For years, mainline Protestant denominations in America have creeped toward theological and political liberalism on hot-button issues such as race, gender and sexuality. But the largest of the mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church, now appears to be experiencing something of a conservative renaissance.
The UMC has been divided over homosexuality for more than a decade, with many American churches tilting to the left but most African and Latin American congregations holding to traditional views. At a special gathering in St. Louis this week, conservative delegates gave progressives the ecclesial stiff-arm by rejecting the “one church plan,” a compromise that would have made space for churches of varying perspectives by letting individual regions decide whether they would ordain or marry LGBTQ congregants.
Instead, the delegates strengthened the church’s position that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” upholding bans on same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay people.
The United Methodist Church is not the only denomination to experience a conservative revival amid a time of cultural division. The 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention made a similar pivot away from progressive theology decades ago during a period some call the “conservative resurgence.” This triggered a mass exodus of moderate voices, which resulted in a convention lacking diversity of thought and, subsequently, the tools needed to respond to cultural controversies arising in a more progressive society.
Methodists should heed Southern Baptists’ story as a cautionary tale.
As with Methodists, the rightward shift among Baptists occurred during a time of social upheaval. The 1960s brought radical cultural change in America as a result of the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism. In the 1970s, conservative Christians in the public square formed the “religious right” and attempted to seize political power to change course. Conservatives in the SBC mobilized to commandeer denominational power, offering no quarter or welcome to the minority of dissenting moderates who eventually left to found a new denomination.
Allowing for diversity of thought in a religious institution has well-documented benefits, and creating religious echo chambers can be organizationally deleterious. As social psychologist Christena Cleveland argues in her book, “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart," religious homogeneity promotes groupthink, pollutes our interactions with “the other,” and lulls the faithful into complacency by surrounding them only with what’s familiar and similar. Meanwhile, a faith community that allows for a wide array of views and varying types of people are better suited to face the challenges of a quickly evolving world.
“Contrary to common beliefs, the body of Christ’s diversity is an asset, not a pain in the neck,” Cleveland writes.
The Baptist “conservative resurgence” reads like a case study on the weaknesses of religious echo chambers. The movement sought not just to make space for a particular way of thinking but also to eliminate space for anyone who thought differently. While this arguably created a type of unity, it did so at the expense of diversity.
At Southern Baptist seminaries today, you’ll find little room for the kind of intellectual disagreement that helps educational intuitions flourish. Faculty members are required to sign comprehensive statements of belief to remain in good standing. Those who diverge from the institution’s approved list of doctrines even slightly place their employment at risk.
For example, when William Dembski, a leading scholar of the conservative intelligent design movement, suggested that Noah’s flood was not worldwide but rather geographically limited, his job at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was threatened, and he was forced to recant.
Eric Johnson, a leading scholar of Christian psychology, was reportedly forced into “early retirement” after 17 years teaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary because some believed that his approach to the subject matter didn’t rely heavily enough on the Bible’s teachings.
Southern Baptist seminaries were once spaces where scholarship thrived, but very little original or interesting theological scholarship emerges today.
Worse still, the lack of diversity has left the SBC ill-equipped to confront the challenges of the day. The denomination’s top-tier leaders have spectacularly failed to respond in meaningful ways to the three biggest issues of our time: the mistreatment of women, the abuse of children and systemic racism.
One of its most revered leaders and theologians, Paige Patterson, was fired in 2018 as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, weeks after audio recordings surfaced in which Patterson said abused wives should avoid divorce, pray for their violent husbands and “be submissive in every way that you can.”
After the tape initially surfaced, many male Southern Baptist leaders took to social media to protect and laud their friend. But more information surfaced, including a video of Patterson objectifying a 16-year-old girl in a sermon and a mishandling of a sex-abuse allegation by a seminary student.
Around the same time, one of the most prominent Southern Baptist women in America, author and speaker Beth Moore, penned a blog post alleging years of misogynist mistreatment by theologians and pastors.
In post-Harvey Weinstein America, the perception of the SBC as a good ol’ boys club that does not seem to be serious about protecting women, however accurate, is organizational kryptonite.
The SBC also has failed to address a sex abuse crisis that is just coming to light. An investigation published in February by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News alleged more than 700 victims of sexual misconduct, ranging from unwanted advances to rape. More than 100 youth pastors and numerous other Baptist ministers were charged or convicted of sex crimes. Many perpetrators moved their employment to other churches. The SBC’s executive committee rejected proposals to aggressively investigate the depth of the problem or provide relief to victims.
Then there is the matter of racial reconciliation. The denomination was founded over the support of slavery, supported Jim Crow laws and opposed the civil rights movement. Though Southern Baptists issued a public apology for these positions in 1995, little has been done tangibly to include racial diversity.
In 2012, it elected its first African American president, but the position is honorific and unpaid. Meanwhile, all official top posts in the SBC — all six seminaries, LifeWay Christian Resources, GuideStone Financial Resources, the International Mission Board, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and the North American Mission Board — are led by white men, despite recent vacancies that presented opportunities for diversity.
Efforts at the annual convention to denounce white supremacy and repudiate the Confederate battle flag have been met with stiff opposition.
Last year, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released a sweeping report admitting its deep historic involvement in racism and slavery. But the report was quick to state that current leaders are not responsible for past sins and offered no tangible steps for further change.
The SBC is not attracting minorities, as the denomination remains a whopping 85 percent white. Consider that an all-white, all-male and all-conservative group is unable to effectively address progressive issues relating to minorities, women and children. Color me unsurprised.
Religious homogeneity is not just bad for the intellectual depth of an organization. It also can be bad for growth. As the world becomes more diverse and as social media tears down walls that divided us, people aren’t attracted to religious communities that don’t reflect the diversity of their lived experience. In the case of the SBC, the denomination is in the midst of a decade-long decline in baptisms and membership.
This is the fruit of the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence: a denomination ill-equipped to respond contemporary challenges, unwilling to create spaces of theological scholarship, and facing declining membership and baptisms.
Is this the path Methodists want to walk?
Of course, Christians have historically required agreement over essential theological beliefs. These are found in the Apostles’ Creed, which Christians around the world have recited for millennia. The creed includes statements about the creation of the world by God, the virgin birth of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion and burial. Unfortunately for conservatives, people who identify as LGBT didn’t make the cut.
Until recently, Methodists have seemingly understood this and adopted a big-tent approach to denominational participation. They rooted this approach in the Wesleyan understanding of the “catholic spirit” that promotes religious tolerance and diversity of opinion, a belief that has helped them become the second-largest Protestant denomination in modern America.
But many in the denomination want to abandon this belief, opting instead to chase a whole category of people from God’s table and push out churches who will not fall in line.
In times of deep cultural division, faith communities face a choice. Either they will find creative ways to live with the tensions that come with diversity and disagreement, or they will divide into echo chambers in which everyone more or less thinks the same way. Too often, they choose the latter, opting for a revolution leading only to irrelevance.
Jonathan Merritt is the author of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — and How We Can Revive Them” and a contributor to the Atlantic.