This week the Southern Baptist Convention elects a new president in Atlanta in a classic contest between a fundamentalist and a moderate. The outcome is critical to the future of the convention, head body of 14.5 million Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Voters will either turn back eight years of fundamentalist successes or clinch fundamentalist control over Southern Baptist boards, agencies, seminaries, and missions -- which till now have been dominated by moderates.
The well-planned forward march of the fundamentalists is a rough reflection of secular American politics these days as a fundamentalist preacher, Pat Robertson, angles toward the Republican presidential nomination and fundamentalists have helped bring working- and middle-class whites into the Republican fold.
Many Southern Baptist fundamentalist leaders are active in the Religious Right, says James L. Guth, a political scientist at Furman University who has studied fundamentalist politics. Control of the Southern Baptist Convention, he notes, could offer them an organizational base for promoting conservative social issues in the GOP presidential primaries in 1988.
The Baptist moderates are looking for signs that the fundamentalist agenda is losing its power to stir.
But if the fundamentalists win the convention presidency this year, says a moderate pastor, the Rev. William H. Puckett Jr. of Raleigh, N.C., then they will win the next two elections as well and bring about a ``fundamental change in our nature.''
The fundamentalist candidate is the Rev. Adrian Rogers, a smooth TV-age Memphis preacher who allows for only a literal reading of the Bible and is an active supporter of conservative Republican political organizations. His opponent, the Rev. Winfred Moore, is a thunderously dramatic traditionalist promoting the Baptists' historic tolerance of theological diversity and uncomfortable with clergymen in secular politics.
The central theological point at issue is biblical literalism, or inerrancy. Fundamentalists believe, for example, that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is historic fact. A theological moderate might view the account as symbolic rather than factual.
Many moderates, candidate Moore among them, are themselves literalists but are willing to allow for different interpretations in keeping with the Baptist tradition of the ``priesthood of the believer'' -- the freedom of each Baptist to interpret the Bible by his own inspiration. So for moderates, this week's battle is for tolerance and conciliation against narrowness and ``creedalism.''
Some fundamentalists, not surprisingly, see it as a battle for balance in institutions dominated by theological moderates.
Most frustrating to these people is moderate control of Southern Baptist seminaries, says the Rev. Dwight Reighard, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., and a fundamentalist. Young seminarians who may never have questioned the literal reading of Bible stories encounter professors who almost universally reject biblical inerrancy, Dr. Reighard says. Fundamentalist students are ridiculed as ``country bumpkins,'' he says. ``Kids are coming out confused, rather than strengthened.''
Convention presidential candidate Rogers has suggested that all Southern Baptist Convention employees sign a pledge to support the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Southern Baptists are virtually all very conservative theologically -- that is fundamentalist or nearly so -- as well as politically, Dr. Guth says. Southern Baptist moderates would be considered conservatives among the smaller American Baptist denomination, for example.
The activist fundamentalism of recent years results partly from upward mobility among Southern Baptists. The traditional believer living in a rural town may be what Guth calls a ``naive literalist'' or what Nancy Ammerman of Emory University's Candler School of Theology calls a ``small-f'' fundamentalist. Conservative beliefs and values are unchallenged in the community and easily held.
The ``capital F'' fundamentalist, says Dr. Ammerman, has a better-than-average education and has typically moved to an urban area.
``They look around and say, `People don't care about each other any more. They don't know right from wrong,' '' she says. The response is a more activist, ideological fundamentalism.