By Benjamin Cole
Hardball Religion: Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism, by Wade Burleson. Paperback/288 pages. Published by Smyth & Helwys.
Hardball Religion is the personal story of Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson and the two tumultuous years he served as a trustee of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Subtitled Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism, Burleson’s story recounts the response of trustee leadership to his efforts in opposition to two new personnel guidelines regarding valid forms of baptism for missionary candidates and the habits of their private prayer lives.
As he raised his voice of dissent, Burleson alleges that he ran afoul of attempts by an unauthorized “caucus group” to unseat the sitting IMB president, Jerry Rankin. The drama that ensued involved a censure vote against Burleson, the rise of the Baptist blogosphere, the election of a dark-horse candidate for SBC president and — eventually — Burleson’s resignation from the board.
During the heated days of the controversy recounted in the book, both of your reviewers were included in many of the conversations, strategies, and collaborations that Burleson recounts, as well as other Southern Baptist goings-on. It is because of our proximity to the events and our intimate familiarity with the people who were involved that we feel we possess a peculiarly advantaged position from which to review Hardball Religion. In short, we found the work interesting — if flawed — in that it reminded us of shared efforts that seem for us increasingly distant now that we have moved on from active participation in Baptist battles on any front.
Shortly before Burleson began his trustee term, the two new policies were written for the missionary candidate screening process. It was his early opposition to these policies and the secretive way that they were written and implemented that raised Burleson’s concern that the work of the Southern Baptist Convention ought to be undertaken with more transparency. Burleson observed firsthand the way that executive sessions, confidential trustee “forums” and back-room caucusing at board meetings served to undermine the integrity and accountability of the board’s work.
When Burleson determined that his behind-the-scenes efforts to promote openness and transparency on the mission board had failed, he began his blog.
Burleson’s story asserts that it was his questioning of these two policies in such a public forum that raised the ire of the trustee leadership, all of whom are called by name in the book. Burleson’s public dissent, he believes, was an act of his own personal responsibility to let Southern Baptists know what was happening at the board.
Nevertheless, trustee leadership determined to silence the dissent and neutralize Burleson’s influence. Less than six months after joining the board for a six-year term, the pastor from Enid found himself rebuked by his fellow trustees in an effort to remove him from his post.
The book also records events seemingly unrelated to Burleson’s own personal IMB drama, such as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s censorship of Texas pastor Dwight McKissic’s 2006 chapel sermon on his personal prayer practices or the broadside termination of a female Southwestern faculty member and subsequent federal lawsuit (with which Burleson was involved).
But these narratives are included to substantiate the author’s premise that a cabal of fundamentalist SBC agency trustees, under the direction of Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, were redefining the boundaries of fellowship in the Southern Baptist Convention to suit their own narrow, idiosyncratic theology.
We were witnesses to much of what happened during these two years, and we were both at Burleson’s side during some of the most heated exchanges recorded in the book. That the trustee board of the IMB fell under the control of a faction of trustees who opposed Rankin is without question. That the trustees, following their elected leadership, made knee-jerk reactions with regard to Burleson’s blog is true. Much of the book records with reliable accuracy the events we witnessed, and Burleson has done historians and observers of denominational trends a favor by providing previously unreported details.
The goal of Burleson’s story, however, is not to provide an exhaustive history, but rather an intimate narrative of personal experiences.
Thus, readers who are unfamiliar with the events recorded do not always receive full background or sufficient context. In some instances, Burleson’s omissions leave the work void of a needed interpretive framework. In others, the author renders facts and events with varying degrees of chronological accuracy.
At times, Burleson’s recollection of events is vastly different from our own, and some of the details he provides cannot be corroborated by our own archives of e-mails, letters and blog posts. Indeed, we regret that Burleson, in his haste to publish the book, has demonstrated a certain degree of carelessness in citing his sources, checking his facts — and imputing motives to his subjects.
Hardball Religion is not a work of candid self-examination, so the reader should not expect revealing moments of second-guessing or regret on the author’s part. We searched diligently to find where Burleson might acknowledge any momentary error of judgment, harshness of tone or bitterness of spirit, though we found none.
Rare indeed are men whose mirrors reflect no flaws. We only wish Burleson had offered a few words of contrite introspection that might serve to undermine popular mischaracterizations of him and reveal the man we both know as a friend. His book could only have been strengthened thereby.
Our expectation is that some will criticize Burleson for using the names of trustees with whom he had disagreements or conflicts. These criticisms will ring hollow. The truth is that any trustee at any time could have defended him/her self on Burleson’s blog or a number of other blogs. It is also true that when they kept names private, Burleson and other critics of SBC powers-that-be were accused of lying; when they named names, they were accused of gossip. This was a common fury of the fundamentalists.
Overall, Hardball Religion is a reliable narrative with its few factual errors not taking away from the primary thesis: The Southern Baptist Convention is large enough to accommodate differing views on non-essential matters instead of demanding conformity through a continued narrowing of doctrinal parameters that promises to choke out cooperation and mission altogether.