The Battle for the Bible

  • submit to reddit

As part of his God and Politics series, Bill Moyers explores how America’s largest Protestant denomination is locked in a fierce theological and political fight in The Battle for the Bible.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. We first aired “The Battle for the Bible” in December of 1987, as part of our series on “God and Politics,” and immediately started a more worldly battle of our own. I’ll be back after the documentary to fill you in on the latest dispatches from the front.

ROBERT TENER: Yesterday was the most significant day in American Christianity, because for the first time in history, a major denomination was turned back to its conservative roots, and that’s never happened before. And my view is that it’s even more significant than the Protestant Reformation.

HENRY CROUCH: Their freedom as a Baptist is at stake. Their freedom as a citizen is at stake. The autonomy of the church is at stake. Religious liberty is at stake. All of those principles that we hold dear, I felt like that last night we stopped being Baptists.

DANIEL VESTAL: They’re using raw power. It’s our side against your side. We win, you lose. Now, that may be valid in the world of secular politics, but I contend that in the work of the kingdom of God there’s no place for that.

RUBERT REED: Either you accept the whole Bible or you don’t. Either you believe in all of the word of God or you don’t. Since there has been the Southern Baptist Convention, since this organization existed, sure, there’s been divisions, but not-I mean, we’ve had our battles, but we just don’t go to war. This time we’re about to go to war.

BILL MOYERS [voice-over]: It’s been called a holy war: America’s largest Protestant denomination locked in a battle for the Bible. The stakes are not only theological; the battle for the Bible is also political, a battle for church and state, a battle for America.

MOYERS [voice-over]: I grew up a Southern Baptist in this church, the Central Baptist Church of Marshall, Texas. My parents still worship where I was baptized as a teenager. Everything I first learned about faith and democracy I learned from this congregation. I didn’t learn a creed from these people; there was no creed and no coercion. They practiced the priesthood of the believer: every Christian is competent to deal directly with God, no human being and no institution comes between you.

They taught me to read the Bible for myself. It was central to faith, our source of devotional strength and moral guidance. The important thing was my own experience with the Bible; not what anyone said about the Bible, but what the Bible said to me. No one could force agreement on any particular interpretation of scripture. We argued about all of it; put two Baptists in the same room, the old saying goes, and you’ll get three opinions.

LEADER, Sunday School class: How else might they respond to that?

MEMBER, Sunday School class: You bear your own burden first.

MOYERS [voice-over]: We were democrats with a small D, a self-governing democracy. Baptists call it the autonomy of the local church. We chose our own leaders, developed our own programs, without interference from any ecclesiastical organization. Not only was every believer equal before God, each member’s vote was equal to any other.

I learned politics in this church, the politics of good faith.

[on camera] There are 134 different Baptist groups in the world, 134. The one thing they have in common, apart from faith in Christ, is freedom. Each local church decides for itself in matters of faith and practice. Together, Southern Baptists contribute over $3.5 billion a year through their churches and institutions; they cooperate in sending out 7,000 missionaries and supporting 53 colleges and six seminaries. Even so, here in this church I was taught that the core of fellowship was not doctrine or dogma, but freedom; the soul’s freedom to follow the teachings of the Bible as one feels led by the spirit of God.

[voice-over] Baptists were born fighting for freedom, and they suffered for it. In Europe they lost their lives for insisting on the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. In colonial America, they were beaten or sent into exile for preaching the gospel their way, and for refusing to pay taxes to support an official religion. Baptists joined in the American revolution, and then agitated for writing freedom of religion into law. With others, they lobbied the Philadelphia convention for Article VI of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or trust of the United States.” And just to be safe, they agitated for a bill of rights guaranteeing the free exercise of religion. “Soul freedom,” they called it — freedom of conscience.

Baptists spread like wildfire throughout the land and carried with them a flaming commitment to the free choice of faith symbolized by baptism. Being Baptists, they split and split, and split again. Over slavery, the Bible, theology and just about everything else. That’s why there are so many different kinds of Baptists- from Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought segregation, to Jerry Falwell, who defended it; from Jesse Helms to Jesse Jackson; from Jimmy Carter, who was president, to Pat Robertson, who wants to be president.

Out of the five major Baptist groups in this country, Southern Baptists are by and far the largest. While other mainstream Protestant churches have drifted to the theological left and watched their numbers diminish, Southern Baptists have remained conservative in belief and are still growing: 37,000 churches, with 14.5 million members.

[on camera] Until the 1940s, Southern Baptists were locked in the segregated South, where their influence was powerful, but parochial. Now they have churches in 50 states and exert influence nationwide- more influence than you’re probably aware of. But something’s been happening to Southern Baptists, something alien to my experience growing up in this church, something, well, not quite Baptist.

One sizable faction of fundamentalists, feeling disenfranchised by more moderate leaders, set out to take over the denomination. That’s not new. What’s new is their determination to make one view of the Bible -their view -the test of religious and political truth. For Baptists, that’s radical, and for America it’s political dynamite, because how Baptists read the Bible affects how they cast their ballots.

No one understands that better than the man who triggered this battle of the Bible 10 years ago, from the pulpit of the biggest Southern Baptist church in the world, three hours due west from here in Dallas, Texas.

W.A. CRISWELL, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Dallas: [preaching] …From the great apostle… There are no historical errors in the Bible. All that we know confirms the truth of the word of God.

MOYERS [voice-over]: W.A. Criswell has been preaching from this pulpit for 43 years, preaching always that the Bible is literally, factually true, from the parting of the Red Sea to the virgin birth of Jesus.

[interviewing] You call yourself a literalist. How do you define that?

DR. CRISWELL: Yes. I just think the Bible literally is true. Just from the beginning to the end of it.

MOYERS: Doctrinally?


MOYERS: Scientifically?


MOYERS: Historically?

DR. CRISWELL: Historically, yes.

MOYERS: In every way?

DR. CRISWELL: In every way.

MOYERS: And by liberal, you mean those people who say that Adam and Eve were not necessarily historical figures, that they were representative of the human race?

DR. CRISWELL: That’s correct.

MOYERS: And people who say that miracles didn’t necessarily happen, that they are parables of truth.

DR. CRISWELL: That’s correct.

MOYERS: That’s a liberal.

DR. CRISWELL: That’s correct, that’s correct, that’s correct.

MOYERS: You mean, liberal theologically.

DR. CRISWELL: That’s right. For when the man starts going that way, it’s not long until he puts his Bible down and he picks up psychology and sociology and political science, and the Lord only knows what all. You’ve got to stay by that Bible and what it says, and if you ever turn aside from it, you’re going to tum into all of those other things. Now, that’s why you have the struggle in the Convention; one or the other of us is going to prevail in this Convention, ultimately.

DR. CRISWELL [preaching]: I think if you don’t believe the Bible, you ought to quit the ministry.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Early in his ministry, Criswell published a list of professors he said were interpreting the Bible in light of new historical research, and turning Southern Baptist schools into infidel institutions. He called for their expulsion. Then, 10 years ago, Criswell’s ideas about the Bible became the platform for an organized political campaign to take over the denomination and purify it.

[interviewing] But what about that old Baptist doctrine that each of us is free to interpret the scripture in submission to the holy spirit?

DR. CRISWELL: That is a ruse.

MOYERS: A ruse?

DR. CRISWELL: That’s a cover-up. That’s a- that’s a- a bowing out.

MOYERS: How is that, Dr. Criswell?

DR. CRISWELL:When I say that I believe in the literal meaning and in interpretation of the Bible, that it says what it means and means what it says, when I say that, I automatically bind myself to the authority of the scriptures. That means I do not have the authority to take it and make it mean something else. And it speaks for itself, God saw to that, he didn’t write enigmas and unintelligible things in the Bible for us, he wrote them plainly and all I have to do is to read it and believe it and implement it in my life. And of course, for me, in my preaching.

MOYERS: But I’m not prepared to have anyone say what the holy spirit is saying to me.

DR. CRISWELL:If you will let the holy spirit say to you in your heart what I’m reading here in the Bible is the literal truth, and if the holy spirit is allowed to teach you that truth of God as you read the Bible, you’ll come out saying the same thing I do.

MOYERS: Is there no room in the Baptist fellowship for Christians who believe that the Bible is true in matters of faith and practice, but are not willing to apply it to history and science?

DR. CRISWELL: Not to me. Not to me. Let them go to some other school. Let them pastor some other churches. But to me, they don’t belong with us.

MOYERS: One journal a few years ago said that by the 1980s, the Southern Baptist denomination would [have] ”a Criswellian soul.” Is that happening?

DR. CRISWELL: Wouldn’t I love that!

MOYERS [voiceover]: That Criswellian soul is emerging in Southern Baptist life. More and more, their annual meetings are dominated by his disciples, who believe in biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is literally without error, in history, science and theology. Moderates in the denomination say the Bible contains no theological error, but they do not use the term inerrancy. They say Baptists should not claim for the Bible what the Bible does not claim for itself.

But for nine years they’ve been losing out to the fundamentalist campaign organized by followers of Dr. Criswell. Men like Paige Patterson, the associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and the president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, and this man, Paul Pressler, a Baptist layman in Houston, and a judge on the state appellate court. Paul Pressler is their chief political architect of the fundamentalist campaign.

PAUL PRESSLER, State Appellate Court Judge, Houston: I started off wanting to find out what was going on. Five students who had trusted the Lord through a Bible study I had were freshmen at Baylor, and they called me one night and said, “Paul, will you come up to Baylor and read our textbook and hear what we’re hearing in our freshman religion class? We’re confused and we don’t know what to think.” So I went up to Waco in the next few days, sat down with them, saw their textbook, and I was absolutely amazed.

MOYERS: By what, give me an example.

JUDGE PRESSLER: Well, it talked about the errors in the Book of Daniel. And one of the sentence- it talked about the fact that there were errors, and then it says, “Whether or not the errors are intentional, they serve to illustrate…” and it goes on from there. The text- their freshman religion textbook did not give even- even give them the option that Daniel might be free from error and might be given by God.

MOYERS: And what did you conclude from that?

JUDGE PRESSLER: Well, if you start saying that there is error in scripture, where do you stop? Because once you start on the rollercoaster of saying that you can super≠ impose human rationalistic thinking above scripture, and make yourself the judge of scripture, every moral concept, every doctrinal concept, is at the mercy of the humanistic, rationalistic thinking of the person who tries to reinterpret scripture to suit himself.

MOYERS: And where was this happening?

JUDGE PRESSLER: It was happening in some of our Baptist institutions.

MOYERS: So you knew that if you could get conservative trustees appointed to the boards of the agencies, the seminaries, the schools, they would take care of the concerns that had aggravated you.

JUDGE PRESSLER: Exactly. I’d go from one town to another, and meet with people and tell them what was going on, and just tell them there’s a way to do something about it. If you’re interested, do something about it.

MOYERS: And you told them that way was?

JUDGE PRESSLER: Was to come and vote your own personal convictions and elect somebody who would make the proper appointments to change the trustees so that the trustees could properly function in correcting the problems at their institutions.

MOYERS: What’s the most speeches you’ve made in a week?


MOYERS: In one week?


MOYERS: And you were still able to attend to your duties here as a judge?

JUDGE PRESSLER: That’s right. I was able to be here on Thursday afternoon when my panel meets, and then to take my briefs, the transcripts of the record, my opinions to rework along with me, and I could do that in a motel room as well as I could do it in my office. So I traveled a great deal, and just met with people. The attacks on us gave us the audience, and people listened.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Other forces were at work in the late 1970s, as fundamentalists set out to put Southern Baptists straight about the Bible. Political and religious conservatives were angry at what they denounced as moral decadence in America.

MAN:Let’s give a cheer for Jesus. Give me a J!


MAN: Give me an E!


MOYERS [voice-over]: They organized to oppose abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights legislation. The religious right was on the march, right into the voting booth.

JERRY FALWELL: During the 1980s, preachers, we have a threefold primary responsibility. Number one, get people saved; number two, get them baptized; number three, get them registered to vote.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Here in Dallas, the religious right and the political right formally wed. The 1980 Religious Roundtable was dominated by Baptist pastors and evangelists, and W.A. Criswell performed the vows.

DR. CRISWELL [Religious Roundtable, Dallas, 1980]: Governor Ronald Reagan.

RONALD REAGAN: Thank you, Dr. Criswell. Now, I know this is a nonpartisan gathering, and so I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.

MOYERS [voice-over]: In Ronald Reagan the fundamentalists found a politician who read the Bible as literally as they do.

REAGAN: …that I continue to look to the scriptures today for fulfillment and for guidance. Indeed, it is an incontrovertible fact that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting us, at home and worldwide, have their answer in that single book.

MOYERS [voice-over]: And to the thundering summons of Southern Baptist evangelist James Robison, they went forth to do battle.

JAMES ROBISON, Evangelist:I am sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the communists coming out of the closet – it’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America. We must do it.

MOYERS [voice-over]: When the Republicans renominated President Reagan at their 1984 convention in Dallas, Dr. Criswell was there to ask God’s blessing..

DR. CRISWELL [Republican National Convention, Dallas, 1984]: Now bless us as we march to victory and a greater destiny. God bless our president and our vice president, the leaders…

MOYERS [voice-over]: By the mid-1980s, Southern Baptist annual conventions began to look like precinct meetings of the Republican Party. Fundamentalists were turning out in swarms, and it was Ronald Reagan’s turn to give his blessing.

CHARLES STANLEY [Southern Baptist Convention, Dallas, 1985]: I would like to take this moment to read a letter from President Ronald Reagan to the Southern Baptist Convention. “More and more Americans are becoming aware of the tragedy that is abortion, and you can take a share of the credit for that awareness. The right of our children to pray, like their right to live, must be restored, and I am counting on men and women like you to continue to work until these things have been remedied. Once again, and with all of my heart, I ask God to bless you. Ronald Reagan.”

MOYERS [voice-over]: By out-organizing their moderate opponents, the fundamentalists were winning one skirmish after another. Messengers aroused by Judge Pressler’s grassroots crusade arrived each year to elect one of their own as convention president, including a co-founder of the Moral Majority. Each president in turn began to name fundamentalists to the powerful committees that appoint trustees who run the denomination’s seminaries, colleges, boards and agencies.

Moderates fought back.

MAN [Southern Baptist Convention, Atlanta, 1986]: Tuesday morning, I introduced a resolution which takes a stand against the use of secret recordings of fellow Baptists.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Several moderates even filed lawsuits in federal and state courts, charging one fundamentalist president with violating bylaws of the denomination’s constitution.

They were too late. By 1987 the fundamentalists controlled the denomination’s superstructure. Their biblical agenda and the social agenda of the New Right, had become indistinguishable. From the committee on boards to the resolutions committee, they now had the majority votes to work their will.

MAN [committee meeting]: …the resolution on abortion, believing as we do that abortion is the illegitimate taking of human life.

2nd MAN: Scriptural semantics regarding ending of life illegitimately, is the word murder. I believe that’s what abortion is. I think that’s what Southern Baptists ought to say, and I personally am not comfortable with backing off of that if they turn it down 99 and 44/100 percent. Let’s go with the strongest statement we can make, and tell Southern Baptists this is what it is, this our opinion about it, and we ask you to sustain us in that opinion.

3rd MAN: As far as abortion being murder, I think we can draw a case out of scripture…

JAMES DUNN, Executive Director, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs: One on our staff, for instance, talked with a staffer at the White House whose assignment was religion who boasted that he wrote a resolution that was passed at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1982, wrote it in the White House. Isn’t that interesting?

MOYERS: What was the resolution?

MR. DUNN: The resolution was on the amendment, the school prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

MOYERS [voice-over]: James Dunn is a prime target of the fundamentalist party. The Baptist committee he directs in Washington is a watchdog for religious liberty. But the fundamentalists are threatening to pull Dunn’s support or fire him, because he will not lobby for the religious right’s agenda.

[interviewing] So the resolution passed by the Baptists favoring school prayer was drafted in the Reagan White House.

MR. DUNN: Oh, yes. The man who wrote it boasted about having done so, and shipped it to the site of the convention that year in New Orleans. And this is an interesting thing. So there was a–

MOYERS: Are you saying that the White House had Baptist-

MR. DUNN: I don’t think he was a Baptist, but he was a religious liaison person with the folks on that resolutions committee, and he shipped the resolution to them, and the resolutions committee successfully brought it to the floor and passed it in 1982. But that’s simply the most glaring illustration of the attempt and the successful attempt of secular politics to move into the denomination. There are lots of other evidences there.

MOYERS: Would these Southern Baptists ever have passed a resolution favoring official school prayer if it hadn’t been for the alliance between the Baptist conservatives and the Republican conservatives in the White House?

MR. DUNN: I doubt it. I doubt it.

MOYERS: All of this seems to be in opposition to everything you, James Dunn, had fought for all your life.

MR. DUNN: It is.

MOYERS: A resolution written by White House, whether it’s Democrat or Republican.

MR. DUNN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MOYERS: Dunn is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Since 1981 he’s been the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. It’s supported by Southern Baptists and eight other Baptist groups. The committee’s job has been to protect the Baptist birthright, religious liberty, from encroachment by government. It has opposed state-sponsored prayer in schools and aid to parochial education as violations of the First Amendment.

MR. DUNN: It’s none of the business of government to get in the game of prescribing or mandating or structuring or planning or organizing religion at all.

MOYERS: There were Baptists around that convention hall this morning talking about federal aid to parochial schools, vouchers for church schools. You’re opposed to that.

MR. DUNN: I oppose it for religious reasons on two grounds. First of all, the separation of church and state ground, because we don’t need tax dollars being put over here into a bucket over which we as citizens have no control. Church and state- once they get into the private and parochial schools, we have no real control over that as citizens. Or from the church perspective, once the federal dollars come in to fund the private or parochial school, the federal guidelines and controls inevitably follow. So that’s the church-state argument.

From the moral and ethical argument perspective, I vigorously resist the notion of fragmenting, of short-changing, of dehydrating the flow of funds to the public schools that are required to take every learning disabled child, every discipline problem, every poor child who couldn’t afford even the- even the poorest of the private or parochial school, even with a voucher. No voucher plan as yet come up have been remotely suggested that would make it possible for the poorest of the poor to go to the private and parochial schools.

MOYERS [voice-over]: The fundamentalists who want to fire Dunn are especially mad because he will not try to turn around the Supreme Court decisions on abortion and school prayer.

[interviewing] You went to Nashville and testified against the Baptist Joint Committee.

ANN FRAZIER, Home Mission Board: Surely did.


MS. FRAZIER: Because of their opposition to or promotion of abortion. They had not helped us in Washington at all, stop that murder of the unborn child, against the prayer and the issues such as this.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Ann Frazier is a Southern Baptist from North Carolina, where she’s been active in textbook battles and on the state’s Health Education Commission.

[interviewing] Do you feel you would like to see the Baptist Joint Committee…

MS. FRAZIER: Our own voice in Washington was what I called for.

MOYERS: Lobbying against abortion.

MS. FRAZIER: Yes, you’re right.

MOYERS: Lobbying against- lobbying for school prayer.

MS. FRAZIER: Yes. In the name of Jesus Christ. Yes.

MOYERS: If you were chairman of the Baptist Joint Committee trustees, would you fire Jim Dunn?

MS. FRAZIER: I think if he wants to reflect our feelings and, you know, go along with us, instead of what the Supreme Court has said, you know, we believe that God’s authoritative word speaks louder than what the Supreme Court says. And so that’s what we would want him to reflect.

MAN [at convention]: Microphone number four.

DAN DANIELS: I move that this convention vote to remove the Southern Baptist Convention from participation in the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs…

MOYERS: Do you want to see James Dunn Dunn fired?

DAN DANIELS, Lay Delegate: Absolutely. He doesn’t want, not only prayer in schools, but he just doesn’t want anybody in there period. Any God- he doesn’t want God in the schools, apparently. In other words, the only way you’re going to have God in the schools, is if you have something that indicates God is in the schools. Now, when you’re talking about God in our hearts, that’s fine, but if our schools become completely humanized, which there’s no middle ground, there’s no such thing as a vacuum, either humanism will be in control of our children, or God will be in control of our children in the schools.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Dan Daniels, a Southern Baptist layman, was on the Alabama State Textbook Committee, reviewing textbooks for public schools.

MR. DANIELS: I am a conservative, and I believe that God’s word is literal, the Bible is literal insofar as the original autographs are concerned. And I believe that Adam and Eve were real people, for instance.

MOYERS [voice-over]: That literal belief in the Bible’s inerrancy is what the fundamentalists are demanding of anyone who works for the denomination. Increasingly, professors and agency staff are being confronted with the doctrinal equivalent of a loyalty oath. They in turn see it as orthodoxy imposed on a denomination long noted for having a belief about the Bible, rather than a belief inspired by the Bible. The moderates regard it as an assault on their own integrity as Baptists.

MR. DUNN: Probably the one thing that makes Baptists different is this insistence upon maintaining their right to be different. That sounds kind of cliche-ish, but at least historically, our insistence upon what we call soul freedom, or the competence of the individual for God, or- it’s kind of the Baptist spin, as the P.R. types put it, on the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of the believer.

MOYERS: Priesthood of the believer.

MR. DUNN: That spin on that doctrine is the thing, we’ve always agreed in the past that we could at least continue to disagree. And that’s been the thing that has kept Baptists vital.

MOYERS: Freedom of conscience.

MR. DUNN:.Freedom of conscience in- not in simply the popular kind of man on the street understanding of freedom of conscience, but freedom of conscience as an innate, inherent, universal right for every human being, every human being of any kind. The right to say no to God, the right to say no to any and all assault on the intellect. The right to say no to any and all appeals to the imagination and emotions. The insistence upon bowing the knee to no man-that’s been right at the heart of whatever makes Baptists different.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Freedom was the issue to Dunn’s friends as the convention this year moved to a decisive vote.

MAN: A whole generation of folks who have really, either have never known or have forgotten what our real heritage in history is as Baptists, as being the oppressed minority. Who had to fight for the right to be different, and to disagree and to hold a different view about scripture, and that’s really our history.

2nd MAN: There’s simply nothing Baptistic about purging people.

3rd MAN: Very ironic.

WOMAN: It’s painful for me, because I left the Catholic Church before Vatican II in 1961. And my- one of my biggest issues was that I didn’t need a church or an authority or a creed, and that I could go right to God. And so to see this, you know, in the denomination that I left my family and everything else, you know, it’s very painful.

4th MAN: It is- it has to do with coercion and freedom. Freedom is the issue.

MAN [preaching]: You don’t have to understand all the Bible to believe all the Bible. You can’t kick God out of…

MOYERS [voice-over]: No recent issue of scriptural interpretation has proved more divisive to Southern Baptists than the ordination of women. Pastors and editors can face censure or the loss of jobs if they publicly support women’s ordination. Fundamentalists say women can serve in the church, but the Bible does not permit them to have authority over men.

[interviewing] What is the biblical base for your position on the ordination of women?

DR. CRISWELL: Bill, let me sarcastically answer that, if I can be forgiven.

MOYERS: I’ll forgive you, but I’m not sure…

DR. CRISWELL: The scripture says, you know, in I Timothy, chapter three, “For the bishop, the preacher, the elder, is to be the husband of one wife,” and I say sarcastically, facetiously, if a woman can be the husband of one wife, ordain her, that’ll be fine. Just go ahead.

MOYERS: Now, is that a literal reading of scripture?

DR. CRISWELL: That’s a literal reading of the scripture.

MOYERS: Some people tell me that it’s because they read the Bible to say man to be created, and woman was the first to fall. But you don’t hold to that, I gather.

DR. CRISWELL: Oh, no. Plainly, Bill, that is written in the Bible for the preacher, your pastor, is to be the husband of one wife.

MOYERS: Should women not be ordained, then?

DR. CRISWELL: No, sir, they should not be ordained.

MOYERS: Should they not be in authority over men?


MOYERS: What should a young woman do if she sincerely believes she’s been called by God to be a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention?

DR. CRISWELL: She is mistaken. God never called her. Her own personal ambition, or longing for recognition or a thousand other things lead her into that persuasion.

MOYERS: What should she do? I’ve talked to some women who believe they have been called to be pastors.

DR. CRISWELL: There are 10,000 ways that women can serve, and serve effectively and beautifully. They do here in this church. The women actually run the church, there’s no doubt about that. My wife, these women, gracious alive, if I don’t get along with the women, I couldn’t pastor the church, I wouldn’t have a church. They exert an enormous influence in it, but they ought not to be the pastor and the preacher up there in the pulpit.

MOYERS: Because?

DR. CRISWELL: God says they’re not to be there, that’s the reason. Not because I said it, God says it.

REV. NANCY HASTINGS SEHESTED, Former Associate Pastor, Oakhurst Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia: The century before this, they used scripture to justify slavery. So we always have a way of using scripture for justification of our own opinions and desires. And so this is not a new kind of tactic to use for women, to keep them in their place, is to pull out some scripture.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Nancy Hastings Sehested is one of 450 women ordained as Southern Baptist ministers. Local churches are free to ordain women if the congregation votes to do so, but only 11 churches -11 out of 37,000 -have asked a woman to serve as pastor.

[interviewing] What did you think when, three years ago, this convention adopted a resolution against the ordination of women as Baptist ministers?

REV. SEHESTED: That resolution was really against all women, so it was a tragic statement against women, not just women as ministers. And I saw it as another sign of sexism and wanting to keep women down. It was just- it was terrible. It’s another distraction from the kinds of things that we need to be about.

MOYERS: Which are?

REV. SEHESTED: If we can distract- if we can distract ourselves on issues like women, or something- something like inerrancy of scripture, that is so abstract and wild, if we can chase after those kind of helium-filled balloons of abstraction, then we don’t have to really attend to the kind of commitment that we- or the kinds of things that we are really called on to look at.

MOYERS: Which is?

REV. SEHESTED: I think that by Jesus’ life and witness, we can first start with seeing where he placed himself, and it was always with the people who were marginalized, the outcasts, those that the culture had no need for.

MOYERS [voice-over]: In the Oakhurst Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, Nancy Sehested, her husband and daughters, along with other families, run a shelter in the church and prepare a meal every night for homeless men. For the past nine years Sehested has been associate pastor at Oakhurst.

REV. SEHESTED [preaching]: The president of the Southern Baptist Convention cries peace, and shouts as if by decree there is a sweet spirit sweeping through our convention. Perfect articulation of peace cannot mask the exclusion of women in leadership. Or words of peace cannot erase the 40% of our convention who are feeling deserted, or the people in our agencies and institutions who are losing their jobs.

MOYERS [voice-over]: These are members of Sehested’s church family, the congregation that called her.

MAN, Member, Oakhurst Baptist Church: The most shocking thing, of course, is the power play. The idea that it’s a theological struggle between those who believe this about the Bible and those who believe something else is really not what it’s about. And it’s this kind of insistence on their own position which finally winds up saying we’re the only one that’s right and you’re wrong, and so you’ve got to listen to us.

1st WOMAN, Member, Oakhurst Baptist Church: They’re doing something that I think also is happening in national politics, and that is they’re finding a way to speak to people’s fears. They’re finding these catchy, glowing phrases that sound so right, just like national politicians are doing. If you do what we say, you’ll be safe. If you do exactly what we tell you, those things you’re afraid of won’t get you.

2nd WOMAN, Member, Oakhurst Baptist Church: I’m sorry for these people who close themselves off, and who can’t hear someone like Nancy Sehested, who has a prophetic word, who speaks for God, and that God is using in a tremendous way to minister to me and to minister to this congregation. And so many people can’t hear, just because she wears a dress. She’s a woman.

REV. SEHESTED: I think the pain for me, speaking personally, is the pain of seeing — seeing us not even asking the right questions and not being willing to struggle with the real challenge of the gospel.

MOYERS: Which is?

REV. SEHESTED: Which is to be with the broken and disenfranchised, and to offer a word of hope and healing; and we are too much interested in our own individual happiness to think corporately, to think how is it that- what’s the vision of a new humanity, what’s the vision that God has entrusted to us as co-creators of this vision of breaking down barriers? We’re not interested- this is not a convention of wanting to break down barriers. This is a convention of wanting to erect barriers and keep them there.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Next to feuding and fighting, Baptists would rather sing than almost anything else. This hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” is a favorite. But on election day at the 1987 convention in St. Louis, the words of comfort are lost in discord. Once again the fundamentalists have elected the convention president. Fully in control, they have also set up an official watchdog committee to ensure that denominational employees believe in biblical inerrancy. The crusade launched 10 years ago is ending in triumph.

Robert Tenery edits a Baptist newspaper advocating the fundamentalist line.

[interviewing] So what’s at stake here?

ROBERT TENERY, Editor, Southern Baptist Advocate: Bill, yesterday was the most significant day in American Christianity, because for the first time in history a major denomination was turned back to its conservative roots, and that’s never happened before. And my view is that it’s even more significant than the Protestant Reformation. This is a second reformation that no one ever believed could happen, but it has happened.

MOYERS [voice-over]: The fundamentalists have wasted no time since they consolidated power over the convention this summer. They called for the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, reprimanded James Dunn for refusing to support Bork’s nomination, and are dissolving their ties with the Joint Committee on Public Affairs, in order to set up their own lobby in Washington.

This fall, a church in Memphis, Tennessee, called Nancy Sehested to be its pastor, and was promptly kicked out of the local Baptist association for violating New Testament teachings on the role of women.

[on camera] Now the main battleground is control of the seminaries. There are six in all, and the fundamentalist want only professors hired who swear loyalty to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Faculty members see this as a threat to scholarship; they don’t want the seminaries turned into propaganda factories, and of course, they don’t like the idea of witch hunts.

[voice-over] This is Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, the largest seminary of any denomination in the world, with 5,000 students. The school is just as conservative as it was when I graduated here in 1960. The core of its curriculum remains the Bible. But the seminary president, Russell Dilday, spoke up early in the opposition to the fundamentalist campaign, and so he, too, has been under fire.

RUSSELL H. DILDAY, Jr., President, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: We’ve had people call us and write us, and ask us, “Aren’t there folks on your faculty who are not even believers, who are not even Christians?” And there have been such exaggerated concerns about the seminary raised, that it puts the faculty in a very awkward position, and many of them are frightened and anxious. They don’t do their best work when they’re under that kind of a spotlight; they’re trying their best to serve in an effective way. That’s been a tragic part of it. Perhaps the most serious is the control of our board of trustees, and the election of those who do have the absolute authority to direct the future of this school.

MOYERS: What do the militants want?

DR. DILDAY: Well, I’ve tried to ask myself that question, and tried to see things from their perspective, and they use the emotional flag of conservative theology, holding to the great truths of biblical inerrancy, biblical authority, the basic doctrines of the faith. But I think behind that is another motive, or maybe other motives, because I do not find in our denomination much divergence among our people over these basic principles. In fact, Bill, in all of these days of criticism at the seminaries, we have about 500 teachers in our six schools, and when you really boil it down, not in any of this debate have there been more than six or eight issues raised by the militants of examples of drift from biblical faith. And these five or six or eight teachers are not at all what you would call classic liberals in theology, none of them denies the deity of Jesus or the authority of scripture or the miracles or the supernatural, as a traditional liberal would do.

MOYERS: But you’re a theological conservative.

DR. DILDAY: I’m a conservative.

MOYERS: You believe the Bible is the word of God.

DR. DILDAY: Absolutely.

MOYERS: But one Southern Baptist official told me yesterday that the militants want to fire you.

DR. DILDAY: Well, that’s been said, and it’s because I have refused to accept the agenda of the militant takeover group. And when one begins to speak out against that, as I did early on, then you become the target and the enemy. I have heard so many of the militant leaders say in recent days, it isn’t so much the need to be conservative as it is to be conservative and cooperative with our cause. And Judge Pressler, for example, said we needed not only to elect conservative presidents of the convention, but presidents who would carry out what we wanted done. And they are saying things like, “These may be conservatives that you’ve had here at the seminary, but they’re not in our camp.” This is one of the quotes of one of the leaders here.

MOYERS: Their camp.

DR. DILDAY: So we now have a kind of political division that really is based on other issues than just theology.

DANIEL VESTAL, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Midland, Texas: We’ve always disagreed, we’ve always been able to even debate- serious theological debate, I think, is healthy. But the difference now, is that it’s not-it’s not enough just to try to influence one another. What’s happening is that if you do not agree with me, if you do not believe what I believe; even more than that, if you will not participate with me in changing these institutions, you can’t really be a part of Baptists any more. And that will destroy us, that will destroy us.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Daniel Vestal earned his doctorate in theology from Southwestern Seminary, and is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, with over 7,000 members.

DR. VESTAL: Put yourself in the place of a man who maybe has taught in a Southern Baptist seminary for 25, 30 years. And let’s say he does believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God, and does teach in accordance with our statement of faith, the Baptist faith and message. But he, say, doesn’t like to use the word “inerrantist” in describing his position on scripture. That man is often called a liberal, is often called a non-Bible believer. His reputation is discredited, his name is slandered. That hurts, that hurts.

MOYERS: You are yourself theologically conservative.

DR. VESTAL: I am very much a theological conservative, and have long believed that some theological changes need to take place in our institutions, that we need some renewal, theological renewal. We need a return to some biblical fundamentals and basics.

MOYERS: Then why aren’t you part of this faction?

DR. VESTAL: Because I don’t believe that you achieve the kind of renewal and change that needs to be made in the convention through these political methods. In other words, the end does not justify the means. It’s our side against your side; we win, you lose. Now, that may be valid in the world of secular politics, but I contend that in the work of the kingdom of God there’s no place for that.

MOYERS: What caused you finally to speak out? What caused you to stand up and register your dissent?

DR. VESTAL: I listened to a tape that Judge Pressler produced, in which he basically recounted the political plan and strategy that he set forth back in 1979. I listened to that tape and physically was affected. I couldn’t listen to all of it at one time, it had such an emotional impact on me, causing me to grieve and be sad. It wasn’t that I heard anything different; I knew that this was going on, I had heard that it was going on, but it was now that it was being stated in a rather triumphal, victorious kind of way. And I know the people that have been hurt and the lives that have been wounded, and the reputations and careers and ministries that have been slandered and slurred. Good people have been called names, because they wouldn’t play this political game.

MOYERS: So what’s at stake?

DR. VESTAL: Well, the very meaning of freedom, in my opinion, is at stake. A great institution is at stake, a great denomination is at stake, the effectiveness of an institution to join together under the lordship of Christ, to proclaim the gospel, the effectiveness is at stake.

MOYERS: Judge, what’s at stake in this? Why should the rest of America care what’s happening to Baptists?

JUDGE PRESSLER: The country will be affected for good when our people, when Baptists help people to be moral, contributing citizens in society. And I think that the conservative movement will contribute greatly to people coming to know Jesus Christ as their personal savior, and helping them to stand on moral principles that will help our society, the grace- great ethic of productivity, and so I think for that reason it will be very beneficial to our country. Other than that, I think it is primarily a Baptist matter that Baptists should decide.

MOYERS: There are some public issues Baptists have taken stands on that go beyond just Baptist affairs. Take the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; James Dunn, for example. James Dunn believes that a government-sanctioned prayer, school prayers, is a violation of religious liberty. Now, should there be one Baptist position on that issue?

JUDGE PRESSLER: No, that’s an interpretation. That’s not the question of what scripture is. And I personally have tried to stay away from the social interpretation of the gospel in this particular controversy, because we’d divert ourselves from what the real controversy is.

MOYERS: And you think the real controversy is?

JUDGE PRESSLER: What scripture is.

MOYERS [voice-over]: But Judge Pressler campaigned against those whose social interpretations of the Bible differ from his, including the committee headed by James Dunn.

JUDGE PRESSLER: Fellow messengers, heretofore I have consistently supported every effort to defund the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Not because I thought that it was bad to have representation in Washington, but rather because I did not feel we were getting the right type of representation that was responsive to Southern Baptists.

MOYERS [voice-over]: Judge Pressler is also on record about the political implications of the battle for the Bible. On an audio tape interview, the one that affected Daniel Vestal, Judge Pressler boasted about the social agenda made possible by the campaign to take over the denomination.

JUDGE PRESSLER [tape recording]: And then we had a resolutions committee that was conservative for the first time, and we passed the first pro-life resolution, strongly pro-life resolution ever passed by the Southern Baptist Convention. And we passed an anti-ERA resolution, which just infuriated the liberals.

MOYERS: I know you as a conservative Democrat, so tell me what is your explanation for the growing connection between the religious right and the political right?

JUDGE PRESSLER: I am delighted to visit with you about my concerns about scripture. I try to separate my poli- any political involvement I have from- from my involvement in the convention, because the convention matter is a question of what scripture is, and if I get off on tangents, then I cannot accomplish the purpose that needs to be accomplished, which is far more important than any political machinations.

MOYERS: But aren’t you a member of the Council on National Policy?

JUDGE PRESSLER: I am trying to learn from anybody I can as to what’s going on.

MOYERS: Are you a member?

JUDGE PRESSLER: I am a member.

MOYERS: Are you on the board of directors?


MOYERS: And those include Joseph Coors and Cullen Davis, Phyllis Schlafly≠

JUDGE PRESSLER: Now, Bill, are you discussing- are you discussing- no

MOYERS: Richard Viguerie, Jerry Falwell-

JUDGE PRESSLER: Now, wait a minute. Are you discussing with me what the issue is on the Southern Baptist Convention? I am involved, I am a conservative Democrat.

MOYERS: Right.

JUDGE PRESSLER: I’ve been- I was just re-elected last year for another six-year term, I’m eight months into my new term. I have interests in many things other than the Southern Baptist Convention. The issue in the Southern Baptist Convention is what scripture is. I am still a free individual. I am free to participate in anything I want to other than the Southern Baptist Convention. I am a judge; I do not let my religious convictions govern my decisions. My decisions are governed by the Supreme Court decisions, the states, the statutes that have been enacted, the Constitution of the United States. I operate as several different people, and I have to do that; I do not mix my involvements, and I do not think that it is fair on a program such as this to try to say that things are interrelated.

MOYERS: I’m not saying they are.

JUDGE PRESSLER: I came to discuss with you what is going on in the Southern Baptist Convention, and I am delighted to discuss with you everything that’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention, and- but I do not think that it is very proper for you to bring in things that are absolutely, completely and totally irrelevant to my involvement in the Southern Baptist Convention.

MOYERS: But you- but Judge, you are a leader, you are a political leader of Southern Baptists.

JUDGE PRESSLER: I don’t see myself as that. I see myself as a person who had a conviction, stuck my head up, started getting shot at, and therefore they gave me a platform and I explained to people, one, the problem, two, the solution could be- could be reached by working through the system, and then therefore people responded.

MOYERS: Shouldn’t people out there know about your political connections?

JUDGE PRESSLER: I am a member of a group that takes no political stance. That is educational and informational only.

MOYERS: But, Judge, all of those people I mentioned are deeply involved in right-wing politics.

JUDGE PRESSLER: What I do as a judge and what I do with my other personal convictions are not a matter of controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, and I think it is extremely unfortunate to try to mix things which are not properly mixed.

MOYERS: At that point, Judge Pressler broke off the interview. I had wanted to ask him what he learned from his fellow members of the Council for National Policy-from Senator Jesse Helms, Oliver North, Jerry Falwell, Nelson Hunt, and the beer tycoon, Joseph Coors, one of the big contributors to right-wing causes. But when I pressed him, Judge Pressler grew very angry and flushed, stood up, took off his microphone, announced that the interview was over and left the room in a huff.

[on camera] Since the documentary aired in 1987, he has tried to discredit it, even mounting a letter-writing campaign to the sponsors. Earlier this year he caused his handpicked allies on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution critical of it. I sent a telegram to Judge Pressler, asking him to arrange for both of us to appear at the next meeting of the Executive Committee so that we might compare notes, take questions and discuss these matters as good Christians should. The committee responded that there wouldn’t be enough time on the agenda.

Judge Pressler has declared in all this that he is working only for the glory of Christ, but it doesn’t take a miracle to open one’s eyes to the politics. Since the Pressler faction launched its crusade ten years ago, every president of the Southern Baptist Convention, save one, has belonged to the American Coalition for Traditional Values, an organization for which $1,000,000 was raised by a former finance chairman of the Republican Party. Last year Judge Pressler, a lifelong democrat, publicly became a republican. He and other members of the religious right then met with George Bush, and after Mr. Bush assured them on his religious experience, they gave him their support. According to one analysis, Mr. Bush won three out of four Southern Baptist votes in the deep south.

Judge Pressler’s son-in-law, once the director of a right-wing organization devoted to exposing liberal professors, now works for President Bush in the White House as a liaison to religious group. Fundamentalists had placed him until recently on the board of the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs; whose director, James Dunn, you’ll remember, the Fundamentalists are trying to silence. They have managed to cut the Baptist Joint Committee’s budget by 11 percent, and they’re moving to establish in Washington a committee of their own, one that will lobby for the agenda of the religious right.

Now, Baptists, of course, are free like everyone else to press their moral values in the public square, and they’ve never been shy about doing so. But once upon a time, they believed that Biblical doctrine should not be a requirement for political opinion. They suffered for these beliefs. They suffered and were persecuted for standing against the notion that any party could be the sole party of truth. Their witness, among others, helped to spare this country from sectarian strife.

Now they are America’s largest Protestant denomination, under the influence of a single faction. As part of a political campaign with a specific agenda for America, their hierarchy seeks a privileged relationship with the state, and is turning the battle for the Bible into a test of democracy.

I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.

  • submit to reddit