ANAHEIM, Calif. — Southern Baptists filled a cavernous hotel ballroom Sunday to hear a warning: Don’t cooperate or compromise with the Devil. And this week, as their huge denomination gathers for its annual meeting and to elect a new president, the urgent warning was aimed at their fellow Southern Baptists.
The host of the part-prayer gathering, part-campaign rally on the first night of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting was the Conservative Baptist Network, an upstart group that some observers have compared with the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. The network was formed two years ago in response to the issues of institutional racism and sexual abuse as priorities in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
In the Southern Baptist Convention — where women aren’t allowed to be head pastors, same-sex marriage is opposed and 70 percent of its nearly 14 million members vote Republican — the CBN’s leaders and supporters say the situation is an emergency. This week, they hope to elect a president who agrees.
“Pretty soon it will be women preachers, social justice, then racism, then [critical race theory], then victimization because the world is a ball and chain, and when you’re hooked, it will take you to the bottom. They hate the truth,” MacArthur said to a crowd that flipped, through the night, between pin-drop silence and cheers of “That’s true!”
The SBC tends to reflect the state of White evangelicalism in America, and some experts said the CBN gathering at the conference and the appearance of MacArthur, whose church is not Southern Baptist, reflected the new bedfellows of this era.
“In the past some issues that divided evangelicals, such as speaking in tongues, End Times theology, Calvinism — all of those things have receded, and it’s now these social and political issues that define allegiances,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian who writes about gender and religion. “It seems to be that a harsh patriarchy goes hand-in-hand with Trump and Trumpian politics. It’s a political and staunch patriarchal alliance. And that’s where you see MacArthur finding common ground with CBN.”
Nearly 10,000 Southern Baptists are expected to vote on business matters Tuesday and Wednesday, including revisions to policies on sex abuse.
After messengers at last year’s meeting approved an investigation into the SBC executive committee’s handling of sex abuse claims, the convention hired a third-party investigative firm, whose major report released last month documented a years-long coverup of abuse by Southern Baptists leaders. That firm, Guidepost Solutions, posted a tweet supporting the LGBTQ community this month, prompting criticism from some Southern Baptist leaders.
Like with many institutions, more White evangelicals are questioning their leaders and willing to break away. Among their battles: Is acknowledgment of institutional racism akin to an embrace of critical race theory, and is that unbiblical?
Some recent SBC presidents have mirrored a huge swath of their members, especially younger ones, by beginning to emphasize issues such as poverty, racism and sexism, rather than primarily conservative sexual and gender mores. And the right flank doesn’t like it.
Benjamin Cole, a longtime SBC member and chronicler of SBC politics at the Baptist Blogger site, said he believes the Conservative Baptist Network is more focused on division and political power.
“With respect to CRT, women in ministry, whatever the issue is, I’m not saying they don’t have legitimate concerns, but they have so exaggerated the problem in order to mobilize the uninformed to fight this specter of Marxism and liberalism,” Cole said. “I think there is widespread agreement in the SBC on things that matter. But in all democratic organizations, it’s not all of the registered voters who decide. It’s the impassioned mob that matters.”
Tom Buck, an outspoken Texas conservative, said Sunday that he isn’t a formal member of the CBN but attended and supports the group. He said a 2019 SBC vote calling critical race theory and intersectionality useful “analytical tools” is evidence of a problem.
“Anything you elevate will be problematic,” he said. “There is what I’d call a lack of confidence and commitment to sufficiency of scripture.”
He said the group was also important because of what he called a rise in women preaching. Asked to name any of the 47,000 SBC churches with a female head pastor, Buck said he knew of a few with female assistant pastors.
Buck said that as he considers sex abuse policy revisions the convention might make, he was concerned the accused might not be guaranteed to know who their accuser was and could be treated as guilty until proved innocent. He calls current norms, which say any pastor who allows “unrepentant” sexual abusers to stay in their church should be booted from the SBC, sufficient.
“And it’s not just sex abuse, but there are lots of other issues with people living in unrepentant sin that need to be dealt with,” Buck told The Washington Post.
The lead candidates for SBC president this week include Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who is not a member of the CBN but was endorsed by the group Sunday and spoke at the prayer rally. Also running is Bart Barber, a Texas pastor who has served in various SBC leadership roles.
The size and influence of the conservative network is hard to assess. The group releases no data about its membership or funders, and its spokesman, Louisiana Pastor Brad Jurkovich, did not return calls or emails for comment.
A judge in Louisiana last week ordered Jurkovich to turn over 10 years of financial records to former members of his church who claim he did not inform church members that funds meant for supporting missionaries were instead used to support the CBN.
Several longtime observers and members of the SBC say Ascol and Barber are in many ways similar in their conservative beliefs. And broadly speaking, in American Christianity, the two leading candidates would be considered theologically next to each other, said Griffin Gulledge, a Georgia pastor who sees Ascol as divisive and politically motivated.
“It’s their engagement of politics” that differentiates them, he said, and that differentiates Barber from CBN’s leadership. Ascol has appeared in recent weeks on secular conservative media shows, and MacArthur has been represented by Jenna Ellis, a lawyer for former president Donald Trump.
“What is this really about when it comes down to it? The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It’s very powerful and influential and has wide-ranging power in think tanks and other places,” Gulledge said. “There are those who see [the SBC] as an influence hub for the culture and the American political system and don’t want to lose it to someone who doesn’t see it as a political tool.”