The newest Southern Baptist battle does not pit liberals against conservatives nor Democrats against Republicans. Instead, it mostly pits theological conservatives against those who are ultraconservative in a struggle for powerful positions within a denomination of 14 million people.
The president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) serves a two-year term. Many people feel, however, that the outcome of that election as well as the resolutions the messengers adopt will make a larger statement about the convention and whether it’s a social and political affinity group or one united by common Christian commitments.
James Merritt, a former SBC president, said what is so unusual about this annual meeting is that even insiders have no idea who might win.
Merritt, a respected megachurch pastor from the Atlanta area, compared this year’s meeting to the “conservative resurgence,” a movement in the 1970s and 1980s when leaders such as Paige Patterson led a conservative takeover of the convention.
The presidential race is “one of the most interesting horse races, if I can use that analogy, since the conservative resurgence,” Merritt said. “This is a great example of why I don’t bet.”
One of the biggest questions for Southern Baptists is whether Mike Stone, generally considered the candidate of choice for the most politically conservative Southern Baptists, has a shot at winning the SBC presidency. Stone is part of a far-right group called the Conservative Baptist Network, backed by Patterson, a highly influential Southern Baptist leader who was fired in 2018 from his position as seminary president for his handling of sex abuse cases. The issue of how the SBC handles sex abuse has been under the spotlight since letters written by former Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore were recently leaked.
Stone has complained that SBC leaders have bent over backward to apologize for the exit of several Black pastors over the leaders’ rejection of critical race theory (CRT), a framework academics use to understand systemic racism in the United States. Normally the presidency goes to a respected leader who has not campaigned, but several people who work at SBC institutions who did not want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs said Stone has been flying around in a private jet to garner support.
Many expect Albert Mohler, the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, to receive a good portion of votes because of his name recognition. Mohler, who has a popular podcast and blog, went from being a Trump critic to a Trump proponent in 2020 and also led an effort among SBC leaders to oppose the use of CRT. That move led to the departure of Black pastors. Mohler was also considered a key architect of the historic “conservative resurgence.”
Another candidate, Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who is a favorite among many younger Southern Baptists and people of color, is known for his focus on racial reconciliation efforts. He also has the support of Fred Luter, the first Black president of the SBC. While Litton’s own church does not have women preach, he has said he understands that other churches might have a different approach. Ed Stetzer, who used to head the SBC’s LifeWay Research, its research arm, said that if Litton doesn’t win, it could spark an even bigger exodus of Black pastors.
“To put things in perspective of how diverse a denomination the SBC is, the largest Lutheran body in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), consists of about 9,000 churches,” Stetzer wrote on his blog for Christianity Today. “… Simply put, there are over 10,000 non-Anglo SBC congregations — and they are watching how Southern Baptists address race and ethnicity this week.”
Fewer Southern Baptists talk about a fourth presidential candidate, Randy Adams, who has focused on how the denomination should manage church evangelism and planting, or the creation of new churches.
Ahead of the meeting, Southern Baptists also submit resolutions, declarations that they collectively make, that go through a committee before messengers vote on them. Merritt, who is serving as the chair of the resolutions committee this year, said members typically vote on eight to 12 resolutions, but that this year they will probably vote on fewer because the topics, which include race and the role of female preachers, are considered so highly charged.
Most of the voting on these issues, as well as the presidential election, will take place Tuesday.
The SBC, which hosted Vice President Mike Pence at its annual meeting in 2018, has always shared common ground with the GOP on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But this coming convention could signal just how closely it wants to align itself to Republican priorities.
The share of White Southern Baptists who identified as Republican was once the same share as White United Methodists who identified as Republican from 1998 to about 2008. Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, said around 2008, Southern Baptists began to shift. The share of White Southern Baptists who identify as Republicans went from about 50 percent in 2008 to about 71 percent in 2018, pulling much further to the right during Barack Obama’s presidency and into Trump’s tenure.
“I think what’s happening is that the SBC and the GOP are chasing each other further to the right,” said Burge, who analyzed data from the General Social Survey. “It’s become this game of chicken almost — who can go further to the right without going too far.”
For example, the SBC in 2019 voted in favor of a resolution on CRT stating that the framework could be used as a tool as long as it was considered subordinate to the Bible.
“Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” the resolution stated.
When the resolution came to the floor for a vote in Birmingham, Ala., the vote didn’t appear to be widely contested. It became much more controversial later, especially two months after Trump denounced CRT in August 2020, when SBC leaders came forward to denounce the framework, too.
J.D. Greear, the departing SBC president who served an extra year after the pandemic kept the convention from meeting last year, is a younger megachurch pastor in North Carolina who has sought to diversify the convention, particularly in important committees. During the summer of 2020, he declared that “Black lives matter” and decided not to use a famous gavel once wielded by an enslaver. Greear has also encouraged Baptists to move toward using the term “Great Commission Baptists” to describe themselves since “Southern Baptist” has been troubling for so many people of color who see it as harking back to how the SBC was founded in 1845 in defense of missionaries who enslaved people.
Some people fear, however, that Greear’s actions have led to a backlash from those on the far right who feel the convention has become “woke” and its focus on diversity and inclusion has caused a drift toward theological liberalism, which SBC leaders deny is taking place. Greear was among the SBC leaders who rejected CRT last year.
Messengers in Nashville appear divided on favored candidates. Erin Harding, who lives in Albany, Ga., traveled to the meeting because she wants to ensure that candidates on the far right, including Mohler and Stone, don’t get elected. Harding, who has two adopted children from China, said she wants to raise her children in the church, but they are the only non-White children and she said SBC leaders’ attacks on CRT have made her pause.
“I don’t see critical race theory as a problem or as the biggest threat to the gospel,” Harding said. “I do see extreme misogyny; I do see extreme racism.”
She said most of her Southern Baptist peers probably don’t necessarily pay attention to what happens at the national level.
“I don’t think they understand how extremely political the SBC is,” said Harding, a student at the College at Southeastern, a Southern Baptist school.
On another side of the Southern Baptist aisle, Texas pastor Tom Buck said his No. 1 priority is that he wants the SBC to rescind its previous resolution on CRT and denounce the framework in no uncertain terms. He wants a president who articulates his values and has said he is especially bothered that Litton has co-taught the Bible with his wife from the church stage.
“My desire is that the convention return to what it’s been about: the gospel of Jesus Christ and not through ‘woke-ism,’ ” Buck said. “There will be many decisions that will be made on Tuesday that will be definitive in the future direction of the SBC.”