There’s a political fight brewing inside the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as the Southern Baptist Convention gathers in Nashville this week for its annual meeting.
On one side is a hardcore vanguard of conservatives seeking to beat back what’s viewed as a move toward “wokeness.” On the other is the SBC establishment that’s adopted a more conciliatory approach on progressive social issues such as Black Lives Matter, critical race theory and ordaining female ministers – all in an attempt to attract a broader group of adherents.
The battle, which culminates in a vote for a new president on Tuesday, is similar to the current cultural debate raging across the country over questions of race, gender and equality. It also comes as the SBC, like most Christian denominations in the US, faces shrinking membership and an increasingly secular America.
That has given rise to an internal conflict with a particularly Trumpian tone to it, pitting a populist group of self-identifying “real” Southern Baptists against those they say would transform the church into something unrecognizable to many traditionalists.
Tensions within the SBC have been on the rise for years but regularly bubble over at the annual meeting, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic. The one-year delay has only raised the stakes for the selection of a president to succeed J.D. Greear, a pastor from North Carolina first elected in 2018.
That same year the SBC annual gathering hosted Vice President Mike Pence as a guest speaker. Greear has sought to balance the competing interests of the church’s different factions – declaring that “black lives matter” in a 2020 video message while siding with conservatives on critical race theory the previous year.
Rather than bring reconciliation, however, Greear’s moves have only deepened the divide, and in his last few months as president he has spoken out more starkly against the growing right-wing revolt.
Moderates maintain they have no serious differences with the conservatives on theology. But leaders on this side say the church is at risk of elevating partisan concerns at the expense of its mission to evangelize and bring more people into the faith.
“We are not, at our core, a political activism group,” Greear said in an address to the SBC’s Executive Committee in February. “Do we want to be a gospel people, or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name — Southern or Baptist?”
Make Southern Baptists Great Again?
For months, the organizing energy has been on the side of conservatives. The spirit of revolt against the church’s so-called liberals has been driven largely by the work of the Conservative Baptist Network, which has encouraged fellow travelers to attend the meeting in Nashville and take back the SBC.
The conservative faction’s presumed favorite for SBC president is Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who sits on the advisory board of the Conservative Baptist Network. Stone has criticized the church leadership’s adoption in 2019 of a nonbinding resolution that accepted critical race theory as a useful tool for understanding systemic racism – though the resolution reaffirmed “Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills.”
Stone told a Georgia congregation in March in a pitch for his candidacy that he supported revoking that resolution and even passing a resolution rejecting critical race theory.
“Our Lord isn’t woke,” Stone said in remarks first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Another contender for conservative support is Albert Mohler Jr., a theologian and popular podcast host. Despite his conservative bona fides and role as a leading evangelical intellectual, Mohler has found himself in a slightly more moderate space. (Mohler was a prominent voice of opposition against Trump in 2016, though he reversed himself in 2020 and endorsed Trump for reelection.)
As president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Mohler joined with the heads of the five other SBC-affiliated seminaries to issue a statement rejecting the teaching of critical race theory as “unbiblical.”
The move prompted many Black pastors to leave the SBC – including the pastor of a majority-Black megachurch in Chicago and another in Houston. According to a Pew Research Group survey in 2017, just 6% of Southern Baptists identified as Black.
The moderates strike back
Breaks from the SBC like these are what have moderates in the church concerned for its future.
Southern Baptists favoring a less strident path forward are coalescing around Ed Litton, described by the Washington Post as a “favorite among many younger Southern Baptists and people of color.
The recent departure of Russell Moore as president of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Center, is instructive. Shortly after Moore stepped down at the beginning of June, two of his private letters – one to the ERLC board and the other to Greear – revealed the extent to which he was concerned with the consolidation of power by conservatives.
In his letters, which said more explicitly what he hinted to in a final official statement on June 2, Moore referred to a “multi-pronged crisis” within the church, specifically with regard to its treatment of Black members and sex abuse victims. He describes himself beset with “constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention” for his outspokenness on racial issues.
Moore described in his letter to Greear “the blatant, gutter-level racism that has been expressed to me behind closed doors along with the reprehensible treatment of my African-American employees and our African-American seminary professors by figures within the Southern Baptist ecosystem.”
He also charged several figures, including Stone, with slow-walking efforts to deal effectively with sex abusers in the church, accusing Stone specifically of having “stonewalled many attempts at reform for the sake of the sexually abused.”
Stone has dismissed those charges as “blatantly and provably false” and blamed Moore for fostering the ongoing split among Southern Baptists.
“This attack is a deflection from the fact that Russell’s leadership of the ERLC has been an ongoing source of division and distraction for Southern Baptists,” Stone said – a veiled reference to Moore’s years of criticism of Trump.