The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Southern Baptists elect Ed Litton as their president, a defeat for the hard right

Rev. Ed Litton speaks during a luncheon during the Southern Baptist Convention at the Music City Center in downtown Nashville. (William DeShazer/For The Washington Post)

NASHVILLE — The Southern Baptist Convention elected Ed Litton as its president on Tuesday, signaling a defeat for the hard right within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Litton narrowly defeated Mike Stone, the favored candidate of the far right. For the past few years, the convention has been mired in debates over racism, politics and sexual misconduct that mirror many of the same debates in the Republican Party. The election took place at the convention’s annual meeting in Nashville.

In recent weeks, as leaked letters and backroom deals dominated conversations among Southern Baptists, Litton, pastor of First Baptist Church North Mobile in Alabama, pitched himself as someone who would lead the convention toward more racial reconciliation. Fred Luter, the first and only Black pastor to serve as president of the SBC, nominated Litton for the position. At the meeting Tuesday, Litton spoke fondly of how he and Luter have swapped pulpits. The crowd cheered after Luter’s speech in favor of Litton, in which Luter said Litton “brings a compassionate and shepherding heart. We need a pastor who has a love for God and God’s people.”

Other SBC presidential candidates included Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the first round of voting, Mohler garnered fewer votes than Litton and Stone. In a runoff, Litton received 52 percent of the vote, while Stone received 47.81 percent.

Stone had the support of a group called the Conservative Baptist Network that formed in 2020 to try to steer the convention in a hard-right direction. The CBN hosted its own gathering Tuesday at a nearby hotel featuring speakers who lamented the direction of the country and convention, including the state of public schools, how young people are leaving churches, and “woke” ideologies.

Ahead of the meeting, there was concern that there would be a backlash against some of the racial reconciliation of Southern Baptist leaders, said Ed Stetzer, who used to head the SBC’s LifeWay Research, its research arm. Instead, the convention voted for a president known for his efforts on race relations.

“The crowd was younger and more diverse than most expected, and that crowd carried the day,” Stetzer said.

Secret recordings, leaked letters: Explosive secrets rocking the Southern Baptist Convention

Critical race theory, a framework used by academics to examine structural racism, appeared to be the biggest concern among the majority of Southern Baptists, some of whom wore red stickers on their convention badges that read “Stop CRT” and “Beat the Biden Baptists.”

Before they voted on resolutions, which included several proposed ones concerning CRT, SBC President J.D. Greear told the convention that it “looks like an SBC that expends more energy decrying things like CRT than they have done lamenting the devastating consequences of years of racial bigotry and discrimination.”

Greear added that for justice in society to take place, “we need robust, careful, Bibles-open, on-our-knees discussions about it. Justice is a major theme in our Bibles, and so of course Satan, the angel of light, is going to produce counterfeits for it, and on this we need to ensure we are more shaped by the Scriptures than we are by the world.”

Greear concluded that CRT “is an ideology that arises out of a worldview at odds with the gospel,” instead of defining it the way that most academics do, which is a framework or a tool used to examine systemic racism.

In the end, the convention adopted a resolution on race that did not address CRT specifically. Instead, it stated, “we reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”

Caught in a culture war, this multiracial family navigates a predominantly White evangelical world

Opposition to CRT among SBC leaders led to an exodus of Black pastors over the past year and some feared more would leave if the convention had voted to condemn it. But Gregory Perkins, a Black pastor in Menifee, Calif., who sees CRT as a secular framework that can be useful in helping people contextualize their experience in the United States, said he was committed to staying no matter the resolution that the convention adopted.

“Just because the SBC makes a decision doesn’t mean I’m relinquishing my membership,” he said. Perkins said he is ecstatic that Litton won because he will continue the work of other leaders on racial issues and abuse. He also said the resolution voted on Tuesday “frames racial issues in a biblical manner.”

The election result is unlikely to end the divisiveness within the convention or satisfy attendees such as Judd Saul, a filmmaker from Cedar Falls, Iowa, who traveled to Nashville because he wanted to warn Southern Baptists of the “drastic slide” into the political left and into CRT and was distributing pamphlets about the “woke SBC.” He said he was kicked out of his Southern Baptist church three years ago for promoting conspiracy theories and now attends a nondenominational church.

“We used to be known as conservative stalwarts,” Saul said. “I miss the SBC. That’s why I’m here to help wake people up and get it steered back in the proper direction.”

Others expressed dismay over the fissures. Southern Baptist church elder David Rogers said his father, Adrian Rogers, who was once instrumental in the “conservative resurgence” or takeover of the convention that began in the 1970s, would be “heartbroken” by the lack of unity within the convention right now. He said that while his father did not regret his role in the resurgence, he was worried about the rising influence of “tire-slashers,” foot soldiers who would not treat each other with respect and cut ethical corners for the cause of convention.

Rogers said that while Southern Baptists have made statements on political issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom, it should try to avoid political partisanship. In the days leading up to the convention, Rogers, who is an elder at his Southern Baptist church in Memphis, was disappointed that the messengers appeared poised to make a statement on CRT.

“The purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention, I don’t think, is to make statements about CRT,” Rogers said. “It’s getting the focus off of what we’ve joined together to do.”

Another key issued raised at the meeting was how Southern Baptists have handled sexual abuse both in their churches and at the highest levels of leadership. Because churches operate independently, they have struggled to know how to prevent people who have been accused of abuse from moving to other churches.

Todd Benkert, a pastor of a small Southern Baptist church in Mishawaka, Ind., who brought a motion to the convention on care for sexual abuse survivors said he has been motivated to bring the issue to the floor since 2019 when he heard Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson, talk about protecting survivors at a conference called “Caring Well.”

“This is something we should’ve been doing a long time ago,” said Benkert, who was trying to hand out 250 green ribbons to Southern Baptists to pin to their shirts to signal their care for abuse survivors. “Survivors shouldn’t be the only ones who advocate for themselves. Pastors should be standing with them.”

Tiffany Thigpen, who previously shared with the Houston Chronicle her story of being sexually abused by a former Southern Baptist pastor in the 1990s, traveled from St. Augustine, Fla., to watch Tuesday’s motions to see how the convention would do on issues of abuse.

“I’ve been watching and waiting and wanting to hear it for myself,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want truth and transparency in the truth?”

Southern Baptists voted to “prayerfully endeavor, before God, to eliminate all incidents of sex abuse and racial discrimination among our churches.”

Megan Lively, who previously shared her story of how she was raped at a Southern Baptist seminary, said she was relieved by decisions made on Tuesday. She and her husband flew into Nashville for one day simply to cast their votes for Litton and leave. However, she thinks a smaller group of hard-right Southern Baptist leaders have retained control of power in its Executive Committee, which runs the business of the convention. She thinks the decisions made Tuesday might mean nothing for survivors if Southern Baptists don’t do more to change the committee’s leadership.

“It’s hard for me to be excited because I know how survivors haven’t been protected in the past,” she said.

In a news conference after his election, Litton praised the racial diversity of the convention, a predominantly White denomination that has grown in its predominantly Black, Hispanic and Asian churches in recent decades.

“Our mission is reconciliation,” Litton said, calling those churches a vital part of the SBC. He said that churches need to be put on notice that sexual abuse will not be tolerated. Litton said he would pursue a similar direction with Greear on appointing people of color to leadership positions within the SBC.

However, he reaffirmed his commitment to conservative doctrine Baptists hold dear. Litton, who considers himself a complementarian which generally teaches the headship of men and the submission of women, said he thinks the current Baptist statement on faith is sufficient on women’s roles in the church. (Women are generally forbidden from the lead pastor role in SBC churches.)

The convention, which is known for adopting resolutions on all kinds of political and cultural issues, also adopted resolutions opposing taxpayer funding for abortion and opposing an LGBT rights measure called the Equality Act.

In his speech, outgoing president Greear warned against getting too closely aligned with partisan politics.

“God hasn’t called us primarily to save America politically; he’s called us to make the gospel known to all,” Greear said. “Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, it gets pregnant. And the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”

Read more:

Caught in a culture war, this multiracial family navigates a predominantly White evangelical world

Newly leaked letter details allegations that Southern Baptist leaders mishandled sex abuse claims

Bible teacher Beth Moore’s split with Southern Baptists has some women wondering whether to follow her