LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Southern Baptists ended their national meeting and quietly left their host town by avoiding the controversial political pronouncements that have marked past conventions.
Convention President Johnny Hunt urged Baptist leaders at this year's two-day meeting in Kentucky to focus on increasing its missions around the world.
The nation's largest Protestant denomination dipped a toe into political waters by condemning President Obama's policies on abortion, abstinence and stem-cell research but tempered those statements by honoring his historic election.
"I would say it's not surprising that it was low-key politically because their kind of politics is in significant transition," said Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian and dean of Wake Forest University's Divinity School. Leonard said the convention had become too closely aligned with Republican politics during former President Bush's two terms.
"It appears to me to be a sobered group of people asking questions of themselves more than of the culture," said Leonard, who has been a critic of the Southern Baptists' conservative leadership.
Bush was invited to address the convention in recent years and typically offered his views on abortion. In San Antonio in 2007 he promised to veto any bill sent by Congress that "violates the sanctity of human life."
Hunt told reporters during the convention that he knew of no similar invitation extended to Obama, and top Republican leaders were also kept away.
Hunt said he wanted the focus on the convention's new mission statement document, "Toward A Great Commission Resurgence," which encourages Southern Baptist churches to direct their resources and energies on missionary work.
That document is "reorienting Southern Baptist minds and hearts around the priority of winning lost souls through proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ," said Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
But Yarnell, communicating by e-mail Thursday during a flight home from Louisville, said the denomination will continue to voice concern over moral and political issues.
"Let nobody doubt that. But those concerns are derivative of, or dependent upon, the first-class priority of the good news we have been tasked with proclaiming," he said.
Past conventions made national headlines for pronouncements on gays, women pastors and questioning whether global warming could be blamed on humans.
There were no similar timely stands taken at the Louisville convention. Baptist leaders passed just four resolutions, which are typically the source of the denomination's pronouncements on politics, morality and culture. In the highest-profile resolution, they decried Obama's social policies but praised the popular president's "evident love for his family" and his historic election as the nation's first black commander in chief.
The convention also saw no internal leadership conflict, as Hunt was unopposed in winning a second term as the convention president.
Leonard said Southern Baptist leaders had a desire this year to stay away from potentially negative headlines that would turn off the public.
"What they often believe to be conviction about these theological and political issues, in the public square after 30 years it begins to sound like shrillness and meanness," Leonard said. "This is an indication that some of their leaders are recognizing that they need to moderate the shrillness."