Battle for the Minds
1996, NR, 75 min. Directed by Steven Lipscomb.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 16, 1997
(Battle for the Minds opens theatrically in Austin following its previous run during the SXSW.97 Film Festival.) A conservative, patriarchalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Church? Egad! What's next, outbreaks of drunken thuggery among English soccer fans? Pardon the wiseass, but for those of us who grew up in godfearing small-town Texas where Grecian Formula'd "Bab-dist" Torquemadas ruled by fiat from their pulpits, this is hardly a shattering revelation. Which makes it initially puzzling that Steven Lipscomb, a fourth-generation son of Baptist preachers and lay leaders, can bring such a virginal quality of outrage to his documentary about the organized right-wing seizure of the church's national convention and flagship seminaries. It turns out there's a personal angle. Lipscomb's own mom was barred from meetings at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the son's investigation led to a debut film skewering Southern Baptist leaders' troglodytic views, especially their stand against allowing women to be pastors. But there's more than just a family vendetta here. Lipscomb obviously perceives the hardliners' seizure of Southern Baptist Seminary, the jewel of Baptist academia (hold the snickers please) and long considered a citadel of progressive thought, as a tragic turning point in church history. The 300-year-old denomination formed in opposition to hierarchical command structures and imposed dogma now epitomized both. Battle for the Minds is a passionate, scrupulous document of "The Takeover" that began in 1979 as the brainchild of fundamentalists Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. They and their cohorts first galvanized conservative yahoo congregations with red-meat issues like abortion, homosexuality, and the simmering women-preachers controversy. Then, bullying and shouting down moderate opposition, they managed to gain control of the church during the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention. That's old news, though, and Lipscomb's film would have little interest if it served only as a forum for female and liberal Baptists to complain how they've gotten the shaft from church leaders. (Like they never noticed before?) But by using penetrating commentary from liberal church journalists and scholars -- along with the fundamentalists' own chillingly frank declamations -- Lipscomb links the Baptist putsch to the eternal struggle between repression and tolerance at all levels of social and political life. And in this war, symbolic battles often have the most lasting effect. These potent ideas are what Battle for the Minds has to offer beyond a chance for liberals to experience delicious shivers of revulsion over swinish Bible beaters with vacuum-molded hair. For that, we can easily forgive Lipscomb his tendency to belabor obvious points and his faddish overuse of quirky camera angles and lighting effects. Battle for the Minds is a compelling, well-structured film that argues its point with evangelical passion and righteous zeal. (Dr. Molly Marshall, a former professor at Southern Baptist Seminary until forced to resign, who is featured in Battle for the Minds, will speak in Austin on Thursday, May 22, from 7-9pm at the University Baptist Church (2130 Guadalupe); admission is free to the public.)