WHEN SHE SAW THE MARQUEE OUTSIDE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH THAT MORNING, SUZI PANG HAD A flash. Since coming to work as a special assistant to Dr. Paige Patterson in 1988, the young woman had had a long-running battle with her boss-a contest to see who could pull the funniest practical jokes.
It had started simply enough. When Patterson discovered his assistant’s phobia about animal skin, he made a point of taunting her with his cowboy boots-made of eel, ostrich, or snakeskin. The boots always made Pang shriek.
And he loved knock-knock jokes. ’”Knock, knock,” Patterson would say, wandering up to her desk at The Criswell College, sipping a cup of coffee. She’d groan, but bite. “Who’s there?” “John the Baptist,” Patterson would reply, dumping the cup, which held a small amount of water, onto his stunned employee’s head.
Inevitably, she’d get back at him. Once she shocked him by spraying a blue liquid (invisible ink, Patterson discovered) all over his suit jacket.
If it seems strange for the president of a hard-line Bible college to be waging joke warfare with his assistant, well, you have to know Paige Patterson. “He’s brilliant,” says Pang. “But on the other hand, he’s a rascal. He wants a fun-loving atmosphere.”
So when Pang saw the marquee announcing Patterson’s sermon the next Sunday- “Is Saddam Hussein the Antichrist?”-she got her best idea yet. She called on her contacts at First Baptist Church across the street from the downtown school to set up a switch. For an hour that week, while the students were changing classes, the marquee would read: “Is Paige Patterson the Antichrist?”
Unfortunately, somebody high up at thechurch got wind of the rather irreverent plot.”It got shot down 20 minutes before wewanted to do it,” Pang says ruefully.
Had the scheme succeeded, Patterson’s students and faculty would have hooted. Patterson himself would probably have laughed, as he often does, until he was doubled over and red in the face. But some of Paige Patterson’s critics might not have cracked a smile. In fact, they might have answered “yes” to the marquee’s question.
For 12 years, Patterson has been called names that even a Texas politician 20 points behind would hesitate to hurl at an opponent. He’s been labeled a Nazi, and likened to the Rev. Jim Jones and Joe McCarthy. His methods have been compared-often by fellow Baptists-to those of Hitler, or a “small cell of communists” maneuvering from a “war room” at Criswell College.
He’s been reviled as a power-mad fundamentalist on a witch hunt for heretics, and labeled a Machiavellian reactionary out to impose his view of religion on the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. He’s been condemned as a “Southern Baptist ayatollah” who started a movement that is “demonic and satanic.” And he’s been accused of having ties to a dangerous political movement with plans to create a theocracy, a government ruled by “godly men” on the basis of Old Testament law.
Those who know Patterson well scoff at such descriptions of the 48-year-old leader they call “a big teddy bear” and a “dog who barks at you but then comes up to lick your ankle.” Far from the personification of the grim, dour fundamentalist, they depict Patterson as a “brilliant theologian.” a personable though complex man with a passion for God-and a tactician who enrages his opponents by using their own methods to outmaneuver them.
Paige Patterson doesn’t look much like an ayatollah-he’s roly-poly, with curly red hair graying at the temples and deep dimples that that appear every time he smiles. But with all the militant fervor of a Muslim warrior, Patterson struck the first blow, in 1979. in a holy war that rages to this day. It was a theological battle, a battle about Scripture, doctrine, and the “slippery slope” of liberalism. To many on the outside, and occasionally to some on the inside, the internecine fight seemed to approach the ancient wrangling over how many celestial beings can dance on the head of a pin. But to Patterson, it is a dispute that goes to the root of what it means to be a Christian.
Patterson saw the fight not as merely a political contest, but as a struggle for the very soul of the Southern Baptist Convention, a loose coalition of 15 million Baptists in 37,000 churches. To win, Patterson and his followers had to take on the denominational bureaucracy and the presidents and faculties of the six Baptist seminaries. And now they’re taking on Dr. Herbert Reynolds, president of Baylor University.
As the Nineties begin, it appears that Patterson and his forces have won the struggle. But in the course of victory, this Dallas theologian may have done what even disputes over segregation, feminism, and the Vietnam War had not: He may have split his beloved denomination apart.
AT 11 P.M. ONE night 10 years ago, the heads of the six Southern Baptist seminaries filed solemnly into the small office of Dr. W.A. Criswell at First Baptist Church. They came to enlist Criswell’s help in stopping his young protege’, Paige Patterson. The seminary presidents feared that Patterson’s righteous rightest views, and his convictions that the “liberals” were tearing the church apart, would push the huge Southern Baptist Convention to the brink of division. “They were afraid,” says Criswell, who is now 81. “that to vocalize that conservatism, that fundamentalism, and to act upon it would open the door to the changing of these institutions. And they were right.”’ It was ironic that the seminarians would appeal to Criswell, long acknowledged as the “granddaddy” of the conservative element in the SBC. They didn’t get very far.
For sure, there was reason to worry. The year before, Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, a State Court of Appeals justice in Houston, had pulled off an astonishing upset at the denomination’s annual meeting. Working behind the scenes, the two engineered the election of an SBC president who was not just conservative, but rabidly dedicated to changing the denomination’s direction. Though other conservatives, including Criswell, had held the position of SBC president before, and had railed against the encroachment of modern ideas about the Bible into the Southern Baptist idiom, they had seemed powerless to stem the tide. Now the new leadership seemed to be doing just that.
When Criswell told Patterson about his visit from the seminarians, the younger man offered to resign his positions as associate pastor of First Baptist Church and president of Criswell College. Criswell refused, but he expressed doubt that Patterson could achieve his mission. “Son, you cannot succeed in this.” Criswell told him.
“Are you asking me to quit?” Patterson asked. “No,” Criswell replied. “I’m not telling you that because I think God told you to do it; and if God told you to do it, you have to do it.”
Though Criswell would later be counted as one of the masterminds behind the fundamentalist takeover, Patterson says that his mentor was deliberately insulated from the extensive discussions that led up to the 1979 “shot heard round the world.” as he calls it, “I wanted him to be able to say, ’What on earth is that redheaded boy up to now’?’” says Patterson. “I knew when it started it was going to be trouble. We didn’t know how much. Candidly, I didn’t feel like we would succeed.”
Patterson had been a pastor in Arkansas when Criswell heard him preach one sermon and hired him, at age 33, to run Criswell College. He was impressed with Patterson’s scholarship, with his way of preaching by taking Scripture back to its original language-Hebrew or Greek-then explaining it in context. He was young; he would bring vitality to the school, which was a project dear to the old preacher’s heart. And like Criswell, Patterson was a staunch inerrant-ist-one who believes that the Bible is the infallible word of God, not only in matters of faith, but history and science as well.
And Patterson was something else: a Southern Baptist crown prince. As the grandson of a preacher and son of T. A. Patterson, the highly respected pastor of First Baptist in Beaumont, sixth largest church in the SBC, Paige also had grown up steeped in theological discussion.
“The entire convention came through our living room,” says Patterson. He knew everybody, and understood where they fit into the denominational constellation. And they knew him, had watched his progress since he began preaching as a 15-year-old at the church’s mission for transient men. By age 16, Paige had traveled to Asia with a Baptist crusade, preaching in churches in 16 countries in the company of some of the denomination’s great crusaders, like Herschel Hobbs.
A chubby child with a tendency to say exactly what he thought, however imprudent, Paige also had a penchant for mischievous pranks that often got him in trouble. But he never fit the fabled image of the wild “preacher’s kid.” He carried his Bible to school, and was not shy about telling his classmates they needed Jesus. It was not a way to win popularity, but Paige didn’t care. He quit the freshman football team, which he quarterbacked, to go on mission trips.
By the time Paige was 18, he had preached at somewhere between 400 and 500 churches. Though he had learned doctrine at his father’s knee, the young Patterson’s preaching style was quite different. T. A. Patterson was a professorial type, elegant, patrician- not a hellfire-and-brimstone pulpit-pounder in the old Baptist tradition. Paige was much more emotional and demonstrative in his presentation of (he Gospel, not above a little Bible-waving.
In 1961, Paige’s last year in high school, T. A. Patterson became executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the most powerful state organization in the coalition. Today, with 2.5 million members. Texas Baptist churches make up about 20 percent of the SBC membership. They donate more money and send out more missionaries than those in any other state. It was a powerful post.
In many ways, Paige’s course was set. He seemed destined to be the pastor of a large and powerful church, with clout in denominational affairs, seated on the boards of the convention’s many agencies. Following in his father’s footsteps, Paige enrolled in the Baptist-owned Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene.
Having grown up with his father’s version of what Baptists believe, Paige was dealt a severe shock at the denominational school. To his astonishment, some professors portrayed the Genesis story of creation as a myth. They suggested that Moses may not have written the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and that other Bible tales might be less history and more fable.
Paige was stunned. “I’d stand up and ask for equal time,” he says. “The professor would say sarcastically, ’Let’s listen to the 13th century version. Go ahead, Paige.”1 Paige had heard his father talk about “liberalism” creeping into the SBC; now for the first time he ran head on into professors who “not only doubted what I had been taught at home, but ridiculed it.”
Paige’s mother recalls her son calling home several times in tears. “He said, ’I believe I’m the only one out here who believes in the Virgin Birth,’” says Roberta Patterson. He wanted to quit the school after his sophomore year. “Well, I guess you weren’t called to preach,” his father told him. Shamed, Paige returned to Abilene, where he pastored a church in a working class neighborhood and completed his degree.
Some of Paige’s former classmates remember him as highly committed but rigid, unable to accommodate a wider range of beliefs on religious or social issues. At the time, the early Sixties, many young Baptists were questioning their denomination’s stance on the changing attitudes of the times. The SBC was largely silent on civil rights and the burgeoning women’s movement, and remains staunchly opposed to the ordination of women to this day. But if the church’s social conservatism bothered some college-aged Baptists, Paige never questioned it.
During college. Paige wed Dorothy Kelly, a girl he had known since they were children back in Beaumont. They had met one day when the Patterson family had taken Dorothy home from church. As the 6-year-old girl got out of the car, 7-year-old Paige told his father (speaking, no doubt, with the adamantine assurance that seems to attend his every major decision), “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Because of Dorothy’s severe allergies, Paige did not attend his father’s alma mater. Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. The couple headed for New Orleans Baptist Seminary, hoping the Gulf Coast air would bring relief. “And we needed a change of cultures,” says Paige. They got one; he worked in a coffeehouse ministry in the wild French Quarter, preaching between classes to runaways and derelicts. “I had intended to stay quiet. Unfortunately, reputation follows you.”
Paige’s fears about liberal doctrine taking root in the Baptist church were enhanced during his seminary stay. And he was not alone in his views. Other ministerial students, also discouraged by what they were being taught, began knocking on his door at night. If Hardin-Simmons had been sprinkled with liberalism, New Orleans Baptist was downright drenched in the stuff. Even one theology professor. Dr. Clark Pinnock, who would later oppose Paige in a debate on the inerrancy of the Bible, was concerned. “I was quite in sympathy with what he was feeling at the time, though I now feel it has gone too tar,” says Pinnock, now at McMaster Divinity College. But others at the seminary thought young Paige’s tactics-attacking professors by name and labeling them “liberals” (the kiss of death to Baptists)-smacked of McCarthyism. “They weren’t [liberals],” says Dr. James Brooks, who ultimately left the seminary because of the bickering begun by his pupil, “They were just a little less conservative than he and I were.”
Ultimately, the fate of a fellow student would both sadden and galvanize the young minister. One of Patterson’s best friends from Hardin-Simmons. a pastor who was also studying at the New Orleans seminary, quit school and abandoned his ministry. Paige was outraged. “He lost his direction,” he says now. The seminary was supposed to build faith, not tear it down. Patterson blamed the liberals.
IN MANY WAYS, IT’S AMAZING THAT the Southern Baptist Convention has survived intact for as long as it has. Formally founded in 1845, the National Baptist Convention split in two when Southern churches withdrew primarily over the thorny issue of slavery-the same issue that had divided the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations.
Unlike many other denominations, there was no creed to which Southern Baptists adhered. Their creed, it was often said, was the Bible, and each believer was qualified to interpret Scripture without the intervention of a priest or pastor. Each church was autonomous, ordaining its own ministers and owning its own property. The convention organization existed to give like-minded churches a way to pool their resources for missions and education. The denomination flourished, becoming the unofficial “Church of the South.”
The reluctance to insist on doctrinal parameters was the convention’s strength, at least for many years. “They hesitated to define Southern Baptist doctrine too narrowly,” says Dr. Bill Leonard, Brooks Professor of American Christianity at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. “They always had controversy but compromised to preserve the identity.” But as the culture splintered, so too did the denomination.
Early on. Paige Patterson was damned as a “Norrisite,” after J. Frank Norris, a rip-snorting, double-barreled preacher from Fort Worth who is the closest thing to a demagogue the denomination ever produced. “Norris was a spellbinding orator, a showman of the first order,” says James C. Hefley. a Baptist journalist aligned with the conservatives who has written a widely respected history of the controversy. “He once brought a monkey to church when he preached on evolution.”
Though Norris was by far the most unrestrained in his attacks on liberals, others were becoming concerned about what was being taught in the denominational seminaries. For years, the Southern Baptists had been wrapped in a cocoon of sorts. Professors who had trained in Europe had returned to the United States, getting jobs in seminaries run by Methodists, Presbyterians, and other denominations. After World War II. they began to trickle into Southern Baptist institutions.
Many were steeped in a tradition called “neo-orthodoxy,” which originated in 1919 when Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote a famous commentary on the book of Romans. Barth argued that God had spoken in the Bible, and that it was divinely inspired, but that it may not be true in all matters of history and science.
Barth’s interpretation was the middle ground between fundamentalism and European liberalism, which viewed the Bible as simply the ancient book of a tribal people, comparable to other cultures’ ancient literature, with their stories about creation and floods and Messiahs. Thus, a liberal would see Adam and Eve as clearly mythological. Noah and Jonah as legends used to make a point, and Christ’s miracles as natural phenomena misinterpreted by a naive and superstitious people. Some liberals went as far as denying the divinity of Christ. Neo-orthodoxy may have begun as an attempt to find an intermediate position, but in actual practice, it imported the liberals’ ideas into a conservative theology.
Fundamentalists, who view all scripture as inerrant whether discussing faith, history, or the origin of the world, felt that the “new orthodoxy” was no orthodoxy at all. “It’s what I call Dalmation theology,” says Patter-son in a practiced comeback. “The Bible is inspired in spots, and theologians are inspired to spot the spots. I assure people it will lead them to a dog’s life.”
Some of the primary arguments between conservatives and the neo-orthodox, or “non-inerrantists,” center around the story of creation and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “One must either take the creation story at face value or say it is mythical in nature,” Patterson says. “The problem is that both Jesus and Paul believe it was historical,” he says; therefore, to abandon the creation story is to say that Jesus was in error.
Patterson says that relegating Adam to myth puts Christians on the “slippery slope.” If Adam wasn’t real, then sin entering the world doesn’t matter. “Maybe we’re not all sinners,” he says. “The need for Christ is obviated.”
And if there is one thing that drives Paige Patterson, it’s his burning belief that human beings need Jesus as their Savior. “It’s much more than the inerrancy of the Bible,” says Patterson. “If you give up inerrancy, the first thing to go is eternal punishment. If hell goes, then Jesus Christ doesn’t become nearly as important. If heaven is real and hell is real and if a relationship with Jesus is the only way to avoid one and go to the other.. .well, it is the vividness of that in my soul that propels me and everything I do.”
The confrontation over neo-orthodoxy within the SBC began at Baylor University in 1925, when a student accused a professor of teaching that much of Genesis is fable. The student was expelled, and though the professor was exonerated, he later quietly resigned.
“It has been simmering off and on since then,” says journal istHefley. But denominational leaders refrained from drawing a line in the theological sand, in effect allowing the academics to continue pushing out the parameters of what it meant to be a Southern Baptist. After all, their motto was unity with diversity-agree to disagree, but continue to work together to save souls.
In 1961, a furor that was harder to ignore erupted when Professor Ralph Elliot of Baylor wrote a book published by the Sunday School Board, declaring that stories about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, among others, were “parables,” not history.
It was around this same time that Paige Patterson was crashing headlong into the same liberal dogma at his college and seminary. He could not forget what his father had told him about great Christian-founded universities like Yale and Harvard. As theologians strayed from Biblical truth, his lather had warned, the institutions eventually lost their Christian identity.
And he had seen what had happened to those denominations that let liberalism creep in. The Southern Baptists might end up- gasp-like the Methodists or the Presbyterians, “dying” denominations the burgeoning SBC often held up as examples of the wages of watering down theology.
Still, fretting about decadence and doing something about it seemed two distinctly different things. Patterson had seen Criswell and others preach against liberalism, to no avail. The bureaucracy-its well-paid positions filled largely with people who were non-inerrantists or sympathetic to neo-orthodoxy-was too deeply entrenched. Non-binding resolutions passed at annual conventions by enraged fundamentalists were largely ignored; the issues were frequently glossed over in the denominational press.
The bureaucrats put out fires, but did fit-tie to address the roots of the problem. “There were people behind the scenes who were trying to hold the left and right together,” says Hefley. “They were concerned that if the full story got out there would be a revolt on the right.”
Patterson’s discouragement lifted late one night in 1968, when Paul Pressler knocked on the door of his home in New Orleans. Pressler, then a Texas state legislator and a sixth-generation Southern Baptist, was in town with scholarship money for ministerial students. A mutual friend, knowing that the Princeton graduate was an inerrantist who shared many of Patterson’s concerns, had suggested the young lawyer look up the seminary student.
They went to Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter and ate beignets and drank café au lait until 3 a.m. This meeting would later be characterized as the moment when the “takeover plot” was hatched. That wasn’t true, but it was the time when the two pledged to do everything in their power to turn their denomination around. Later, one opponent would liken them to a tag team of wrestlers-Pressler-Patterson, the strategist and the theologian.
FOUL!”CRIED ONE Baptist leader. Outrage swept the floor of the Houston Summit at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June of 1979. The SBC had a rule: no politicking in the arena during the annual election of the convention president. Their opponents were screaming that Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, now a judge, were politicking big time, rallying their forces from a sky box. Patterson’s reply? The rules prohibit politicking from (the floor– and they weren’t on the floor.
The previous year. Patterson had called together 25 preachers he had identified as being sympathetic to his cause, deliberately excluding those who were potential candidates for president. They met in Atlanta, where Patterson handed out a packet called “Evidences,” which contained quotes from the books of suspiciously liberal professors teaching in Southern Baptist schools.
In Patterson’s manifesto was a strategy for victory, one that had been masterminded by Judge Pressler. Hidden in the SBC constitution was the key: The president, largely a figurehead, has the power to make appointments to the Committee on Committees, which chooses the Committee on Nominations, which then chooses trustees for the various agencies. Each year one-fourth of the trustees were up for replacement. But most presidents, including Criswell, had never bothered to read the constitution. Following tradition, they simply asked the bureaucracy for a list of suitable trustees, then gave the slate a rubber stamp.
Here was the hidden avenue to change: a sympathetic president who. as Reagan vowed to do with the Supreme Court, would appoint like-minded thinkers to key posts year after year. And with that, they could slowly, inexorably change the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, All that remained was to get voting “messengers” from conservative churches to realize the importance of attending the convention and voting for an inerrantist candidate. Each church, no matter the size, is allowed a maximum of 10 votes.
It was a brilliant plan, but there was one problem: What rallying cry would stir the faithful? Patterson felt that “Save the Bible from the Neo-Orthodox!” would be a hard sell. So he borrowed a sure-fire red flag from his conservative brethren in politics: when in doubt, brand ’em a “libber.” Patterson freely admits that there are few true liberals in the Baptist church. But he went out on the stump anyway, preaching of the need to flush the “liberals” from the Southern Baptist system.
His opponents, furious, called him dishonest-and worse. Patterson doesn’t agree that the term is deceptive. He sees it as a practical necessity in an arcane debate too scholarly to get the average man in the pew aroused. Though some hot issues-such as ordination of women-galvanize the two sides, more of the debate is conducted on a technical, scholarly level, with academics arguing about the merits of various critical methods and texts-not exactly red meat for the uninitiated. “We were left with the necessity of using terms they can quickly understand,” Patterson says. “If I call a man a liberal, what I mean is when a man comes to the Bible, he finds fault with it. Obviously there are degrees of liberal. But most Baptists believe the Bible is true. They may not obey it, but they do believe it.”
Patterson’s opponents fought fire with fire, labeling him a fundamentalist, a charge he adroitly blunts. “Am I a fundamentalist?” Patterson says, “I’m a fundamentalist in football-I believe in blocking and tackling. I want a fundamentalist auto mechanic to work on my car. If it means ’he”s legalistic and he’s mad about it,’ that’s not me. I have too much fun in life.”
Patterson says that it wasn’t hard to generate enthusiasm for the plan. One of the most gung-ho of the insurrectionists was the chosen presidential candidate, Adrian Rogers, a vocal inerrantist from Memphis who headed the second largest church in the convention. The only problem was that as of the Monday before the election, Rogers hadn’t agreed to run. “God hadn’t said anything to me” about running, Rogers told Patterson. How could anyone argue with that?
Patterson began to get worried. His revolution was being derailed before it even started. At 1 a.m. the morning before the election, an uneasy Patterson ran into another pastor in the elevator; on the way to the coffee shop, they both encountered Rogers, who was also restless. The three of them went up to Rogers’s room and prayed for an hour. At the end of the hour, Rogers nodded: God had said yes. Patterson rushed to write a nominating speech.
In a highly unusual election, Rogers won on the first ballot, beating five moderates. “There were some establishment moderates who realized they were in trouble right then.” says Patterson. “They knew to fear Adrian.” In fact, several years earlier, one moderate leader had suggested that if Rogers, a charismatic pulpiteer, was ever elected, there would be trouble. But Pressler and Patterson were a surprise, No one had anticipated danger from their direction; nobody knew the judge, and Patterson was a child of the denomination. He had only to keep his mouth shut, and he would be rewarded.
Moderates were furious. “They hauled in the votes to elect Adrian,” says Dr. Kenneth Chafin, pastor of Walnut Hill Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky, who became one of Patterson’s most vociferous opponents. “That was the first time the system had ever been abused this way. Their first and second vice presidential candidates lost because all their people went home. I knew then the system was being prostituted.”
Others chalked it up as a fluke, a result of Rogers’s strong personality. Even Criswell bought that line of thinking, Patterson says. “He was shocked in 1980, astonished in 1981,” when conservative candidates kept on winning. In 1982. the conservatives ran Jimmy Draper, pastor at First Baptist in Euless. They can’t win again. Criswell told Patterson: “Even I don’t know where Euless is.”
But the moderates weren’t able to muster enough support. Paige called Criswell after Draper got 54 percent of the vote. “Lad, it’s a miracle,” a euphoric Criswell said. “It’s like the crossing of the Red Sea.”
The 1985 convention, held in Dallas with 45,000 “messengers” in attendance, was “a zoo,” Patterson says. Tempers were strained, people were fighting over microphones, points of order were being screamed from every direction. Then-president Charles Stanley was struggling to maintain order. “It was the only time I’ve really felt there was a danger we could lose our witness,” Patterson says, referring to the Biblical mandate for believers to “love one another.” Some Baptists worried that secular people witnessing the verbal mayhem might conclude, “If this is Christianity, who needs it?”
While some moderates were slow to catch on, Fort Worth pastor Dr. Cecil Sherman, who calls himself a liberal (by Baptist standards), realized exactly what was happening in 1980 and tried to organize the moderate forces. He was concerned at the strident attacks on liberals, on the “climate of anger” being created. For a long time, he was beating a lone drum.
But as the conservatives continued to win, the moderates’ anger mounted. The rhetoric heated up, with the conservatives’ movement compared to the panzer attacks mounted by that embodiment of Satan in the 20th century. Hitler. (Several conservatives countered with mentions of “skunks,” “snakes,” and “rats” slithering into the SBC.) The moderates’ fury stemmed from a conviction that the conservatives were intent not only on insisting that the Bible was inerrant, but controlling which interpretations of Scripture were correct. They foresaw a time when those who held other opinions would be ferreted out by students or employees with tape recorders and purged from the denominational posts they held. In an organization founded on the belief that each individual could know God and understand the Bible without the mediation of a priest or pope, it was tantamount to a destruction of the SBC’s foundational freedoms, as if Congress voted to delete the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, Patterson was taking other clues from politics. A clever wordsmith, he used “sound bites” like the “Dalmation theory” illustration to define his agenda succinctly and powerfully. It didn’t hurt that the moderates were floundering in their efforts to launch a strong counterattack. “The moderates weren’t able to distance themselves from the true liberals,” says Pinnock. “If they had, they would have had to stand against their friends. And as a result, Paige could tar them all with the same brush.”
At the San Antonio meeting in 1984, which Patterson dubbed “the second battle of the Alamo,” a leading moderate sent out letters linking Patterson and Pressler to the Reconstructionists, a combative group based in Tyler, dedicated to the establishment of a theocracy in the United States. The group wants to graft the law of Moses onto the Constitution.
That charge was so absurd, Patterson says, it probably won them the election that year. As one who believes that Christ must return before a religious kingdom will be set up, Patterson says he would fire anyone on his faculty who preached reconstructionism. “That’s about as compatible with reconstructionism as Arnold Schwarzenegger at a NOW convention,” he says. Moderates such as Brooks repeatedly charged that conservatives had created a well-oiled political machine and cynically manipulated the system. “It was carefully orchestrated,” Brooks says. “I have even compared it to a small dedicated core of communists taking over a country.”
That’s another accusation that rankles Patterson. “A few of the very honest moderates admitted that we only did to them what they had done to us for years,” Patterson says. The conservatives didn’t introduce politicking to the SBC, he says; they just brought it into the open.
Last year, the plot thickened. Letters unearthed from old files revealed years of backstage plotting by prominent moderates, according to Hefley. “The moderates have since admitted that there was an old-boy network that controlled things, and they didn’t care whether Criswell was president for 50 years as long as they made the appointments,” Hefley says.
Patterson and Pressler worked within the system legally and democratically, says Pin-nock. “It’s a brilliant coup they pulled off,” Pinnock says. “It must infuriate the moderates to realize this presidential system could be taken over like this.”
Patterson had achieved his long-sought dream. “I think his role has been one of being the person who had the real insider denominational savvy, who understood not only the political side, but how the institutions worked,” says Dr. Nancy Ammerman, associate professor of sociology of religion at Emory University in Atlanta. Closely aligned with moderates, she has written a book called Baptist Battles.
“One of the key things he’s done is networking and leadership development,” Ammerman says. “He’s had a long-term view: ’What do we want these institutions to be like, and what will it take to make it happen?’ He’s also provided a certain amount of infrastructure there at his office; it’s the nerve center, the heartbeat of the thing. I think they were pretty well organized, but it wasn’t the kind of cynical organization Sherman or Chafin say, where they gave them a slate of people to vote for and then [they] left.
“Most did not understand the theological underpinnings,” Ammerman says. “They (Patterson and Pressler) were able to frame the issue as about believing the Bible. Moderates were never able to make those freedom-related issues what the battle was about. |For the conservatives] believing the Bible comes first and freedom second.”
Though Patterson says his motive for launching the conservative incursion was simple-doctrinal purity-few of his critics have taken that at face value, “I don’t think Paige is driven by doctrinal purity,” says Chafin. who once called Pressler, Patterson, and Rogers, “three sick egos.” “He’s working on his own identity, who he is. When he was a student at seminary, he wasn’t particularly a Bible scholar; he wouldn’t have made it if not for his wife: Paige is essentially an insecure man whose insecurity drove him to do this. If Paige Patterson had not had a powerful father, we never would have heard of him.”
Brooks, who was on Patterson’s doctoral committee at New Orleans Seminary, agrees that it was a power grab. “The theological issue was only one of the issues.” But he doesn’t go along with Chafin’s assessment of Patterson’s intellectual skills. “Paige’s defense of his doctoral thesis was the most brilliant I’d ever seen,” Brooks says.
Whether or not Patterson is into power-mongering, he does not fit the conventional Jim and Tammy Faye stereotypes of fundamentalists. Like most Southern Baptists, says Joe Barnhart, professor of religious studies at the University of North Texas, Patterson is complicated. “Some think he’s interested only in power,” says Barnhart, who has written a book called Baptist Holy Wars. “I don’t. I think he’s sincere. He’s interested in power only in order to protect what he thinks is right.”
That doesn’t mean Barnhart agrees with Patterson on anything else; he calls Patterson’s brand of Christianity “an incredibly brutal religion.” Barnhart espouses a type of “process philosophy.” based on the concept that God is evolving. In reaction to that. Patterson simply grins and calls Barnhart “Exhibit A”: a Southern Baptist who attended seminary and as a result rejected Christianity. “I would fight to the death for his right to believe that.” Patterson says. “But he proves my point.”
At the most recent SBC meeting, during the summer of !990 in New Orleans, the flock saw the election of yet another conservative despite the pronouncement by seminary president Russell Dilday that the conservative movement was “unholy and Satanic,” words he later tried to claim he hadn’t said.
On Tuesday, June 21 at 3:21 p.m., after the vote was announced, Patterson says he knew the war was over. The moderates had mounted counterattack after counterattack, and failed to win a single election. It was unlikely they could mount a significant challenge, at least until the end of the millennium. And now enough conservative trustees were in place; changes were being made slowly but surely. Patterson, the iner-rantist, had won.
WIDE-BODIED. HANDS JINGLING change in his pockets. Patterson paces slowly in front of his philosophy class at Criswell College. Most of the students are men, but a handful of women, including Carmen, his 20-year-old daughter, occupy seals as well. Carmen left Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College after a year because it was “too strict.”
Patterson’s wife Dorothy, who has one doctorate in theology and is working on a second, teaches a class at Criswell. but she takes no pay. because she wants to be able to call in a substitute when her family needs her. Described by one friend as “a pistol,” Dorothy is often called “the power behind the man.” It’s clear that she and Paige are extremely close. Her resume is included on his. The author of a book called The Sen-suous Woman Reborn, as well as several other tomes on the role of women, Dorothy chose not to work outside the home while her children were small.
“My passion is the home, and I love Paige Patterson passionately.” Dorothy says. “It was Paige Patterson who made the decision I should get a theological education,” She now travels frequently, giving talks to Christian women’s groups on the importance of motherhood. One of her biggest thrills recently was the announcement by Carmen that her ambition was to be a wife and mother.
The school is designed to give aspiring preachers and missionaries 100 hours in Bible before they enter their ministries. Each year, Patterson teaches one or two classes. Today, he’s talking about the Idealists: Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. his favorite. “[Schopenhauer] believed life was essentially evil.” Patterson says, “and had a reputation for sexual overindulgence.”
“Alriiight!” says one young minister-to-be. Patterson smiles bemusedly. “Let’s all stop and pray for Schepey.”
Later, Patterson explains that the paranoiac, grim Schopenhauer appeals to him because he was, above all things, consistent in his misery. “He was sort of a pitiful character,” Patterson says. “If he would have run into an evangelical, he would have had a different life.”
This month, the school will begin operations in its new facility, the beautifully renovated Gaston Avenue Baptist Church several blocks from Baylor Hospital. The original Greek-style building, built in 1904, will house the library, with a capacity for a quarter-million books.
Patterson sees the new facility, topped with a glittering gold dome that will be visible from two freeways, as a tourist attraction. He plans to build a room on the roof of one of the buildings to allow the re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper several nights a week, an idea he’s been working on for a while. Patrons will recline at low tables, and participate in a replication of Christ’s last meal with his disciples.
Patterson laughs when asked a question posed by Joe Barnhart regarding the fate of the seminary libraries after the conservatives control the SBC: “What will he do with all the books that don’t agree with inerrancy?” Will they be purged from the shelves?
’That’s silly,”’ Patterson says, shaking his head. At least half the books currently in the library are by liberal writers, including Barnhart, he says. He wants his students to read liberal as well as conservative writings. “That’s where we’re different from the liberals,” Patterson says. “They don’t read conservative writing. We read both. We just don’t advocate liberalism.”
Patterson gets exasperated at those who claim he simply wants to indoctrinate students instead of educate them. Criswell students are taught all forms of criticism, including those most often used by neo-orthodox and liberal scholars, he says. They are taught evolution theory as well as creation theory. “If they are going to be educated men and women, they have to know,” Patterson says. “We try to make a fair representation. No thoroughgoing evangelical will say that other views should be ignored. The key word here is advocacy.”
Patterson travels frequently these days; he’s made more than 30 trips to the Middle East, returning from Baghdad last summer just before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. (And does he really believe that Hussein is the Antichrist? “Of course not! But it draws a crowd.”)
Like many evangelicals, Patterson holds Israel, where he lived one summer, especially dear. In 1980, he became a marriage broker of sorts when the SBC’s president Bailey Smith proclaimed at a political rally that “God does not hear the prayers of Jews.” American Jews were horrified, wondering if that pronouncement from the leader of the country’s largest Protestant group was a portent of bigotry to come. It seemed for a time that the emerging relationship between evangelicals and Jews was frozen.
“At that critical moment, Paige played an invaluable role in opening dialogue with Bailey Smith (and Jewish leaders),” says Mark Briskman, director of the Dallas Anti-Defamation League. The conversations led to Smith’s attendance of Passover Seder at Briskman’s home in 1981, an occasion documented by the press, and the first of many joint Anti-Defamation League/Southern Baptist Convention mission trips to Israel,
Patterson’s empathy for Israel has at times caused problems within his own family. His adopted brother, David Amad, a successful Houston businessman, is Palestinian and a financial supporter of the PLO, an issue that has sometimes strained their relationship. Amad came to live with the Patterson family when he was 13 and Paige was 11. “I can honestly tell you I have never met a man that is so unselfish as Paige Patterson,” says Amad, who met T.A. and Roberta Patterson on the street during one of their forays to Israel. His mother was dead, and his father ran a small shop. He became a Christian three months after coming to America.
’Any teenager would have been jealous of this kid who took the spotlight away from him,” says Amad. “I was very popular in school. Paige wasn’t. Throughout that, he never displayed any jealousy. I disagree with Paige politically, theologically, but I think he has a wonderful heart. He never made me feel for one day that he was not my brother.”
DESPITE THE HEATED TALK OF PURGES and inquisitions, little has changed in the Southern Baptist Convention structure since the conservative takeover. No professors have been fired from the Baptist seminaries, though some have quit in disgust, angry at reports that Patterson encouraged taping of professors. “I agree with John Silber [president of Boston University),” Patterson says. “Of course we tape classroom lectures. No one needs to fear a tape if he is responsible.”
Attrition and retirement will take care of most of those professors with liberal leanings, Patterson says. As they leave, conservative trustees will replace them with inerrantist teachers, and the wholesale changes Patterson has spent more than a decade working for will be firmly in place.
Patterson, however, is capable of bringing down the ax on his own faculty. In 1985, a Criswell professor resigned under pressure after writing a paper that seemed to waffle on the question of salvation-for Baptists, of course, it is by faith in Christ alone. “That was a far more serious issue to me than inerrancy,” says Patterson. “It’s interesting that none of our seminaries would hire him. And the Baptist press didn’t go to print with it.”
As for the national level, there have been some changes. A foreign missionary was let go, and two denominational journalists were sacked. That aroused the ire of Bill Movers, television journalist and former Southern Baptist, who complained that the conservatives were trying to stifle freedom of expression. “Nobody took away their freedom,” Patterson retorts. “They can write or talk. It’s unadulterated silliness to maintain that we need to pay them to criticize us. That would not happen at The New York Times.”
In addition, the SBC’s Christian Life Commission has reversed its stance on abortion, and SBC funds to the moderate-supported Baptist Joint Committee, a Washington-based lobbying group for nine Baptist denominations, have been cut dramatically. On the other hand, some members of the moderate opposition, including Brooks and Pinnock, have been tapped to write chapters for the new Bible commentary being published by the Sunday School Board.
But moderates’ anguish remains more acute than ever. Dr. Cecil Sherman is bitter. “It’s unbelievably sad,” he says, “but it is done. They won. They authored this and most shamefully, they are proud of this. Whatever [Patterson’s] intentions, the effects of this are wicked. The man’s sin is that he puts himself in God’s place. That’s the sin of judgment. In one sense, they’re medieval Catholics. They’ll tell you what to do.”
Figures for 1988 show that while the Southern Baptist Convention is still growing, the increase in membership has slowed. However, that may be simply a reflection of national trends. Other mainline Protestant churches continue to lose membership.
Patterson told one newspaper that he didn’t think the fight would hurt church membership. “It’s sort of like being awoken at night by the sound of a bunch of cats in a neighborhood fight,” Patterson said. “You think to yourself that the howling is so bad there can’t be possibly any cats left in the morning. Then you wake up and find that the only thing they made was more cats.”
But if the war has not caused erosion in the pews, Patterson says he regrets the bitter feelings that remain. “There were times when I let things get to me and make me angry, when I spoke without love and charity,” Pat-terson says. “I don’t enjoy having hurt some people, or the loss of privacy.”
In Texas, the battle for souls, minds, and money has moved to Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist educational institution. It promises to be a harsh confrontation, no matter who wins. After the 1990 electoral battles, Baylor president Dr. Herbert Reynolds announced a move to protect his school from a conservative takeover by restructuring the board of trustees, removing it from the control of the General Baptist Convention of Texas, which provides about 10 percent of its income.
The move delighted moderates and angered conservatives, who have been a target of Reynolds’s stinging comments. He has opined publicly about the “deep-seated personality needs” of the movement’s leaders, and commented on the “sociopath-ology” of the fundamentalists.
Patterson says that Reynolds’s tactics might backfire on him. “Many moderates are standing with us against Baylor’s action,” says Patterson, who claims that Baylor has only one avowed inerrantist in its religion department.
He predicts the issue will wind up in court. “I think Baylor will lose,” he says, “but you never know.” If Baylor wins, it’s almost assured that the state convention will pull millions in funding from the school. This is somewhat ironic because conservatives do not have the same stranglehold on the state convention that they do on the national level. Reynolds’s maneuverings may have alienated some moderates who have up to now stood against the conservatives but see Baylor going the way of Duke University. One joke going around Baptist circles: “Paige Patterson could never make me a fundamentalist, but Herb Reynolds just might.”
When the war is over, what do the generals do? Patterson is vague on his future, saying that he “will do whatever God wants him to do.” Critics say he will settle for the presidency of one of the seminaries, but that his abiding ambition is to run the Foreign Mission Board, for which he is currently a trustee.
Criswell says that he expects Patterson to remain at the helm of Criswell College. “By the year 2000, there will be 1,000 preachers in it, and all of them fundamental,” Criswell says. Patterson’s real aspirations may be far more transparent than most people give him credit for. Last summer, while Paige and Dorothy were in the Middle East, Amad helped arrange a meeting between the Pattersons and Yassir Arafat. Instead of discussing international politics during the two-hour Arab feast held in Saddam Hussein’s guest house, Paige Patterson talked to Arafat about-what else?-the PLO leader’s need for a relationship with Jesus.
WHEN SHE SAW THE MARQUEE OUTSIDE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH THAT MORNING, SUZI PANG HAD A flash. Since coming to work as a special assistant to Dr. Paige Patterson in 1988, the young woman had had a long-running battle with her boss-a contest to see who could pull the funniest practical jokes.