marriage."

In general, I agree with the LDS and SBC public relations professionals. If the descriptions of the expected conflict were sometimes overwrought, the comparisons and contrasts of these two religious organizations imparted a great deal of information to the public clearly and, for the most part, accurately.2 When coverage moved on to the Convention’s amending the Baptist Faith and Message, considerable complexity was sacrificed to create a powerful picture of the Southern Baptist Convention as an institution out of step with prevailing American values.

Convention leaders may have been happy with that picture. Yet-and theirony should not be lost on Baptists-the balanced nature of press coverage of this gathering reminded the world that while moderates no longer attend SBC conventions, "moderate Southern Baptist" is far from a contradiction in terms.

(1) Some 4,000 calls were received in Alphreatta, Georgia, on the toll-free number  (1-800-JESUS-2000) appearing on the huge bill-boards in and around the Salt Lake City, and 1,500 response cards were returned from the pre-convention direct mailings. The SBC reported 2,00 decisions for Christ. But these totals were reported after the convention adjourned. Precisely how many of them wre made as a result of "Crossover" and how many wre made by people who belonged to the LDS Church is not clear.  On the ground in Utah, the convention contented itself with passing a resolution reading the Latter-day Saints out of Christianity.  But that was news only in the Mormon state.

(2) By far, the most complete and very often the best coverage of the events of the convention was to be found in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. To a certain extent this is to be expected, since this was a local story. In addition, however, it should be noted that the religion writers for both papers have extensive experience covering the Mormon-evangelical story; and since the LDS Church’s "Proclamation on the Family" has often been in the news in the intermountain West, these writers have dealt with a story not unlike the "wifely submission" story before.