The Southern Baptist Convention, an umbrella organization for conservative evangelical churches across the country, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. But in recent years it has been rocked by a number of internal controversies – most notably struggles over the sexual abuse cover-up in SBC churches and the organization's approach to racism and critical racial theory.
These tensions culminated in a dramatic battle for the SBC's presidential election, held Tuesday during the organization's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. In the elections, two prominent far-right candidates lost to a more conservative mainstream called Ed Litton, which weakened the momentum of a Tea Party-style group aiming to overturn the SBC in an even right-wing direction.
What do these events say about the future of the SBC, one of the Republican Party's key civil society allies? And what was the reverberation in broader American politics and culture?
Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton (left) and outgoing President J. D. Greear (right) speak to denomination members after the annual meeting closes.
Mark Humphrey / AP
People attend the morning session of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 16.
Mark Humphrey / AP
To answer these questions, I turned to Greg Thornbury, a prominent scholar in evangelical Christian philosophy and theology. Thornbury, although not a member of the SBC himself, was educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and taught at Union University, a Baptist school in Tennessee, and is personally familiar with SBC leaders.
Thornbury says it is a mistake to see Litton's win as a sign of "moderate" promotion in the SBC. The organization is politically and theologically conservative through and through and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
“I know Ed, I met Ed. Ed is a super conservative guy, but the New York Times called him a moderate. I mean compared to what? Idi Amin? "He told me.
However, that does not mean that the organization's internal struggles are meaningless. Thornbury believes the SBC is in a long-term numbers crisis: it has lost 2 million members since 2006, and 2020 saw the lowest number of baptisms since the post-World War I Spanish flu pandemic and the organization's political conservatism – including its struggles with race and sexual abuse.
“(Youngsters) will go to church if their parents force them to, but the battle is lost on the intellectual front and the emotional front,” Thornbury tells me. "I suspect the decline will be steep."
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Aside from the obvious fact that the SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, what makes it so important to American evangelicalism, or even American Christianity in general?
Southern Baptists are the Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Church in the sense that they have invested in institutions and commissions.
What makes them unique is the so-called Cooperative Program. Grandmas put money in the plates of their local church, and a percentage of that money is sent to Nashville to fund all sorts of things. Now people in the churches think all is done for evangelism – foreign missionaries and missionary church planting. But things like the seminars and things like the Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission (SBC's public domain) are also funded.
This is what makes the SBC unique: There is this constant flow of money, unlike most other evangelical institutions, which scrap up for themselves and have to raise their own money.
Because of this, they have great seminars with impressive campuses. You can invest in things like radio programs; (SBC guide) can access CNN and speak to Anderson Cooper for having this machine behind them. This differs from most other Protestant denominations, which do not have this funding mechanism of the cooperative program.
So how does the church's drift towards right-wing politics intersect with these institutions?
Was there a surge in the ranks of the Southern Baptists of increasing numbers of Republicans, and that pushed the institutions to the right? Or were there leaders in the institutions like the director of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler who worked to steer the church in a particular political direction?
Zack, that's a really, really good question.
In 1976, when Newsweek published its issue, The Year of the Evangelical, Jimmy Carter was the most prominent Southern Baptist in the country. He taught Sunday school. This is what the Southern Baptists looked like in the 1970s.
In the early 1970s there was the so-called Christian Life Commission – it eventually became the Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission, the ERLC – Pro-Abortion. The six seminars of the SBC had moderate instructors.
The cover of Newsweek from October 1976.
What happened was (an SBC leader named) Paige Patterson and the mega-church pastor cadre said, "This shouldn't be." They realized that the mechanism to change everything was to elect a president for the Southern Baptist Convention, which meets every two years. The President has the authority to set up committees or to appoint persons to committees of the Congress. And if you can appoint committees and trustees, then you can change all institutions, and that's what happened. It's called the "conservative resurgence".
That's part of how it happened. But the other part is that Jerry Falwell, an independent fundamentalist Baptist who still had a lot of swaying pastors in the SBC mega-churches, alerted Southern Baptists that they could have access to the White House if they were in Ronald Reagan would agree.
The rise (Falwell's group) of the Moral Majority, as well as the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, have brought together the fates of the SBC and the GOP. Recently, it has been natural for any SBC to speak to a prominent member of the Republican Party at the Southern Baptist Convention, be it George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or 2018 Mike Pence.
That begs an interesting question. Over the past two years you've seen a lot of internal tensions in the SBC, some of which are almost political, haven't you? There is one dispute over the position of the Convention on Critical Racial Theory, and another over the handling of cases of sexual abuse in churches.
So where do these fault lines come from in an overwhelmingly conservative denomination?
In the 1970s, the people who were the denomination or agency chiefs like (former ERLC President) Russell Moore thought they were leaders of Congress. When Trump appeared like an atomically toxic cloud, SBC agencies like Moore realized that the constituency was much, much further to the right than they were. They weren't really leaders of anything.
Russell was very, very open to Trump, to the point that Donald Trump himself referred to him as a bad little guy on Twitter. And that got Russ in a lot of hot water with people like Executive Committee chairman Ronnie Floyd and other SBC mega-church pastors who thought that if Trump is elected and if he is elected, "because our top lobbyist in Washington" anti -Trump is, we will no longer have access to the White House. "
So Russ had to apologize. He had to apologize very publicly to Trump and his supporters, and then he was really holding back during the Trump administration.
Trump awakened that white nationalist DNA that has always been present in the Southern Baptist Convention. This encouraged the most extreme right-wing elements within the SBC to really embark on the path of ideological purity testing.
The President of the North American Mission Board of Southern Baptist Convention Kevin Ezell (left) in the Oval Office with then President Trump on September 1, 2017.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Can you talk to me a little bit about the details of this abuse case? How does it compare to what happened in the Catholic Church?
In the Catholic abuse scandal, bishops and cardinals turned a blind eye or, like Theodore McCarrick, were involved in the abuse themselves. And people knew about it, but instead of going public with it and cleaning the house, they rearranged it, swept it under the rug, kept it silent.
That is the similarity. Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle did this great exposé, and he noticed how a pedophile in one church could become a youth minister and then there was no mechanism or alarm or warning system to stop them from going to another Baptist church.
The difference is that, at least in the Catholic Church, you have interlocked courts and dioceses and communicate between these things. The Southern Baptist Convention is like everyone is sitting on their own fence post whistling their own tune, and the only time they really get together in June (for the annual meeting). This is the only time the Southern Baptist Convention has existed. The rest of the time it's just those autonomous churches out there.
The leaders of the SBC and the people on the Executive Committee said, “What should we do? This is not a hierarchical organization where we can tell each Baptist church who to hire and so on. "
You could have developed a database. You could have seen where these perpetrators were going. You could have given resources to the churches to make sure the abuse doesn't continue. But it's a network of the good old boys, just like the Catholic Church. So the two are very similar, although one of them is very decentralized and one is more centralized.
This week, the internal divisions within the SBC on such issues really came to the fore at the June meeting in Nashville. There was a three-way race for the presidency between Al Mohler, another arch-conservative named Mike Stone, and a third candidate, Ed Litton, a more conservative mainstream.
Litton won. What does this tell us about the internal divisions of the SBC?
Ed Litton's son went to Union University, I had him in my introduction to philosophy class. So I know Ed, I met Ed. Ed is a super conservative guy, but the New York Times called him temperate.
I mean compared to what? Idi Amin? The SBC is already so far to the right that anyone who says something broadly about unity or love or kindness is seen as a compromise.
Because Russ was anti-Trump, and because he put these sexual abuse victims on a platform and allowed them to say anything they wanted to say about the Southern Baptist Convention, this was viewed by the far right as a wrestling analogy, it didn't protect the business. “You're not protecting the business with that. You didn't have to do it that way. "
So there is this super-fundamentalist wing of the convention that has used things like the sexual abuse crisis and the response to it as a lever to win back a super-ultra-conservative person as president of the SBC.
Votes will be collected on the first round of voting for President of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 15.
Mark Humphrey / AP
So what do these results say, by and large, about the future of SBC in American life?
George Marsden, the historian of Notre Dame, was once asked to define what an evangelical is and he said, “An evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham. A fundamentalist is someone who believes Billy Graham is a compromise that has gone soft. "
The ultra-right candidate Mike Stone was someone who was supported by this group called the Conservative Baptist Network. And their goal was to try to repeat the same victory Paige Patterson had orchestrated in the 1970s – to wrest control of the Southern Baptist Convention from the moderate evangelicals.
The most important thing for Southern Baptists is to be noticed: “We just want to win people to Jesus. We just want to get people to believe the gospel. ”When that is threatened, when that image is threatened by something else, just turn to the evangelist. I think enough people came to Nashville to say, “Oh, we're sick of all this negative press coverage and all this politics.”
In 2019 they hardly passed one Resolution against racism. They had to go back a few times and do it, and Russ Moore begged people. "Please vote for this anti-racist resolution."
And this year the ultra-right people are saying, "Oh, you see, this anti-racist resolution was actually this subtle game to turn us all into Marxist comedians." I think enough people came out who were nervous about this super right group would take over all committees and facilities again and there would be a purge.
There's an article in the New Yorker about the SBC's internal struggle over critical racial theory that focuses on the experiences of black preachers in SBC churches, who make up a very, very small percentage of SBC preachers.
I was wondering to what extent non-white constituencies within the SBC influence how the organization makes decisions, such as rejecting critical racial theory? Obviously, the SBC decided against it at the 2019 convention, in the anti-racism resolution you just referred to. But then in 2020 there was a contradicting statement from the six seminar leaders who rejected the CRT.
Well I think the role (black preacher) is minimal. It was minimal initially and has only been further marginalized over the past two years. Imagine the six white guys preaching the origins of racism, the six seminary presidents. And to publish this statement that says, "This is not taught in any of our Southern Baptist seminaries."
And the answer from those beleaguered, still-existing SBC pastors who are People of Color was simple: “We knew this all along, but now they're really showing their hand. But this white nationalist project was really active here all the time. "
It sounds like you think there is no real prospect for the SBC, or perhaps even white American evangelicalism in the broader sense, to break away from their ever-tightening ties with the Republican Party.
I don't see any evidence of that. If anything, it has only strengthened itself over the four years of Trump's presidency. They still had 76 percent of the whites going to the polls and saying, "I'm an evangelical" (who) voted for Trump.
They have the hand-wringing of certain elite institutions or outlets, like (magazine) Christian Today. The editor wrote this editorial say Trump should be charged, okay? But he did this as his last job as editor of CT, and CT no longer really represents a large constituency.
I think the people who are the die-hard evangelicals are the people who came to the polls and voted for Trump in the face of four years of utter vulgarity. They did it anyway, because there they are. If you looked at January 6th and looked at the crowd that stormed the Capitol, look at how many prayer meetings there were before the storm hit? How many praises were sung?
These are white evangelicals, but that's not how they want to be perceived. That's why there's this growing legion of young people and millennials who are leaving the ranks of the evangelical church – because I think they saw the evidence of the pudding in eating it.
People attend a church service during the annual Southern Baptist Convention.
Mark Humphrey / AP
You are right that the SBC has serious retention problems. Over the past few years, you've seen an absolute and percentage decrease in the number of Americans who identify with the SBC. Last year there were very few baptisms since 1919 – which may or may not be purely Covid-related.
So here's my question: To what extent can these numbers be called a “crisis” for the SBC? And is there good evidence that the SBC's association with the GOP, its politicization of Christianity, actually leads people to leave the convention?
Well they think it's a crisis. (Member of the SBC Executive Committee) Ronnie Floyd said at the convention that teenage baptisms had decreased by 40 percent. He urged the assembled congregation, "If you are 'rescued' as a teenager, hold up your hand." And most people's hands went up. So you panic.
Generation Z, they have TikTok, they have Instagram where they talk and they refute the claims that people like Southern Baptists or other evangelicals make about gays, about unmarried mothers, about sexuality, about trans people, about liberals. about people who have abortions. They check the facts in real time like no other generation has done before and are reinforced by their heroes. While Bob Dylan was talking about Medgar Evers in the 1960s, today Taylor Swift speaks to homophobic, right-wing extremists in "You Need to Calm Down".
So they will go to church if their parents force them to, but the battle is lost on the intellectual and emotional fronts. These kids are not coming back.