Those puzzled by increasing challenges to church-state separation in the U.S. political arena will get some insight — if little comfort — from “Battle for the Minds,” a gripping documentary about conservative “takeover” of the powerful Southern Baptist Convention. While this unabashedly partisan expose won’t be welcome everywhere, it should travel well in niche theatrical and broadcast markets.
Helmer Steven Lipscomb (himself descended from a line of Southern Baptist pastors) assembles pic in several short “chapters” that crisply outline various causes, effects, issues and personalities in this “battle.” Thesis is that the Southern Baptist ministry, long based on liberal tenets of inclusiveness and individual biblical interpretation, has gradually been turned into a forum for far-right ideology. In 1979, two ambitious fundamentalists began strategizing a successful 1984 “revolution” — loading the convention’s micro-democracy with like-minded, radical-conservative leaders.
It’s difficult to pin what impact this has had on American politics and voting patterns; the Southern Baptist church, after all, is the nation’s largest single Protestant body (claiming both President Clinton and Newt Gingrich as members). But the impact on the church itself was immediate: New policies “took a hard right.”
Narrative thrust eventually centers on two smaller, interrelated dramas. One is ongoing strife between trustees and students at the flagship Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., as latter protest a perceived “thought-control” atmosphere, a new church-wide ban on female senior pastors, and similar moves in academia. Encapsulating all this is Dr. Molly Marshall, a “brilliant” theologian, according to even her detractors; yet smearcampaigning forced her departure from the institution.
Speakers from all sides and power levels are heard from here. But the debate is angled toward supporting notion that conservative leaders’ gains are carefully planned to further a “nationalist political agenda,” one justified by “picking and choosing (biblical) passages to support their own prejudices. Editing of interviews, broadcast news andother materials (largely vid-shot) is excellent, shaping much info into a cohesive, engrossing package. While use of R.E.M.’s hit song “Losing My Religion” may constitute a coup for the filmmakers, it opens and closes pic on a comparatively glib, flippant note.