Opinion

Shadows in the stained glass: Patterson and Pressler chapel windows come down

Paige Patterson, left, and Paul Pressler. (Adam Covington/SWBTS; AP Photo/Michael Stravato; RNS illustration by Kit Doyle)

(RNS) — On June 12, 1990, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler arrived at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans to cheers from Southern Baptist Convention power brokers. They were celebrating the completion of a yearslong plan to wrest control of the denomination from moderates and place the SBC in the hands of conservatives.

Earlier that day, delegates (called messengers) to the SBC’s annual meeting elected a president committed to using the vast appointive power of his office to purge the denomination of moderates and to give all power to fellow conservatives.

The iconic cafe’s location is significant because it was there in 1967 that Patterson, then a seminary student, and Pressler, a layman, met for the first time. They ultimately devised a plan that would transfer all power to conservative Southern Baptists and bring about the total and permanent destruction of moderates.

When Adrian Rogers was elected in 1979 as the first “takeover” president committed to the plan, Pressler surmised that it would take 10 years to decisively destroy the moderates. When Morris Chapman was elected at the 1990 New Orleans convention, the takeover had arrived just on time.

For heartbroken moderates, their integrity besmirched and their authority whittled away by procedural and political tactics, the pain of their defeat lasted for years.

Over the next three decades, many Southern Baptists celebrated the purge of “liberals,” though there were never very many true liberals in the SBC, at least not in comparison to actual liberal Protestant denominations. Others acceded to the changes, finding their fundamentalist faith and Republican politics more strongly affirmed.

But countless laypeople and no small number of pastors faded away from a denomination they no longer recognized — and their pain, confusion and disappointment have never been meaningfully acknowledged by the men who swept into power.

A line of customers snakes out of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans in 2016. Photo by Richard A. Weaver/Creative Commons

For the takeover’s victors, the 1990 Cafe du Monde celebration never ended. Pressler and Patterson were ceaselessly lionized. As the years passed, this continued in ever more vain and obnoxious ways. Admirers heaped superlative praise on them in countless interviews and public appearances. In 2013, a seminary professor called Patterson a “modern-day Martin Luther” while presenting him a plaque and festschrift celebrating his and Pressler’s role in the conservative resurgence.

Pressler and Patterson eventually went from a metaphorical pedestal to actual stained glass. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where Patterson was president, donors raised funds to immortalize leading figures of the conservative resurgence in the school’s chapel windows. The project originally intended to memorialize as many as 70 modern-day conservative Southern Baptist heroes.

Throughout Christian history, churches and cathedrals have used the medium of stained glass to tell the stories of prophets, apostles, saints and the Lord himself. The controversial Southwestern chapel window project, overseen by Dorothy Patterson, Paige’s wife, nicely illustrates the post-takeover SBC’s ahistorical infatuation with itself.

Normally, Christians allow the weight of history or the ecumenical consensus of the ages to decide which heroes of the faith to commit to stained glass. At a minimum, they wait until the honorees have died. But the Pattersons jumped the gun, and their brethren among the SBC powerful were too blinded by their own uncritical adulation for the conservative resurgence to stop them.

With no fanfare, and to the secret relief of many, the windows came down last week. This may reflect a preference for unadorned churches by the more Calvinistic leadership at the seminary, which until recently was a holdout among the SBC’s seminaries for resisting efforts to infuse the Southern Baptist Convention with Reformed theology.

Paige Patterson closes his eyes during a special meeting of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees on May 22, 2018. Photo by Adam Covington/SWBTS via Baptist Press

More likely, the windows are untenable amid reconsiderations of Pressler and Patterson themselves. Patterson, 76, was forced out as Southwestern Seminary’s president last year, in part for mishandling sexual misconduct allegations years earlier at another seminary, and Pressler, 88, has been accused of sexual misconduct going back 40 years.

A spokesman for the seminary offered no comment on the windows removal when I called, beyond what was reported in the Alabama Baptist newspaper. The paper quotes an April 3 letter signed by trustee chairman Kevin Ueckert, which gave no reason for the removal, saying only, “After much prayerful consideration and discussion, we have concluded that it is in the best interest of the institution to remove and relocate the stained-glass windows.”

This recent history hardly matters. The SBC is more than the sum of two men.

The problem, rather, is that the beneficiaries of the conservative resurgence — today’s widely published, popular and well compensated SBC leaders and megachurch pastors — remain incapable of reckoning with the harm done to moderate Southern Baptists who truly know the Lord and love him well. Until that happens, the elite Southern Baptist Convention discourse about its epic battle will remain a bizarre exercise in vanity and self-congratulation.

Even without stained-glass windows for the living, the conservative resurgence’s defenders and hagiographers will retain a tragic flaw: pride. The Greeks called it hubris and the Bible calls it a sin. The inability to make even basic admissions about the takeover’s rhetoric and tactics binds these men together in an unflattering tribalism.

Southern Baptist conservatives insisted that the Bible was “truth without any mixture of error.” Those of us outside their tribe may never understand their intense psychological need to regard the conservative resurgence as similarly inerrant.

But the lessons of Pressler’s and Patterson’s epochal rise and fall may prove instructive, or at least teach a bit of humility until the verdict of history falls on the rest of them.

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

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