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Bob Smietana is national reporter for Religion News Service. He says covering religion is the best beat “because you can talk about anything—politics, ethics, love, marriage, sex, scandal, it’s all here.” That mix of politics, scandal, and ethics can get supercharged in one denomination in particular: the Southern Baptist Convention. They’re the largest evangelical group in the country. And as Smietana puts it: “Southern Baptists love three things: Jesus, the Bible, and a good fight.” They don’t mind having their fights in public, either.
Every year, they come together for an annual meeting where megachurch pastors mingle with small-town preachers, and all of them try to hammer out the convention’s rules. “It’s part political convention, it’s part family reunion, and it’s radically democratic,” Smietana says. At this year’s meeting—it took place last week, in Nashville—the stakes felt high. Many church leaders had supported Donald Trump, while some individual pastors say they find Trump abhorrent. There were allegations of sexual abuse, racism.
All of the people at this meeting said they wanted to find fellowship in the Scripture. But they couldn’t stop fighting over how inclusive that Scripture actually was. Smietana describes it this way: “They’re making a decision: Do we want to withdraw and purify our church and only have people who agree with us on every single thing? And or do we want to have a more open-hearted response where there are going to be people who disagree with us on politics and culture, but agree with us on the essentials and we can work with them.” On Monday’s episode of What Next, I talked with Smietana about the Southern Baptist Convention’s fight to survive. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Before the South Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, there were a number of headlines about a guy named Russell Moore, who recently left the denomination. Moore was in charge of the SBC’s public policy arm. My understanding is that he was not at the meeting, but his absence hung over the meeting like a specter. Can you explain why?
Bob Smietana: Moore resigned recently as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He was the chief ethicist. And he had been a sore point in recent years, really since the election of Donald Trump. He had been very critical of Trump. He called him a huckster at one point. Trump eventually called him a little man with no heart. So there was personal animus between the president and Moore.
And we should say Moore is quite conservative. He’s pro-life, anti-gay marriage.
Yes, he’s very much like his predecessor, Richard Land, who was a legendary GOP activist and Southern Baptist ethicist. Land and Moore had very similar positions.
So, in the past couple of weeks, there have been these letters that have come out that have really laid bare the kind of battles Moore was having internally with his colleagues. Can you explain the letters and what they said?
Moore had long had adversarial relationships with some Southern Baptist leaders. Part of it was some churches began to withhold money—what’s called their CP dollars, or cooperative program dollars—because of Moore’s statements. So that caused consternation among a lot of Baptist leaders. And that made state leaders angry. Moore sometimes was antagonistic and was so confrontational against other Baptists that he turned people off. So there’s personal politicking going on there. And he has also been very, very pro–sexual abuse survivors and addressing that.
What you’re saying is that Russell Moore would see these hot pans in the Southern Baptist Convention, whether it be allegations of sexual abuse or how the convention speaks about race, and rather than just ignoring them, he reached right over for them and said, “Yeah, the Bible has something to say about this. The Bible has something to say about how we treat women, about how we treat people of color.”
Yes, he was very outspoken about this. He also was better at talking at people than talking to people. There are attempts to make Moore a hero or victim, but he was a flawed leader like anyone else.
You wrote about this moment where it sounded like he was just overwhelmed. One of his sons asked him why he was so frustrated, and in response, he took his son to a Southern Baptist Convention meeting so his son could see what he was dealing with. What did his son see there?
His son saw people who really hated his dad and thought his dad was evil. Behind the scenes, there was a lot of fighting that was very cruel. And his son said something along the lines of why do you want to work for people who hate you? And I think that was a moment that led to his leaving.
The issues that eventually pushed Russell out, they’ve come to consume the entirety of the Southern Baptist Convention. First, there’s the issue of how the denomination—which was founded by slave owners—thinks about and deals with race and racism. It only apologized for its connections to slavery in the 1990s.
Then, there’s the way the SBC handles sexual abuse inside its churches. This all came to a head a couple of years back, when the Houston Chronicle published a major investigation, revealing that hundreds of church leaders and volunteers had been accused of sexual misconduct, leaving behind more than 700 victims.
At a meeting several years ago, after that came out, J.D. Greear, the president, got up and said, “Here’s 10 churches listed in that report that are still in our convention. We need to investigate them.” One of those churches, a church in Georgia—they set up a small committee to look at them. The committee said we’re not going to look into these and essentially exonerated them. And some Southern Baptist leaders called the church and said we’re sorry. Well, then this past week, it came out that the person who’d been the abuser at that church went on to abuse kids all over Georgia. And I think that was really a powerful thing.
So theoretically, the convention could have stopped that.
Yes. Or the convention could have found out about it. The Southern Baptists, and this came through at the meeting, are horrified at the sexual abuse of children and women and boys and men. They’re horrified by sexual abuse, and they are horrified by the idea that someone who has been sexual abused was not cared for and that someone who is a Southern Baptist pastor was allowed to go from church to church and do this. They would want to have known, so that they could have talked to survivors of abuse and minister to them, and so that they could have removed that person.
I think a lot of people will remember the Southern Baptist Convention has a deep history when it comes to race as a pro-slavery church group that has tried to wrestle with that history over the past 50 years. Can you explain how the convention reached this point?
There was essentially a civil war in the denomination over biblical inerrancy, basically, is what they called.
What’s biblical inerrancy?
It means that you think the Bible’s without error and is trustworthy. And so you had folks who have more modern views of scholarship who say there was no Adam and Eve. Those aren’t real people. Or, there was no flood.
It’s just a metaphor.
It’s a metaphor. So they had a fight over what the Bible is. Is it a man-made document? Or is an inherent word of God? Almost a fundamentalist reading of it. Those folks won. The conservative resurgence won, and a lot of folks left. So when you talk about these arguments in the SBC now, it’s between very, very conservative people.
But there has been a change. The SBC had been the denomination of slavery, and in the ’90s, they had a long statement on racism, in which they repudiated the past. They have tried to be and they became more diverse. But now this comes with new problems. Because they’re more diverse, they’re going to change, and it’s going to change the culture, which is difficult.
This year, the annual meeting of Southern Baptists was packed. The meeting had more attendees than it’s had in years. Almost everyone there had something they wanted to talk about. There were people there to defend survivors of sexual abuse. They wanted answers about how much SBC leadership knew and when they knew it. There was also a contingent of ultra-conservative members—the Conservative Baptist Network—who thought the church had become too “liberal.” They were especially upset the church was refusing to distance itself from “critical race theory,” or CRT.
So you walk into the meeting, what is it like?
You walk in the door, first of all, it’s like going back in time because it’s almost 16,000 people and almost no one’s wearing masks, because there’s no longer a mask mandate here in Nashville. And when you walk in first, everyone’s chatting because it’s like a family reunion, and then they do prayer and worship and music and everybody’s singing, and then they get down to business and then the tension rises, where you can see almost everything is contested.
When you vote, you have a yellow ballot in your hand. You raise that up. Well, if there was a close vote, there were boos. And they made them vote over again. And there was a sense that the leaders would say something and people were unhappy with them and would push back. There was a lot of tension and a lot of what they call subtweeting at the microphones, people kind of delivering veiled insults to one another.
And then a lot of passion about the leadership. “You work for us, and you’re not going to investigate yourselves.” And “We’re not going to mistreat abuse victims,” or “We don’t like CRT. And you’re going to have to answer to us.” And so the people who are answering are saying, “No, we don’t like CRT, but we do care about racism.” And at the same time, it’s like a giant business meeting with Robert’s Rules of Order.
Sounds like Boys State meets Bible camp.
It is. But there was tension everywhere. And you could just read the room, like, these folks don’t trust those leaders.
That tension was palpable when it came time to debate how the group would handle allegations that the SBC’s executive committee mistreated survivors of sexual abuse and mishandled their allegations. A group of pastors made a motion for an independent investigation, but it was turned down by SBC leadership. That did not fly with the members in attendance. They didn’t want the executive committee to investigate itself.
The whole body of messengers from local churches said no. They overruled the chair of the meeting, and they got on the agenda that there is going to be a third-party investigation. And there was passionate debate about it and it passed overwhelmingly.
That sounds like a victory for abuse victims.
It was seen as one for them. It’s a huge change, because the executive committee leadership in the past has long resisted any national actions on sexual abuse. The way the SBC is set up is kind of an inverted triangle, where all the power is at the bottom. They like to say that the headquarters of the SBC is the local church. So the national office, which is very small, can’t tell the churches what to do. So they have taken that to mean we can’t track abusers; we can’t do anything
It means also we have no responsibility.
We have no responsibility. So there was a hostility toward taking any national action on this, and so that was a huge change.
In addition to those resolutions about what Southern Baptists believe, attendees also had to vote on the SBC’s new president. This is where the Conservative Baptist Network was hoping to gain some ground. Their candidate, a pastor named Mike Stone, had been a vocal critic of what he called the SBC’s “liberal drift.” In the end, it came down to a runoff between Stone and an Alabama pastor named Ed Litton. He was a relatively moderate candidate who wanted to focus more on building bridges between members. When the totals came back, Litton had won, but only narrowly, by about 2 percent.
More people showed up who wanted the open-hearted approach. Litton, he has worked on racial reconciliation. He’s a very good preacher, but he’s a pastor first, in terms of caring for people and empathy. He lost his wife about 15 years ago in a car wreck. His second wife, her husband have been a Baptist pastor and he died in a car wreck. So they have a family that has overcome tragedy and has walked through really hard times. So they’re pretty soft-hearted.
Reminds me of Biden.
There’s a personality like Biden. The principles are very different. But the approach is there. They’re going to listen to you and tell you what they think, but they also care about you as a person.
Well, it’s interesting you say the Conservative Baptist Network were saying the morning of the election that if they lose, they’re going to come back next year and the next and the next.
And so while I think you could look at what happened at the Southern Baptist Convention and think like, Oh, well, it looks like the convention members are choosing a more progressive direction. But it sounds like it’s not quite that. It can’t quite be that because there’s still such fiery disagreement.
Yeah, they’re having the same problem that the GOP is. How do we put these conservative principles into practice? The problem is we don’t have good language to talk about this, because if you say the word progressive, it’s taking sides. Early on, Al Mohler, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, when the CBN was announced, said there’s already a conservative network: It’s the Southern Baptist Convention.
You’ve talked about how the Southern Baptist Convention is having the same issues that we’re seeing play out everywhere else in politics right now. But I wonder if watching the Southern Baptist Convention meet up teaches you anything about the way democracy works.
I think it has lessons on how do we act out our principles. There’s lessons in how we treat one another. I think we should be watching this and saying, Can these institutions build trust among people in a really difficult time and stay true to their principles? There’s a lesson for America. People forget how much change has happened politically, socially, economically, technologically. Everything about America has changed. And so we’re a different country. I was born in ’65. It’s a different country. I’m 56. It’s a different world than my parents were in. And how do we be Americans in this world, or for the Southern Baptists, how do they be Southern Baptists in this modern world? Do they withdraw and be a kind of chosen few with only the people who agree with them, or can you have a set of principles and say we have different viewpoints in this and we have empathy toward one another and change our behaviors?