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Outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear speaks at the closing of the annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 16.
Mark Humphrey/AP

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America’s largest evangelical denomination is at war with itself

Why the Southern Baptist Convention is in turmoil — and why you should care.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Southern Baptist Convention, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical churches across the country, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. But for the past few years, it has been rocked by a series of internal controversies — most notably, fights over the cover-up of sexual abuse in SBC churches and in the organization’s approach to racism and critical race theory.

These tensions culminated in a dramatic fight over the SBC’s presidential election, held on Tuesday during the organization’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. In the election, two prominent far-right candidates lost to a more mainstream conservative named Ed Litton, blunting the momentum of a Tea Party-style group aiming to lurch the SBC in an even more right-wing direction.

What do these events say about the future of the SBC, one of the Republican Party’s most important civil society allies? And what have been the reverberations in broader American politics and culture?

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton (left) and outgoing President J. D. Greear (right) talk with denomination members following the conclusion of the annual meeting.
Mark Humphrey/AP
People attend the morning session of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 16.
Mark Humphrey/AP

To answer these questions, I reached out to Greg Thornbury, a prominent scholar of evangelical Christian philosophy and theology. While not an SBC member himself, Thornbury trained at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and taught at Union University, a Baptist school in Tennessee, and is personally familiar with leading figures in the SBC.

According to Thornbury, seeing Litton’s victory as a sign of a “moderate” ascendance in the SBC is a mistake. The organization is thoroughly conservative, politically and theologically, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

“I know Ed, I’ve met Ed. Ed is a super conservative guy, but the New York Times called him a moderate. I mean, compared to what? Idi Amin?” he told me.

However, that doesn’t mean the organization’s internal battles are meaningless. Thornbury believes the SBC is in a long-term numbers crisis: It has lost 2 million members since 2006, and 2020 saw the lowest number of baptisms since the Spanish influenza pandemic after World War I. This, he argues, is directly related to the organization’s political conservatism — including its struggles with race and sexual abuse.

“[Youth] are going to go to church if their parents force them to, but the battle has been lost on the intellectual front, and on the emotional front,” Thornbury tells me. “I suspect that the decline will be precipitous.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

Aside from the obvious fact that the SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, what makes it uniquely important for American evangelicalism, or even American Christianity more broadly?

Greg Thornbury

Southern Baptists are the Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Church, in the sense that they invested in institutions and commissions.

What makes them unique is this thing called the Cooperative Program. Grannies put money into the plates at their local church, and a percentage of that money is sent off to Nashville to fund all kinds of things. Now, the people in the churches think it’s all done for evangelism — foreign missionaries and missionary church-planting. But it also goes to fund things like the seminaries and things like the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission [SBC’s public policy arm].

That’s what makes the SBC unique: There’s that constant flow of cash, unlike most other evangelical institutions that have to scrap for themselves and raise their own money.

Because of that, they have big seminaries that have impressive campuses. They can invest in things like radio programs; [SBC leaders] can get on CNN and talk to Anderson Cooper because they have this machine behind them. That’s different from most of the other Protestant denominations that don’t have that Cooperative Program funding mechanism.

Zack Beauchamp

So how does the church’s drift toward a kind of right-wing politics intersect with these institutions?

Was there a groundswell in the Southern Baptist ranks toward becoming more and more Republican, and that pushed the institutions to the right? Or were there leaders in the institutions like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary leader Al Mohler, who worked to shift the church in a particular political direction?

Greg Thornbury

Zack, that’s a really, really good question.

In 1976, when Newsweek released their issue called “The Year of the Evangelical,” the most prominent Southern Baptist in the country was Jimmy Carter. He was teaching Sunday school. That’s what Southern Baptists looked like in the ’70s.

Earlier in the ’70s, what was called the Christian Life Commission — it eventually became the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the ERLC — was pro-abortion. The six seminaries of the SBC had moderate faculty.

Newsweek’s October 1976 cover.

What happened was [an SBC leader named] Paige Patterson and the cadre of megachurch pastors said, “This should not be.” They realized that the mechanism to change everything was to elect a president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which meets every two years. The president has the power to establish committees, or to appoint people to committees in the convention. And if you can appoint people to committees and trusteeships, then you can change all the institutions, and that’s what’s happened. It’s called the “conservative resurgence.”

That’s one part of how it happened. But the other part is that Jerry Falwell, an independent fundamentalist Baptist who still had a lot of sway with the SBC megachurch pastors, let Southern Baptists in on the fact that they could have access to the White House if they voted in Ronald Reagan.

The rise of [Falwell’s group] the Moral Majority, plus the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, fused the destinies of the SBC and GOP together. It was stock in trade for every SBC in recent memory to have some prominent member of the Republican Party speak at the Southern Baptist Convention, whether it was George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or, in 2018, Mike Pence.

Zack Beauchamp

That raises an interesting question. In the last two years, you’ve seen a lot of internal tensions in the SBC, some of which seem almost political, right? There’s one fight over the convention’s stance on critical race theory, another on its handling of sex abuse cases in churches.

So in a denomination that’s overwhelmingly conservative, where do these fault lines emerge from?

Greg Thornbury

Back in the ’70s, the people who were the denominational or agency heads, like [former ERLC president] Russell Moore, thought that they were leaders of the convention. When Trump appeared like a nuclear toxic cloud, SBC agency heads like Moore realized that the constituency was way, way further to the right than they were. They weren’t really leaders of anything.

Russell was very, very openly anti-Trump, to the point that Donald Trump himself referred to him as a nasty little guy on Twitter. And that got Russ into a lot of hot water with the people like the executive committee chairman, Ronnie Floyd, and other SBC megachurch pastors, who thought that if Trump gets elected, and when he did get elected, “because our top lobbyist in Washington is anti-Trump, we’re not going to have access to the White House anymore.”

So Russ had to apologize. He had to make a very public apology to Trump and his supporters, and then he really kept a very low profile during the Trump administration.

Trump awoke this white nationalist DNA that had always been there in the Southern Baptist Convention. That emboldened the most extreme right-wing elements within the SBC to really go on to the ideological purity testing path.

President of North American Mission Board of Southern Baptist Convention Kevin Ezell (left) inside the Oval Office with then-President Trump on September 1, 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Zack Beauchamp

Can you talk to me a little about the details of this sex abuse case? To what extent is it comparable to what’s happened in the Catholic Church?

Greg Thornbury

In the Catholic sex abuse scandal, bishops and cardinals turned a blind eye, or were themselves, like Theodore McCarrick, participating in the abuse. And people knew about it, but rather than go public with it and clean house, they reassigned them, swept it under the rug, kept it hush-hush.

That’s the similarity. Robert Downen from the Houston Chronicle did that big exposé, and he noted how a pedophile could go be a youth minister in one church, and then there was no mechanism or alert or warning system to keep them from going to another Baptist church.

The difference is that, at least in the Catholic Church, you have interlocking courts, and you have dioceses, and you’ve got communication between those things. The Southern Baptist Convention is like everybody sits on their own fence post and whistles their own tune, and the only time that they actually come together is in June [for the annual meeting]. That’s the only time the Southern Baptist Convention exists. The rest of the time it’s just these autonomous churches out there.

The leaders of the SBC and the people in the Executive Committee were like, “What are we supposed to do? This isn’t a hierarchical organization, where we can tell the individual Baptist church who they can hire, and whatnot.”

They could’ve developed a database. They could have identified where these abusers went. They could’ve provided resources for churches to make sure that the abuse didn’t continue. But it’s a good old boys’ network, just like the Catholic Church. So the two are very similar to each other, although one of them’s very decentralized and one of them’s more centralized.

Zack Beauchamp

So this week, the internal divides inside the SBC over issues like this really came to the fore at the June meeting in Nashville. There was a three-way race for the presidency between Al Mohler, another archconservative named Mike Stone, and a third candidate, Ed Litton, who’s a more mainstream conservative.

Litton won. What does that tell us about the SBC’s internal divides?

Greg Thornbury

Ed Litton’s son went to Union University, I had him in my intro to philosophy class. So I know Ed, I’ve met Ed. Ed is a super-conservative guy, but the New York Times called him a moderate.

I mean, compared to what? Idi Amin? The SBC is already so far to the right that anybody who says anything in general about unity or love or kindness is viewed as a compromiser.

Because Russ had been anti-Trump, and because he had platformed these sex abuse victims and allowed them to say whatever they wanted to say about the Southern Baptist Convention, it was perceived by the ultra-right-wingers as, to use a wrestling analogy, it was not protecting the business. “You’re not protecting the business by doing that. You didn’t have to do it that way.”

So there’s this super-fundamentalist wing of the convention that seized upon things like the sexual abuse crisis and the response to it as a lever to pivot to getting a super-ultra-conservative person back as the president of the SBC.

Votes are collected on the first ballot for president of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 15.
Mark Humphrey/AP

Zack Beauchamp

So what do these results say, big picture, about the SBC’s future in American life?

Greg Thornbury

George Marsden, the Notre Dame historian, was once asked to define what an evangelical is, and he said, “An evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham. A fundamentalist is somebody that thinks that Billy Graham is a compromiser who’s gone soft.”

The ultra-right-wing candidate, Mike Stone, was somebody that was backed by this group called the Conservative Baptist Network. And their goal was to try to repeat the same victory that Paige Patterson had staged back in the ’70s — wresting control of the Southern Baptist Convention away from moderate evangelicals.

The most important thing to Southern Baptists is to be perceived as, “We just want to win people to Jesus. We just want to get people to believe the gospel.” When that gets threatened, when that image is being threatened by something else, then they’ll just tack back to the evangelist guy. So I think enough people came to Nashville to say, “Oh, we’re tired of all of this negative press attention and all this politics.

Back in 2019, they barely passed a resolution opposing racism. They had to go back and do it a couple of times, and Russ Moore was pleading with people. “Please vote for this anti-racist resolution.”

And this year, the ultra-right-wing people are saying, “Oh, see, that anti-racist resolution was actually this subtle play to turn us all into Marxist commies.” I think enough people came out that were nervous that that super-right-wing group was going to take over all the committees and entities again and there was going to be a purge.

Zack Beauchamp

There’s an article in the New Yorker about the SBC’s internal fight over critical race theory that centers the experiences of Black preachers in SBC churches, who make up a very, very small percentage of SBC preachers.

I was wondering to what extent nonwhite constituencies inside the SBC are influential in the way the organization makes determinations on things like whether to reject critical race theory? Obviously the SBC chose not to at the 2019 convention, in that anti-racism resolution you just referenced. But then in 2020 there was a contradictory statement from the six heads of the seminaries who rejected CRT.

Greg Thornbury

Well, I think that [Black preachers’] role is minimal. It was minimal to begin with, and it was only further marginalized in the last two years. Imagine, six white dudes pontificating about the origins of racism, the six seminary presidents. And releasing this statement saying, “This is not going to be taught in any of our Southern Baptist seminaries.”

And the response to that from these beleaguered, still extant SBC pastors who are people of color was just, “We knew this all along, but now they’re really showing their hand. But this white nationalist project has really been operational here all along.”

Zack Beauchamp

It sounds like you don’t think that there are any real prospects for the SBC, or maybe even white American evangelicalism more broadly, to move away from its increasingly tight linkage with the Republican Party.

Greg Thornbury

I see no evidence of it. If anything, it only strengthened over the four years of Trump’s presidency. You still had 76 percent of white people who went to the polls and said “I’m an evangelical” [who] voted for Trump.

You have the hand-wringing of certain elite institutions or outlets, like [the magazine] Christianity Today. The editor wrote this editorial saying that Trump should be impeached, okay? But he did so as his last act as the editor of CT, and CT doesn’t really represent a huge constituency anymore.

I think the people who are the dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals are the people that showed up to the polls and voted for Trump in the face of four years of utter vulgarity. They did so anyway, because that’s where they are. When you looked at January 6, and you looked at the crowd that stormed the Capitol, look at how many prayer meetings there were before the storm happened? How many praise songs were being sung?

That’s who white evangelicals are, but they don’t want to be perceived that way. That’s why there’s this growing legion of young people and millennials leaving the ranks of the evangelical church — because I think that they saw the proof with the pudding was in the eating thereof.

People take part in a worship service during the annual Southern Baptist Convention.
Mark Humphrey/AP

Zack Beauchamp

You’re right that the SBC is having serious retention problems. In recent years, you’ve seen a decline in the number of Americans identifying with the SBC in both absolute and percentage terms. Last year saw the fewest baptisms since 1919 — which may be purely Covid-related, but also may not be.

So here’s my question: To what extent can these numbers be termed a “crisis” for the SBC? And is there any good evidence that the SBC’s connection to the GOP, its politicization of Christianity, is actually causing people to leave the convention?

Greg Thornbury

Well, they think it’s a crisis. [SBC Executive Committee member] Ronnie Floyd said at this convention that the baptism of teenagers is down 40 percent. He asked the gathered assembly: “Raise your hand if you were ‘saved’ when you were a teenager.” And most people’s hands went up. So they’re panicking, for sure.

Generation Z, they have TikTok, they have Instagram, where they’re talking and they’re debunking the claims that people like Southern Baptists or other evangelicals make about gay people, about unwed mothers, about sexuality, about trans people, about liberals, about people who have abortions. They’re doing the fact-checking in real time, in a way that no other generation has done before, and they’re reinforced by their heroes. Whereas in the 1960s it was Bob Dylan talking about Medgar Evers, today it’s Taylor Swift talking to homophobic, right-wing evangelical people in “You Need to Calm Down.”

So they’re going to go to church if their parents force them to, but the battle has been lost on the intellectual front, and on the emotional front. Those kids aren’t coming back.

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