“Pirates,” “Biden Baptists” battle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention
By Tom Baxter
If the Southern Baptist Convention had decided to follow the “pirates” last week at its annual gathering in Nashville, it would have fit too easily into the standard narrative of deepening fissures pulling one part of America away from the other. America is more complicated than this narrative implies, and so are the Southern Baptists.
In the campaigning which went on in the lead-up to last week’s election of church leaders, some members of the Conservative Baptist Network adopted the pirate theme as a metaphor for their effort to “take back the ship” and stop the SBC from drifting into liberalism. For SBC president, they supported Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga. His rivals included Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Ed Litton, the pastor of a suburban Mobile, Ala., church, who was endorsed by Fred Luter, the only African-American to have served as president of the SBC.
To continue the nautical analogy, the Conservative Baptist Network is the latest wave of a rightward movement within the church with began in the late 1970s with what was called the Conservative Resurgence. In its early stages the movement was more concerned with denominational issues, like seminaries not adhering to biblical inerrancy and women attempting to join the ministry, although it tracked closely with the rise of Republican politics in the South.
The tone of this year’s debate was more overtly political, and more directly tied to the way race and gender are being debated on the national stage.
Some of the more than 14,000 attendees wore stickers with the words “Beat the Biden Baptists” on their badges. The weeks leading up to the convention were filled with leaked letters, charges and filmed replies concerning the alleged cover-up and mishandling of charges of sexual abuse and racism. Much of the controversy centers around the SBC’s executive committee, which Stone formerly chaired.
Burning like a bright flame over all this turbulence was the issue of the moment for conservatives, critical race theory. Here, we get to one of the factors that makes the SBC more complicated than it might seem at first.
The Southern Baptists have seen a sharp decline in their numbers over the past decade or so. One of the few positives has been a modest increase in African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American membership. African-Americans make up only 6 percent of the SBC’s membership, but considering the church didn’t issue a formal apology for slavery and segregation until 1995, that’s impressive.
The Nashville convention approached the racial friction surrounding CRT very gingerly. It passed a resolution condemning “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic,” but it didn’t use the words “critical race theory,” as the conservative wing wished.
In the race for president, Mohler, the early favorite, finished third in the first round of voting. This was going to be a straight-on choice between Stone, whose church website announces itself as “an unapologetically conservative Southern Baptist Church,” and Litton, the moderate who has called the beliefs of QAnon supporters “fables.” To the surprise of many, Litton won with 52 percent of the vote, holding back a concerted and well-funded campaign by Stone and his allies.
When Adrian Rogers, the Conservative Resurgence candidate, was elected SBC president by a similarly thin margin in 1979, it touched off a massive exodus of moderate churches from the SBC. Something similar could happen after this year’s convention, but this time it will be the more conservative congregations walking away.
What happened in Nashville won’t have much to do with how Southern Baptists, who are overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, vote in political elections. But just as that vote in 1979 ultimately drew the SBC more directly into politics, this vote could signal a desire to put more distance between the pew and the polls. That in itself would make this an important vote.