That the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would choose as its new president a pastor known for his work on racial reconciliation was a welcome surprise.

It might be an early sign of a new direction for the Southern Baptist Convention, at a time when so many of its most influential leaders have aligned themselves with former president Donald Trump and claimed scriptural justification for taking what are regarded as partisan stances.

But it is also possible to overread the meaning of the close election Tuesday, in which Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., narrowly won the presidency of the convention over two better-known, ultraconservative rivals.

The annual meeting where the vote took place, which drew more than 16,000 Southern Baptists to Nashville, was being described as a “reckoning” that would send a message about the state and direction of White evangelicalism, both as a religious influence and a political force.

Chief among the tensions at the moment are those surrounding race, the role of women and how some of the convention’s leaders have handled sexual abuse allegations within their ranks.

Litton won in the second round of voting with a majority of only 52 percent over Mike Stone, the favored candidate of a far-right faction of the SBC. Albert Mohler, initially thought to be the front-runner, was knocked out in the first round.

Last September, that far-right faction, known as the Conservative Baptist Network, issued a statement applauding Trump for his stance against critical race theory, an academic construct that examines systemic racism. It described critical race theory as a “divisive, anti-gospel ideology” that has a “destructive influence upon our nation.”

The narrowness of Litton’s victory underscored the fact that the Southern Baptists’ internal divisions are deeply rooted and potentially an existential threat.

Membership, especially among the young, has been on the decline for more than a decade. Several Black megachurch pastors quit the SBC after its seminary presidents declared late last year that any version of critical race theory “is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”

It has also seen the recent departures of Beth Moore, a popular speaker and author who complained of what she saw as persistent racism and sexism within the denomination, and Russell Moore (no relation), who was president of its public-policy arm.

After Russell Moore resigned, a leaked letter surfaced in which he accused members of the SBC’s executive committee of “spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors” and described “a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”

The Southern Baptist Convention finds itself at a possible hinge point as many of those who led its “conservative resurgence” of the 1970s and 1980s have moved off the scene or nearly so.

Younger leaders are taking their place, but no one should expect the denomination to take a truly liberal turn as a result. Nor are its partisan leanings likely to shift much; in 2020, various exit polls indicated that upwards of three-quarters of White evangelical Christians voted for Trump.

Moreover, Baptist churches do not operate under the top-down hierarchy of many other denominations. They are self-governing, which means the energy of their movement and its direction are determined by individual pastors and their flocks.

The convention’s real challenge is finding a way in which it can remain relevant and expand its appeal in a changing society without compromising its beliefs, the most fundamental of which is that the Bible, taken literally, is the unerring word of God.

For Southern Baptists, this is a narrow path.

Outgoing President J.D. Greear told the convention that it “looks like an SBC that expends more energy decrying things like [critical race theory] than they have done lamenting the devastating consequences of years of racial bigotry and discrimination.”

But Greear also claimed that critical race theory, which has become a flash point in the culture wars, “is an ideology that arises out of a worldview at odds with the gospel.”

In the end, the convention adopted a resolution that skirted the question of critical race theory itself and stated “we reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”

At a news conference following his narrow victory, Litton pledged that his goal would be to “build bridges and not walls.”

“We are a family,” he added. “At times, it seems we’re incredibly dysfunctional, but we love each other.”

Love is a good start. But building respect for those who see things differently, along with a willingness to find common ground, will be a far heavier lift.

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