By his own account, Burrell is not a throwback, not a 21st century embodiment of the stereotype of Southern fundamentalists. Beneath the warm wooden dome of Northside Baptist, he preaches a sunnier gospel on Sundays than his famous predecessor Jack Hudson did. He rejects, for example, the old hang-ups on the issue of race that once tainted the message from many Southern pulpits. He proclaims instead that "the Scriptures scream racial unity," and says it's dangerous when the Christian faith is used to justify a moral wrong.
But if Burrell sees his ministry as part of a rich and noble tradition going back to the abolitionists of the 19th century, he also believes that the stakes in the moral battle are high. Whether the issue is race, right to life or the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, Burrell says the time has come to take a stand -- to defend with no hesitation or shame the "eternal and absolute authority" of the Bible.
In recent months, Burrell has begun meeting regularly with other conservative ministers in the city, trying to put together a coalition that will speak out strongly on a whole host of issues. He has an ally in County Commissioner Bill James, arguably the most conservative politician in the city, and a man whose career on the public stage has been driven by his strong fundamentalist faith. James believes the fundamentalists are winning. He believes, in fact, that at this moment in the moral history of the city, there are no voices of consequence to oppose them.
James understands that for the last half century, churches have played a major role in the politics of Charlotte, at least in the broadest sense of that term. Led and prodded by several generations of outspoken ministers, they have tried to put a stamp on the public debate. Some of those ministers have been regarded as liberal, others conservative; some have been black, others white, but they have battled over time with a kind of genteel ferocity in an effort to assume the moral high ground.
Today, says James, he is satisfied to the point of feeling smug about the current state of that struggle.
"I don't know any liberal preachers of note anymore," he declares. "The left doesn't seem to have any activist ministers...Liberals in Charlotte have given up on busing, effectively given up on affirmative action, and won't even bring up gay rights. I don't know if there are any true liberals in Charlotte."
Even James concedes that if that is true, it represents a seismic shift in the city. There once was a time when liberal voices thundered from some of the most prominent pulpits in town. Beginning at Myers Park Baptist back in the 1950s and 60s, a pipe-smoking intellectual named Carlyle Marney spoke out strongly on the issue of civil rights. Those were the days when the city of Charlotte was searching for its conscience, when blacks were sitting in at local restaurants or demanding the total integration of the schools.
The eloquent liberals like Marney and Warner Hall of Covenant Presbyterian sought to give aide and comfort to the cause, calling on the prominent members of their flocks to be better Christians. At its heart, their argument was simple enough: All men and women are children of God, and therefore brothers and sisters of one another. But these were men of powerful intellect, who could preach and teach and inspire admiration, even among people who didn't quite agree.
Their opposite number back in those days was the fiery Jack Hudson of Northside Baptist. He was a plain-spoken man with slicked down hair and a hunch to his shoulders, and he had a substantial following of his own. He built one of the first of Charlotte's mega churches, but in the battle for the conscience of the people of the city, Hudson was simply no match for the liberals. He inveighed against assorted sins of the flesh and the dangers he saw in racial integration, and slowly, but surely respectable opinion began to tune him out.
And so it was that the day of the liberals lasted well into the 1970s, and perhaps even longer, as a second generation began to emerge. These were men like Carlyle Marney's successor Gene Owens, and Doug Oldenburg, who followed Warner Hall to Covenant Presbyterian. There was Charlie Milford at Park Road Baptist, and Randy Taylor at Myers Park Presbyterian, and Father Jim Devereaux at St. Peter's Catholic.
The most flamboyant of the group was Owens, a silver-haired theologian, born in eastern North Carolina, a man who gradually developed over time a poetic affinity for the well-spoken word. He seemed to revel in shaking up the flock. He marched for busing to integrate the schools, and called for peace in Vietnam, and invited Carter Heyward, an Episcopal priest who had recently acknowledged to the world that she was gay, to preach from the pulpit at Myers Park Baptist.
A few miles away at Covenant Presbyterian, Doug Oldenburg was a quieter presence, but no less firm. He was a handsome man with soft, gentle eyes, and he was caught, he said, "in a lover's quarrel" with the capitalist system. On many a Sunday during his time at Covenant, he proclaimed to the influential people in the pews that the church had a special mission for the poor. Part of it was simply a matter of compassion, like giving to the Crisis Assistance Ministry or helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity. But at least as important in Oldenburg's view was the church's obligation to roll up its sleeves and represent the poor in the halls of government.
The Bible, he thought, was full of those commands, inconvenient reminders for people who wanted to enjoy their own wealth. But if you took them seriously, the sermons of Jesus and the lessons of the prophets were a powerful force to make the world more just. That at least was Oldenburg's view, and like the others in the Myers Park pulpits, he was not afraid to lay it on the line.
Dale Mullennix remembers those days. He came to Charlotte in 1979 as an assistant minister at Myers Park Baptist. He was fresh out of seminary in Louisville, and was embarked on a personal mission at the time "to save the world for the left." He was astonished by the message from the Myers Park ministers, these graceful, intelligent voices of compassion, and he was surprised also by the gradual discovery that the more he got to know these men, the more impressive they seemed.
"They used to get together for breakfast once a month," he remembers, "and I'd finagle a reason to be invited, just for the quality and depth of conversation. There was not a word of competitiveness among them. They were asking instead, what is good for the community? What is right? What will work? There was seldom any talk about parking problems, and the old idea that the church should lower its voice to raise its income just never came up."
But what about now? Is Bill James correct? Have the powerful liberal voices disappeared? The simplest answer to that question is no. At Myers Park Baptist, the current minister Steve Shoemaker is not as colorful, certainly, as Owens. But there are few, if any, who fault his courage, or the depth and intelligence of his Sunday morning sermons.
Shoemaker spent his teenage years in Charlotte before going away to seminary and then to other pulpits in other parts of the country. He came back home after serving at an inner city church in Houston. He enjoyed it there, enjoyed the location in the heart of downtown, where he could urge the homeless people in the streets not only to come in for handouts of food, but to join the church and participate fully in everything it did -- the Sunday morning worship, the family dinners, even the missions to the people in need.
He knew that Myers Park was a different kind of place. It was nestled away in one of Charlotte's oldest neighborhoods, an area of handsome, two-story homes, where the wind rustled gently through the magnolia leaves. The church had always struggled against the elegant isolation of its setting, but Shoemaker knew that his predecessors, Marney and Owens, had encouraged the congregation to be involved in the community, and to wrestle with the ethical issues of the day.
Shoemaker was happy for the chance to do the same. Late in the fall of 2002, with the country in the looming shadow of a war, he decided to preach a sermon about Iraq. He talked about the teachings of Jesus, that troubling pronouncement about loving your enemies, and he talked about the practical tendency of the world to ignore a command so completely inconvenient.
"We kneel," he said, "before the mystery of God and the terrors of life, in bafflement and moral anguish. We pray for our President and our nation's leaders, and we pray for the leaders of all nations and peoples. And we pray for our enemies, though our hearts recoil -- how could they not recoil? For Saddam Hussein and all who would do us harm. We pray for our soldiers and for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and for a world which seems never to know the things that make for peace. Amen."
On other Sundays since his arrival at Myers Park nearly four years ago, Shoemaker has spoken out against the resegregation of the public schools and in favor of tolerance for people who are gay. He understands that he is not alone. Just a few blocks away at Myers Park United Methodist, James Howell is settling in as the new senior minister, and so far it seems to be going well. The pews are packed on most Sunday mornings, the balconies full, with folding chairs on the ends of many rows, as Howell gazes out across the faces in the crowd, and urges people "out into a pained and broken world -- and thanks be to God for the high and holy privilege."
Howell came to Myers Park from Davidson United Methodist, and it seems that nearly everywhere he's been, his churches have grown, and people have been struck by the beauty of his sermons. "He's one of the best preachers I've ever heard," says Caroline Hicks, a member at Davidson. But Howell says it gets harder all the time.
"Twenty-five years ago," he contends, "the highest compliment for a minister at the end of a sermon was, "You stepped on my toes. You really made me think.' Today, the highest compliment is, "I agree with you.' Some axis has shifted."
Howell says he still tries to talk about difficult things -- peace in the aftermath of 9-11, public schools in a time of resegregation, greed in a land of material wealth. But he tries to do it gently, with sensitivity and style, and even so, he understands clearly he is taking a chance.
"I think we're living in an era," he says, "when we no longer understand the virtue of disagreement. We have these litmus tests. We don't really talk to each other anymore."
A Sense of Isolation
William Wood shares that troubling assessment. The veteran minister at First Presbyterian Church uptown has studied the statistics of the mainline churches. "If you project out the membership losses since 1965," he says, "by the year 2038 at noon on Sunday, there will be no more Presbyterians."
Wood says there are many different reasons for that. But he believes primarily that polarization has taken its toll, and divisive issues such as homosexuality and abortion have torn at the unity of churches like his own, costing them members. So he finds himself becoming more cautious, pulling his punches sometimes in his Sunday morning sermons in what often seems like a delicate time. There are certain subjects that he will not avoid, especially the rights and needs of the poor, and his church has been known through the years for its outreach.
Its members build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and two nights a week the church building serves as a shelter for the homeless. There are, in fact, more than 35 programs for people in need, and Wood says that "is a permanent part of the identity of this church."
But he also says at a time when the issues are becoming more complicated, when people of good will can disagree about the foreign policy of the country, or the pros and cons of homosexual marriage, he tries to balance the desire to speak out with the need to preserve the unity of the church.
"Sometimes you just can't help it," he says. "But in this climate, I don't go picking fights."
Though he tends to resist it, Clifford Jones understands the current inclination to be more cautious. He says it's not just the white community that has changed, but also his own. Jones is pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, one of the most prominent black churches in town, and under his leadership, one of the most involved in the total community. But Jones has moments of deep frustration, moments when it seems like his own institution, which, for generations now, has stood like a beacon on Beatties Ford Road, is becoming "sinfully incestuous" in its definition of the faith.
"I don't sense the same kind of urgency in the African-American community," he says, "not the same kind of involvement in political and social issues that I saw 20 years ago. The rising middle class of African-Americans doesn't seem to have the same commitment. I sense that the emerging church of the 21st century places more emphasis on what goes on within its walls than it does on the hungry, the homeless, the AIDS patient."
Jones, for his part, continues to beat the old drums of compassion. "I'm a leftover from the 60s," he explains. But he also believes that Charlotte has now become a different place. There once was a time when there seemed to be many more voices like his own -- in the white community, Owens, Oldenburg and the rest, and in the African-American pulpits, people like George Battle and Leon Riddick. And even if there are similar voices today -- Steve Shoemaker popped immediately to mind, and Rabbi James Bennett of Temple Beth El -- it is not as clear who is paying attention.
To Clifford Jones, that is the most fundamental of ironies. Charlotte, he says, is no longer the same Southern city that it was, no longer as cohesive, and as it has changed, it has become less compassionate -- less sensitive, he believes, to people in need, including, of course, its racial minorities.
"On the heels of the civil rights movement," he contends, "there seemed to be a sense and a desire to do what was right -- if not for right's sake, then at least for image sake." It was a civic morality under girded by faith, but Jones doesn't see it as much any more. As Charlotte has grown, and people have begun to move in from other places, he thinks that something important has been lost.
Andy Baxter agrees. Baxter, an ordained Methodist minister, is executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, a loose alliance of church people in Charlotte who are seeking to raise issues of justice and reconciliation. Baxter says it keeps getting harder during a time of terrorism and violence, a time when the world is coming unglued.
But he also thinks that here in Charlotte, something even more basic is at work. The community has grown at a breakneck pace, and now in the far-flung reaches of the county, there is a massive, pervasive sense of isolation. As a native of Charlotte now in his 30s, Baxter can think of only two occasions in his adult lifetime when there was a feeling of connection that spread through the area. The first was the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, when people were linked by the effort to clean up. The second was more recent -- the Super Bowl run of the Carolina Panthers, when Jake Delhomme and his band of brothers captured the imagination of the city.
But such moments are fleeting, and during ordinary times people are simply caught in the rush. That is why, Baxter thinks, ministers like James Howell, no matter their eloquence, have a difficult time being heard. This is a time when people don't want to be prodded to think, or to confront the uncomfortable implications of their faith. They don't want to hear sermons about loving their enemies or taking what they have and giving to the poor. They are looking instead for reassurance and certainty, and to the extent that they find it coming from the pulpit, it is coming most often from conservative churches.
"I think 9-11 changed the ballgame a lot," says David Chadwick, minister at Forest Hill Church in southeast Charlotte. "There are now a lot more people looking for answers, and conservative churches are giving answers that liberal churches don't."
Certainly, it's true that for more than 20 years in Charlotte, conservatives have played a major role in the public debate, dispensing their own understanding of the truth with a fiery certitude that among other things has dominated the newspaper headlines. Some say it began with Joseph Chambers, minister at the Paw Creek Church of God, who began attracting attention in the 1980s with his public crusades against pornography. He picketed outside the Charlotte Observer, accusing the paper of being soft on the issue, and later he picketed a local theater that was showing The Last Temptation of Christ.
Later in the 80s, the conservatives were out in force again as part of the demonstrations by Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group that tried to blockade the doors of the clinics. They were supported by ministers such as Harry Reeder from Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, and as the controversy swirled, the conservatives continued to become more visible.
Then came the 90s, when maybe the most prominent conservative of all suddenly burst onto the scene. He was not a minister this time, but a passionate layman who emerged from the pews of Calvary Church, the great cathedral on Highway 51, to assume his place as one of the most strident voices in the city. Bill James makes no apology for that.
"I have often told folks," he says, "that God commands individuals and churches to be both "salt and light." While "light" is informing folks about the love of Christ and his redemption of mankind, salt is about being a change agent. When salt gets in a wound it inflames and causes irritation. In short, I have been the proverbial "salt in the wound' on occasion because I and others, in trying to rid society of behavior that is un-Christian and wrong, will inflame certain segments of the public."
James began to dish out the salt during what he calls "the great arts war of 1997." He was a county commissioner by then, and he and his fellow conservatives lashed out at the production of Angels in America, a play with a homosexual theme staged by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Because Charlotte Rep had gotten Arts and Science Council funding, some of which was public money, James and his allies attacked the morality of a play with such a message.
He believes they accomplished at least two things: They helped energize the Christian right, and they pressured the arts community in Charlotte -- or at least part of it -- to move in the direction of self-censorship.
"That was, in my opinion, a win," he says. "The key is to keep vigilant and make sure the other side knows that you mean business."
James is clear about his public crusades. These are causes that go beyond politics; they are, instead, a defense of good in the war against evil, a defense of the truth against those who don't even think it exists.
"Most evangelical Christians," he declares, "don't even view liberals as being Christians. To be called a Christian means accepting that Christ is the only intercessor between God and man. Historically, this inability to accept that Christ is the only way to God is, I think, at the heart of why liberals espouse some of the views they do. Without the anchor of Christianity ... they just make it up as they go along."
James says he's happy there are like-minded people in the pulpits of Charlotte. He mentions Loran Livingston at the Central Church on Sardis Road, but also says that Dan Burrell at Northside Baptist is now "the most active."
Burrell, for his part, clearly intends to be outspoken. But his style on the surface is quite different from James'. If James is abrasive and combative by nature, Burrell is a genial, sandy-haired man with a sense of humor that can be self-effacing, and he rejects the arrogance that can sometimes go with a passionate faith.
"This is not about me," he says. "Left to my own devices I'll be a disaster. The only hope I have is what Christ has done through me."
Burrell at 43 sees himself as part of a new generation of fundamentalists. He is intelligent, well-educated, a teacher by training before he entered his current occupation. But he also has a black and white view of the public debate.
"It's a conflict of world views," he declares. "I believe I am fighting for eternal truths."
Burrell came to Charlotte from Florida four years ago, having already established himself as an activist. He says he's "ardently pro-life" (all four of his children were adopted from crisis pregnancies), and in Palm Beach County during his previous ministry he fought against spousal benefits for gay couples. He lost that fight, and in Charlotte, he believes, it's too soon to tell. But he says it's a battle that has to be waged, and the only acceptable outcome is to win.
"I was recently at a meeting at Myers Park Baptist," he recalls. "They asked me to speak on the possibility of dialogue. I was happy to do it. I enjoy talking about this, and I don't take it personally when people disagree. But I had to ask why? Dialogue isn't going to result in a change of mind on my part, and I doubt if it will on theirs. This is a fundamental difference in the way we view truth."
Burrell is working hard behind the scenes to put together a coalition of like-minded churches, some white, some black, some large, some small, to defend the fundamentalist understanding of the faith. He says there really isn't any choice.
"Compromise," he concludes, "is the life-blood of politics, but the death-knell of theology. We are fighting over the absolute authority of the Scriptures."
Breaking Left/Right Barriers
If Burrell is right, if Charlotte's churches have drifted in the past generation into a kind of holy war of ideas, who is winning? Is it the conservatives, as Bill James believes? Do they have the liberals on the run? Or is the truth more subtle than that?
Dale Mullennix believes it is. For one thing, he says, some of the most prominent churches in the area -- Myers Park Baptist, Myers Park Methodist -- have kept hiring ministers "who were pulling them in directions that did not make them feel comfortable." Mullennix, the former assistant minister at Myers Park Baptist, believes the habit of being challenged by liberal ministers has now become ingrained, at least in certain parts of the city.
In addition to that, when it comes to the interlocking issues of poverty and race, always a litmus test for the liberals, there are literally hundreds of churches in Charlotte reaching out in meaningful ways to the poor. Mullennix cites his own organization as an example. He is currently executive director of the Urban Ministry Center, an advocacy organization for the homeless. Not long ago, when he put out a call for churches to offer their facilities to serve as shelter for people in the streets, more than 100 congregations responded.
"They cut across denominational lines," he says, "Christian and Jewish. It takes some courage to invite in folks who really are strangers, to put yourself in a position to learn that they really are our neighbors also."
Andy Baxter, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, also notes that even some of the conservative churches have undertaken ministries that might have been considered liberal in the past. He mentions in particular Forest Hill Presbyterian and its charismatic minister David Chadwick, and a little less visibly, the Steele Creek Church with pastor Kelvin Smith.
Chadwick clearly is the better known of the two. At 6-foot-6, he is the handsome son of a Presbyterian minister, low-key in his bearing, often dressing in slacks and an open-collared shirt. He was a basketball player at North Carolina, and he remembers the flashes of glory from those days -- in 1971, the dozen or so games he started as a senior, and the high of 30 points that he scored against Clemson. But he remembers even more the lessons he learned from his coach, Dean Smith.
"The way he treats people," says Chadwick, "and the value he places on each individual. Those are the things that stay with you for life."
Certainly, they are a part of his understanding of the ministry, a profession he never expected to pursue. He wanted to make his own way in the world, and studied broadcasting during his time at Chapel Hill. But eventually he decided to go to seminary, and in 1980 he came to Forest Hill, his first and only church.
From that suburban pulpit in southeast Charlotte, Chadwick preaches often about sexual sin and the dangers of promiscuity and adultery. "If we reserved sex," he says, "for a man and a woman in the context of marriage, how many social ills would we cure in one generation?" But he also rejects the old dichotomy between the Bible's pronouncements about personal morality and its cry for justice and reconciliation.
"We have to speak out against racial injustice," he says. "Few of us in the white community know what it's like to be black -- to fear racial profiling or wonder why you're not getting a job. And we have to talk also about the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the quagmire of poverty. I say to our congregation all the time, "you can't love your brother if you don't know your brother.'"
Among other things, Forest Hill has tried to reach to inner city churches, supporting the work, for example, of the Rev. Barbara Cameron, pastor of the Community Outreach Church in a neighborhood knows as Genesis Park. Nestled just north and west of downtown, it was once the most drug-infested part of the city. But in 1983, Pastor Cameron set up her church on a little hill overlooking the skyline. She began holding Sunday school classes for the children, and then started working with non-profit agencies to build better housing, and with community police officers to make the neighborhood safer.
Within a decade, Genesis Park was a very different place, and Chadwick and other members of his church tried to help where they could. They offered volunteers, and before they built a new sanctuary for themselves, they raised $500,000 for Cameron's church building in Genesis Park.
"You have to be intentional," says Chadwick, "about breaking down barriers, about building relationships that really matter."
Kelvin Smith agrees, though his approach through the years has been slightly different. He shares with Chadwick, and with the new fundamentalists such as Dan Burrell, an absolute faith in the authority of the Bible. Smith is a native Charlottean, a Baptist in his raising, who, unlike some of his peers in the 80s, developed an interest in the issue of poverty. After graduating from Gardner-Webb College, he started a ministry in Jackson Park, an at-risk neighborhood out by the airport, where the red-brick apartments were scattered all around, and the people were poor, and the drug dealers came and went as they pleased.
When Smith moved in, he started a basketball league for the kids, which they could join only after being tutored to pull up their grades. He gave out emergency food and supplies, and in the abandoned apartments just behind his church, he set up a program of transitional housing for families trying to get back on their feet. There were classes in parenting and financial management -- and in what Smith saw as some of the most basic tenets of the Bible: treating each other with civility and respect.
Today, that program is still going strong, and in the Steele Creek neighborhood not far away, Smith has started a new church to go along with it. With more than 40 nationalities represented, his non-denominational congregation is one of the most integrated in the city. The Sunday morning services are evangelical, filled with exuberant anthems of praise -- a style and theology that many would identify as conservative.
But Smith's motivations are different than some.
"One of our core values," he concludes, "is to break down the old walls of racism, classism, denominationalism. We want to show people that the races can indeed live together."
Back in Myers Park, Steve Shoemaker is impressed by the spirit of Smith's undertaking. In many ways, he says, he is happy enough with the current state of religion in Charlotte -- happy with the diversity of strong pulpit voices, and undismayed by the fact that his own church and a handful of others no longer enjoy the monopoly of influence they had in the past.
"We are past the time," he says, "when the elite congregations on our side of town even ought to be speaking for the city."
Shoemaker mentions a new generation of African-Americans -- Ricky Woods, Casey Kimbrough, Claude Alexander -- and a handful of evangelicals as well, including David Chadwick, who have helped put a stamp on the public debate. But he worries more and more that the city is divided, that in a community that is less cohesive than it was, there isn't the same old search for common ground.
Certainly it's true that for many of the conservatives, that search is irrelevant or even worse. Bill James, among others, takes pride in the stridency of his positions -- "I have been the proverbial salt in the wound," he says -- and even the more mild-mannered Dan Burrell sees the debate in terms of black and white: "I believe I am fighting for eternal truths."
There is, in short, not much common ground to be found, and those who pursue it are either insincere or simply not committed to the things that they believe.
For Clifford Jones over on the west side, that kind of certitude can be chilling, and he decries the Christians "so blinded by faith that they become deaf to the realities of life." He thinks those voices are getting louder all the time, and he worries about what it means for the city.
But if Jones is right, if the pulpit debate is becoming more divisive, what about in the pews? Is anybody listening to what's being said?
One former minister at a Myers Park church had occasion recently to visit several times at one of the new churches in southeast Charlotte. It was a mainline institution in a new neighborhood where the symbols of prosperity seemed to be all around -- the two-story houses, the newly planted trees, the expensive foreign cars that were parked in the driveways.
When he took his seat on that first Sunday morning, the minister was shocked. The people, he said, seemed "spiritually dead." They showed little interest in being challenged by their faith, and it didn't seem to matter if the minister was liberal, preaching a gospel of justice and reconciliation, or somebody more conservative, preaching about homosexuality or abortion. The people didn't care.
The preacher wondered what was going on. Was it the cynicism of the times, the low-grade fear that followed 9-11, now making people numb? Or was it simply the triumph of greed, people living their lives in a cocoon of affluence, indifferent to anything else in the world?
Whatever it was, for this particular minister, liberal in his leanings, many of the signs of the times were not good. He was troubled by the arrogance of the new fundamentalists, and troubled even more by the new wave of apathy that seemed to be spreading through the suburbs of Charlotte.
Given those realities, he had to admit, it was hard to escape a subtle feeling of relief that he didn't have to be in a pulpit anymore.