On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention elected its new president—a high-stakes election that capped a day of tense infighting at the annual conference of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Tensions were high, as a newly powerful group of ultraconservatives was angling to seize control of the SBC. But ultimately the convention rejected the ultraconservative candidate in favor of a more broadly acceptable moderate. Meanwhile, there were a number of other resolutions up for vote that reflect the issues that have been at the heart of the divides within SBC—including debates over critical race theory, or CRT, and allegations the leadership had mishandled sex abuse claims.
The SBC has been going through something like an identity crisis this year. Southern Baptists, like most white evangelicals, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, but in the run-up to the 2020 election, critics began to chafe at the frequently conspiracy theory–laden partisan politics within their churches. After last summer’s racial unrest, many of the denomination’s Black pastors—actively courted by a convention uncomfortably aware of its overwhelming whiteness and deeply racist history—began to protest the SBC’s unwillingness to recognize the extent of modern-day racism. At the same time, an organized group of Southern Baptists has pushed for a second conservative resurgence to correct what it sees as a loosening of the core Southern Baptist identity.
This divide was plain when outgoing SBC president J.D. Greear kicked off the two-day conference with a fiery speech cautioning the SBC that there was a threat even more dangerous than the “curse of liberalism”: hypocrisy. Greear, a moderate among white Baptists, warned against “a convention that polices itself rigorously on complementarian issues but allows female abuse victims to be mistreated and maligned” or one “that expends more energy decrying things like CRT than they have done lamenting the devastating consequences of years of racial bigotry and discrimination.” In this speech, delivered to more than 15,000 assembled Southern Baptists, Greear directly addressed the two major controversies of the convention: the sex abuse scandal and the brouhaha over CRT. For all the talk among pastors of a desire to stick to biblical matters and embrace a spirit of brotherhood, most observers knew that the presidential election came down to these two major issues.
Critical race theory has been a contentious topic within the SBC for months longer than its more recent turn in the media spotlight. When Donald Trump was nearing the end of his presidency this fall, he launched a sudden attack on the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach to analyzing the systems that have created and perpetuated racial inequality. As the anti-CRT sentiments quietly percolated in certain circles thanks to the president’s comments, the conservatives of the SBC seized on the issue. In November, well ahead of the Republican Party’s current uproar over CRT, the seminary presidents put out a joint statement calling the framework “incompatible” with the Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s central doctrinal statement. Critical race theory, they argued, was counter to their faith because the Bible, which evangelicals view as the literal and unerring word of God, should be the only tool for addressing the evils of the world. These comments essentially reversed a previous position the SBC had taken back in 2019, when the convention passed a resolution allowing critical race theory and intersectionality to be used as analytical tools as long as they were second to Scripture. Soon after the statement banning CRT, several prominent Black pastors, dismayed by the sense that their fellow Southern Baptists cared more about waging culture wars against the left than confronting the reality of racism, left the SBC. The convention has been arguing about critical race theory since.
Almost everyone expected the critical race theory debate to consume the annual meeting, but the meeting’s organizers were prepared. On Tuesday morning, in an effort to limit the debate, a committee bundled a number of the proposed resolutions into a single one apologizing for the SBC’s role in perpetuating systemic racism but rejecting “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic,” as well as “any theory or worldview that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ.” Some disgruntled conservatives argued that the resolution, which passed easily, wasn’t enough because it did not explicitly mention critical race theory. Later efforts to explicitly condemn CRT or prohibit any funds from going to institutions that promote CRT were ruled out of order. The Southern Baptists also approved a final vote that amended the SBC rules to codify racism as a reason to boot out a member church. And one Southern Baptist journalist reported that one of the early, popular anti-CRT resolutions was largely backed by just five churches—a sign that the anti-CRT campaign may have been more a product of the committed bloc of conservative pastors than a groundswell of popular support.
The other major issue—how the church handles accusations of sexual violence—comes with its own complications. In the past couple of years, the SBC has been roiled by allegations of sexual abuse among its churches and seminaries. Leaders in the SBC—which prides itself on being egalitarian and lacking the formal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions that have harbored abusers—have been accused of dismissing victims’ claims and quickly clearing accused pastors without a thorough investigation. A recent report also alleged the SBC neglected to look into allegations against one church staffer who then reportedly went on to abuse children at other churches.
In March, Beth Moore, an extremely popular Bible teacher who was by then under attack for speaking publicly to men as well as women (not allowed under SBC standards) and for coming out against Trumpism in the convention, abruptly left the SBC. Moore cited sex abuse allegations, among other issues, as the reason for her departure. Then, shortly after the conference was set to begin, in a leaked letter, Russell Moore (unrelated to Beth), a beleaguered SBC figure who is frequently pushing for reform within the conference, blasted the SBC leadership for its handling of abuse allegations.
Conservatives pressed to investigate the leaking of the letter, as well as the subsequent audio recordings that appeared to corroborate Moore’s claims. But the Executive Committee of SBC announced it was hiring a firm to investigate its handling of sexual abuse.
Abuse victims and critics, led by Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of assault, have demanded a broader and more transparent inquiry than even what the Executive Committee promised. Just a day before the meeting was to begin, the Executive Committee had declined this group’s proposal to expand the inquiry and transfer its oversight to a separate body. On Tuesday, the convention adopted a resolution stating that “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.” A resolution, unlike a more binding motion, is simply an expression of an opinion, and many challengers argued passionately for the idea of repentance and forgiveness. But the vote made the movement suddenly feel like it might have momentum.
On Wednesday, one pastor made an impassioned case for a separate task force to oversee the investigation. His motion was referred to the Executive Committee, but then, in a dramatic reversal, that referral was itself challenged. The convention passed the original motion overwhelmingly, granting the new SBC president the power to launch a new task force that would then oversee an investigation into 20 years of alleged mishandling of abuse allegations by the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee agreed to “work expeditiously to apply today’s motion.” To many of the abuse survivors, the move meant a validation of their complaints and a real chance at rooting out those who would prioritize the convention’s reputation over the safety of its members.
In addition to these other votes, there was still the presidential election. The stakes felt incredibly high: The SBC has been hemorrhaging members for the past few years, supercharging the factions’ campaigns, as each side sees their direction for the conference as the key to its future. Coming into the meeting, both sides put all of their energy into the SBC’s presidential election.
Three serious contenders were on the ballot. In 2019, before the pandemic derailed plans for a conference, the clear front-runner had been Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and arguably the most well-known SBC leader. Mohler, who was involved in the original conservative resurgence in the ’80s, came to be seen as a middle-of-the-road candidate, even as he railed against CRT, pushed out moderate seminary professors, and famously reversed his previous anti-Trump position and supported the Republican nominee in the 2020 election. But in Tuesday’s election, Mohler garnered only 24 percent of the vote, likely because of the lackluster support from hard-line conservatives alienated by his original Trump position. Which meant the two more polarizing candidates—the ultraconservative and the relative progressive—were left to face off in a runoff.
Mike Stone, the ultraconservative, had been tapped by the recently formed Conservative Baptist Network, an influential coalition of churches committed to fighting “liberal drift.” CBN’s members have complained loudly about critical race theory and zealously defended complementarianism, the standard SBC doctrine that positions women as having a separate role from men and bars them from preaching or even teaching Scripture around men. Stone, a member of their steering council, has argued that talking about systemic racism “leads to greater ethnic tension.”
Stone had some baggage to deal with. He’d emerged as a leading conservative figure because of support from former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson, a powerful SBC figure who has been accused of trying to intimidate and silence an alleged sexual assault victim and who is still considered a major, if somewhat controversial, voice in the convention. (Patterson has also been accused of racism and financial impropriety, but many loyal Southern Baptists dismiss those allegations as false or irrelevant.) To some critics, a Stone victory would have also been a Patterson victory, and a validation of the latter’s continued dominance in the convention. Some prominent Black pastors also warned that if Stone were elected, they would leave the SBC in protest because of his uncompromising views on racism.
But by a narrow margin, voters instead chose Ed Litton, a pastor from Alabama who has opted for a gentler approach to disputes over race and gender. Litton has prided himself on his efforts to meet with Black pastors, arguing that the main issue the SBC faced was “fear” that prevented people from sitting down and listening to people different from them. A politically conservative man who has nonetheless spoken of “less narrow conceptions of complementarianism” and a need to pursue “justice,” Litton was supported by the sexual abuse victims’ advocates and by several prominent Black pastors. By electing Litton, the SBC quietly rebuffed the vision of a more stringently conservative convention and indicated a willingness to continue to talk about racial reconciliation.
Still, by coming close to electing Stone, the SBC representatives are looking at the pathway to a potential future conservative takeover. And there were other, smaller victories for the Conservative Baptist Network. Its vice presidential candidate, Lee Brand, did end up winning, although fewer delegates voted in that election. And a committee did agree to take up the case of whether Saddleback Church, one of the SBC’s largest megachurches, should be banished from the SBC for ordaining three women pastors.
Still, most observers came out of the meeting with a sense that the delegates had put the brakes on the convention’s careening path toward the right. For all of Donald Trump’s dominance in previous years, the post-Trump, late-pandemic SBC meeting seemed to brush away more secular politics. The ultraconservative crusaders made their influence known, but their presence in the discourse, it turned out, was bigger than their actual base of support. And while the votes didn’t put the debates to rest—there were plenty of reports of heated arguments, angry protesters, and mealy-mouthed statements about race—many exhausted evangelicals found real reason to celebrate: On sex abuse, at least, the Southern Baptists came together, and stopped their convention from fully imploding.
Is there an interesting story happening in your religious community? Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.