This month, over 20,000 people attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a dramatic increase compared to recent years and the largest crowd in 25. It reflected the tension inside the convention as ultraconservative members have sought to condemn various social issues and prominent leaders have left the convention over concerns of politics, sexism and mishandled reports of sexual abuse.
Securing a majority of votes by only 2 percent in the second round of the instant-runoff election, Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, was elected president of the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Litton was a longshot candidate with a focus on racial reconciliation who lacked the recognition of other nominees. He was nominated by the only Black president of the SBC and his longtime friend, Fred Luter.
His closest competitor, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, sought to move the convention further to the right, representing a larger portion of the convention that has become energized on issues like critical race theory and a sense of leftward drift within the SBC.
This is not the first time the SBC has dealt with these kinds of internal divisions. In the early ’90s, disagreements on Biblical interpretation led more theologically and politically moderate churches in the SBC to split from the convention and form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).
However, Litton thinks this moment feels different than that one. That divide, he said, was foundational; this one is directional.
“They [the CBF] tended to be more open-minded, so to speak, saying, ‘Yeah, well, there’s parts of the Bible we agree or disagree with,’” Litton said. “The fact is, they were drifting to the left.”
National media outlets initially characterized Litton as a moderate within the SBC, though he is “deeply conservative” in his politics, he said. He used to preach more explicitly about politics, though he now believes that was a mistake.
“The power of the church is not found in its political influence,” Litton said. “We’re not a political action committee for a party.”
Despite the tension and high-profile nature of this year’s annual meeting, Litton said he is excited about the future of the convention. Though momentum hasn’t subsided in the convention’s strengthening hard-right faction, Litton is hopeful reconciliation can bridge the divide.
“We have to communicate that we are still brothers and sisters in Christ and that we want to work together,” he said. “You can’t make someone be unified who doesn’t want to be unified, but I’m hoping and believing that even many of [Stone’s] supporters definitely will want to continue because they’re gospel people.”
Litton thinks theological debate often takes the foreground within the SBC, which can mean less time is spent focusing on evangelism.
“I think Southern Baptists have strong theological muscles,” Litton said. “But our muscles of compassion may be a little weaker, engaging with issues of injustice, engaging in racial reconciliation, engaging with victims of abuse, people like that.”
Churches within the SBC are autonomous and participate in the convention voluntarily. As a result, delegates have a large role in shaping the convention.
“When we get together for two days a year, we do all of our business. We tend to air all of our laundry,” Litton said.
After it was announced an independent investigation would be undertaken into the SBC Executive Committee in light of allegations over mishandled reports of sexual misconduct, delegates from member churches voted to take a resolution that was being referred to the committee and vote on it instead as a whole body. The resolution requires the SBC president to appoint a task force to oversee the investigation and was overwhelmingly approved by delegates.
“That’s a picture of how things can go,” Litton said. “Which is a little unnerving for the people who organize it, because the body can decide they want to do this or that.”
Delegates hold power in the SBC, though they are just as susceptible to cultural influences as anyone else, Litton said. Over the last 10 years, he said, the atmosphere has changed at the convention.
“I think it’s the toxic nature of the public discourse in America right now, and I think we have an obligation to lift that up,” he said.
In 2019, the SBC approved a resolution titled “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality” that acknowledged the usefulness of these theories “as analytical tools subordinate to scripture.” More recently, public discourse, especially among conservatives, has shifted against critical race theory, as Republican state legislatures pass sweeping bills banning its teaching in public schools.
“I wish it was a discussion,” Litton said. “I think there are a lot of loud voices that are very hostile to critical race theory.”
Though he said the theory tends to be used by those with “Marxist leanings,” he believes its discussion in spaces like seminaries is valuable because of its role in modern culture and dialogue. This approach is much like the way seminaries discuss Darwinism and Freudian psychology, he said.
During the SBC annual meeting this year, delegates voted in favor of a resolution on racial reconciliation. A proposed amendment to the resolution that would have explicitly named critical race theory failed.
Since 2006, when membership was at its peak, 16.3 million, the SBC has lost roughly 2 million members, particularly young people.
“I think a lot of the younger people who have been turned off and away from Southern Baptists … I think they saw us as drifting into politics,” Litton said. “I think they saw us drifting into isolation from the rest of the world.”
Facing an already shrinking base, an empowered hard-right faction could accelerate the decline.
“My concern is that there are some on this extreme that are trying to make us all agree on doctrinal issues,” Litton said. “[The SBC statement of faith is] broad enough that a bunch of different people can fit in. They want to narrow it, which will mean this denomination will shrink even faster. There’s power in numbers. We want to keep those numbers focused on the mission.”
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