Published January 13, 2015
Folded into the Rev. Frank Page's wallet is a yellow scrap of paper with the date and time he is to speak with yet another Republican candidate for the White House.
He already has visited one GOP front-runner over breakfast at a country club and met another at the headquarters of a car dealership in his home state.
The South Carolina pastor seems taken aback by the attention, but he shouldn't be: He leads a large congregation in a state with an early primary and is president of the 16.3 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention, perhaps the largest single bloc of evangelical voters and a must-have Republican constituency.
Page, in an interview at his denomination's annual meeting here last week, said he offers his thoughts about salvation to candidates but never an endorsement. And he talks to Democrats, too. He sees the political courtship as a duty: The nation's leaders need to hear a Christian viewpoint, he believes.
But some Southern Baptists would rather stay out of politics altogether. A small but vocal number of pastors believe the denomination is too cozy with Republicans and too political in general. By flirting with the line separating good citizenship and a grab for power, they say, a denomination already experiencing flat membership risks alienating more people.
Others contend such talk might inspire Southern Baptists to retreat from the public square and cede ground on urgent social issues such as abortion.
If anything, the debate is likely to become even more magnified in coming months because no one Republican candidate has captured the conservative evangelical imagination — and all of them are trying.
"Most younger Southern Baptist leaders would strongly affirm good citizenship and voting and involvement in the political process," said Marty Duren, 43, a Georgia pastor. "But they don't confound personal involvement with organizing for political power, which we saw in organizations like the Moral Majority."
Duren also cited national Southern Baptist leaders who joined politicians at "Justice Sunday" events promoting conservative judicial appointments in 2005 and 2006.
So far, such views are in the minority. In San Antonio, Duren proposed an anti-partisanship resolution urging convention leaders "to exercise great restraint when speaking on behalf of Southern Baptists so as not to intermingle their personal political persuasions with their chief responsibility to represent Jesus Christ and this convention."
The resolution that was ultimately adopted, "On Pastors, Culture, and Civic Duty," did not mention partisanship. Instead, it suggested pastors follow the late Jerry Falwell's lead by speaking out on burning moral issues and promote "informed and active Christian citizenship."
"The worst thing that can happen is for people of faith to say, 'You know, that's really not our arena, we're just going to abandon it to the secularists,'" said the Rev. Jerry Sutton of Nashville, Tenn., whose church hosted the second Justice Sunday assembly.
Southern Baptists have been solidly Republican since the emergence of the anti-abortion movement, the denomination's "conservative resurgence" of the late 1970s and Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and there is no indication of that wavering.
"There is a long history of dissent among Southern Baptists, so the discordant voices about politics are not necessarily a harbinger of change," said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Page, however, has sympathy for Southern Baptists worried about closeness to Republicans.
"They are valid concerns, but I think those valid concerns could be mitigated if there is responsible dialogue with these (candidates), not an acquiesce to everything they say," he said. "Responsible Christian citizenship calls us to be in dialogue with people of every party."
Page met Sen. John McCain at a Spartanburg, S.C., auto business. He's also met and traded e-mails with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a GOP presidential hopeful and Southern Baptist minister who signed copies of his new book at the SBC annual meeting.
What might surprise some evangelicals is that Page also chatted over breakfast at a country club with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor vilified by many social conservatives for his support of abortion rights and for his messy second divorce.
Page said the two discussed everything from the Roman Catholic Mass to evangelical beliefs about accepting Christ. He said he told Giuliani, "we like you as a person," singling out his leadership in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Page also described "an honest dialogue about abortion, about gay rights — and those are extreme differences."
The phone number in Page's back pocket: It belongs to a representative of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is making a strong push to court evangelicals.
Page and others talk about keeping lines open to Democrats. But that is fraying over an initiative led by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to unite Baptists from various denominations across racial lines to counter conservative SBC influence.
"When I met Carter, everyone said, 'It's political, it's political,'" said the Rev. Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla.
"I went to determine whether it was nonpolitical. If there were an ounce of politics, I wouldn't participate. My question is, 'Why do we yell and scream when Democrats are political, but are silent about our own political involvement?'"
Like evangelicals as a whole, Baptists remain divided on which candidate to support, though the focus is heavily on Republicans.
Richard Land, one of the nation's most politically influential Southern Baptists, said he has been sought out by Republican campaigns (Huckabee, McCain, Duncan Hunter) and Democratic ones ( Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama). He has met some and plans to meet others, but does not endorse candidates.
Land and other evangelicals accepted an invitation to meet with Romney, whose Mormonism worries some evangelicals. Land said he advised Romney to give a speech laying out how this faith would shape his presidency, much the same way John F. Kennedy spoke to a ministers group in Houston to allay Protestant fears of a shadow Vatican presidency.
"I said to him, 'Governor, I personally don't think the Mormonism is a deal-killer. But the only person who can convince millions of Americans to vote for a Mormon president is Mitt Romney,'" said Land, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission.
The name generating perhaps the most excitement among Southern Baptists is someone who hasn't even entered the race yet: Fred Thompson of Tennessee, the actor and former senator.
"Another Southern Baptist called Fred Thompson the Ronald Reagan of the South, and I think he has some of that appeal," said SBC executive committee president Morris Chapman, adding he hasn't settled on a candidate yet. "He is a magnetic personality. He seems to articulate his opinions clearly. He seems to be unflappable."
Chapman sees the debate about political engagement, partisanship and evolving agendas as healthy.
"We are most of the time intent on expressing our convictions — the moral and ethical issues that face us as a nation," he said. "And some diversity is not bad. It adds to the fabric of who Southern Baptists really are."