The Fight Over Evangelicals’ Future
S1: Bob Smietana didn’t grow up religious, but in a way that’s part of why he reports about religion.
S2: Now, my family started going to church when we were teenagers and we hadn’t gotten church before. So it’s a very interesting new world. And then you just cover everyone else has a new world like that. You know, you go to the Methodist or the Baptist or Muslims or Jews. Everyone’s world is different in religion.
S1: You sound like an anthropologist
S2: if you like it. I’m just curious. This is the best beat because you can talk about anything, you know, politics, ethics, love, marriage, sex, scandal. It’s all here.
S1: That mix of politics, scandal, ethics. Bob says it can get supercharged in one denomination, in particular, the Southern Baptist Convention. They are the largest evangelical group in the country. And as Bob 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 all get together for a meeting where a megachurch pastors mingle with small town preachers. And all of these folks try to hammer out the Convention’s rules
S2: as part political convention. It’s part family reunion because their sermons and hymns and you start out with sermons and hymns and prayers. It’s a political meeting with God. And so with all the rules and all the prayers and all the passion
S1: I’ve heard it described as radically Democratic is
S2: radically Democratic. If you’re a delegate, if your giant Perth pastor or church member from a tiny little church, if you’re in line to make you get to and you get called, you get to talk. You know, this year it was 15, almost 16 thousand people having a business meeting. Think about the US Catholic bishops. They met by Zoome. And it’s a few men deciding, you know, how the church will operate. The Baptists like we’re going to have to do this together and we’re going to have points of order and we’re going to argue it out. That’s how we’re going to do business
S1: at this year’s meeting. It took place last week in Nashville. The stakes felt high. Many church leaders had supported Donald Trump. Some individual pastors, though, they said they find Trump abhorrent. There were allegations of sexual abuse, of racism. All of the people at this meeting, they said they wanted to find fellowship in the scripture, but they couldn’t stop fighting over how inclusive that scripture actually is.
S2: They’re making a decision. Do we want to withdraw and purify our party, purify our church, and only have people who agree with us on every single thing? Or do we want to have a more open hearted response where they’re going to be people who disagree with us on politics and culture, but agree with us on the essentials and we can work with that.
S1: I was reading a little bit of the speech that the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention made at this meeting. And one line really stood out to me where he said something to the effect of we have to choose whether we’re southern or whether we’re Baptist. And for him, that seemed to be the main thing at stake.
S2: If that’s that is probably a pretty good way of putting it. They had been mostly white Southern Republican for most of their history. And now they don’t want to be that they’re having the same problem that you are having at your Thanksgiving table. How do people deal with all the changes in the country and go forward?
S1: Today on the show, to survive, the Southern Baptist Convention needs to let more people in, but is their internal culture war making that impossible? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before the Southern Baptist Convention or Species’ annual meeting, you might have seen headlines about a guy named Russell Moore. He recently left the denomination. Moore was in charge of the BBC’s public policy arm. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to be in that position, a kind looking man, always smiling, dark hair, even though he’s nearly 50, unlike a lot of Southern Baptists, he’s white. My understanding is that he was not at the meeting, but his absence kind of hung over the meeting like a specter. Can you explain why?
S2: Sure. Yeah. More and more resigned recently as the head of what’s called the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is he’s 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 the Huckster at one point. Trump eventually called him a little man with no heart. So there was personal animus between the president and more
S1: more was not shy about his opinions. This is him on CNN back in 2016.
S3: Well, convictional Evangelicals’, who are pro-life and pro family, know that Hillary Clinton’s not with us. And and we can’t go in that direction and in that way. But that doesn’t mean that we have to to follow another way that is also reckless and horrible.
S1: And I think what we’re seeing, and we should say more, is quite conservative. He’s pro-life. He’s anti-gay marriage.
S2: Yes. Most quite conservative, I think is very much like his predecessor, Richard Land, who was a legendary both GOP activist and Southern Baptist ethicist. So Land and Moore had very similar positions.
S1: So more in the last couple of weeks, there have been these letters that have come out that have really laid bare the kind of battles he was having internally with his colleagues. Can you explain the letters and what they said?
S2: Sure. So more had long had kind of adversarial relationships with some Southern Baptist leaders. Part of it was some churches began to withhold money, what’s called their KTP dollars or program dollars because of more statements. So that caused consternation among a lot of Baptist leaders. And so I think that made state leaders angry. I think that more sometimes was so confrontational against other Baptists that he turned people off. So there’s a kind of a personal politicking thing going on there. And he has also been very, very pro sexual abuse survivor and addressing that.
S1: So basically what you’re saying is that Russell Moore would see these. Hot pants. Yes. 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, like 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.
S2: Yes, he was very outspoken about this. I think he also was not great at. He was better at talking at people than talking to people. There are sort of attempts to make more hero or victim. He was a floor leader like anyone else.
S1: You wrote about this moment where it just sounded like he was kind of overwhelmed, like one of his sons asked him why he was so frustrated. And in response, he took his son to a Southern Baptist Convention meeting. Yes. So his son could see what he was dealing with. Yeah. What did his son see there?
S2: I think his son saw people who really hated his dad. And thought his dad was, you know, evil and, you know, like any behind the scenes, there was a lot of back fighting that was very cruel and I think it’s fun that said something along the lines of, dad, why do you want to work for people who hate you? And I think that was a moment that led to his leaving.
S1: 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. The church only apologized for its connections to slavery in the 1990s. Then there’s the way the SBC handles sexual abuse inside its churches. This issue came to a head a couple of years back when the Houston Chronicle published a major investigation. They revealed that hundreds of church leaders and volunteers had been accused of sexual misconduct and they’d left behind more than 700 victims.
S2: At a meeting several years ago after that came out, JT Greer, the president got up and said, here’s 10 churches listed in that report that are still in our convention. We need to investigate that. 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 exonerate them is not a problem here. And some Southern Baptist leaders called the church and said, we’re sorry. We you know, you were sort of criticized. 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 George. And I think that was really a powerful thing.
S1: So theoretically, the convention could have stopped that.
S2: Yes, Convention’s could have found out about it. I think that the Southern Baptists and this came through at the meeting. They 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 sexual abuse was not cared for and that someone who is a Southern Baptist pastor was allowed to go from church to church and do this. And so they would want to have known so that they could have talked to survivors of abuse and minister to them and that they could have removed that person.
S1: I think a lot of people will remember the Southern Baptist Convention has a deep history when it comes to race as a proslavery church group that has tried to wrestle with that history over the last 50 years. Can you explain how the convention reached this point?
S2: Oh, yeah, there was a civil essentially a civil war in the denomination over biblical inerrancy. Basically what they call
S1: what’s biblical inerrancy.
S2: 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 are real people or there was no flood or some saying. That’s just a metaphor. It’s a metaphor. There was no real resurrection. So they had a fight over what the Bible is. Is it a kind of manmade document or is it an errant word of God and a certain reading of it as kind of a almost a fundamentalist reading of it? Those those folks want, the conservative sturgeons want 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 was there has been a change. So that’s really had been the denomination of slavery in the 90s. They had a long statement of racism, which they repudiate the past they have tried to be and they become more diverse. But now this comes with new problems and that they because they’re more diverse, they have to they’re going to change and it’s going to change the culture, which is a which is difficult.
S1: When we come back, what changing the ABC’s culture looks like in practice. This year, the annual meeting of Southern Baptists was packed with more attendees, and it’s had in years, Bob says that’s because almost everyone had something they wanted to talk about. There were people there to talk about sexual abuse. They wanted answers about how much the SBC leadership knew and when they knew it. There was also a contingent of ultraconservative members, the conservative Baptist Network, or CBN. They thought the church was becoming too liberal. They were especially upset that the SBC was refusing to distance itself from critical race theory, which sometimes they just shortened to CRT. One or two of these conservatives even posted pictures of themselves on social media with pirate flags, saying they wanted to take back the SBC. We’ll see you walk into the meeting.
S2: What is it like when you walk through the doors? And it’s first of all, it’s like going back in time. It’s a room with almost sixteen thousand people and almost no one’s wearing masks because there’s no longer a mass mandate here in Nashville. And when you walk in first there, all everyone’s changed because it’s like a family reunion when those children and then they do prayer and worship and music and everybody 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 like a card. Well, if there was a close vote, there were boos. And you kind of know and they made them vote over again. And there was a sense that the leaders would say something and people were unhappy with them would push back. There was a lot of tension and a lot of sort of, you know, what they call some tweeting at the microphones. People kind of insinuate, you know, kind of insulting in veiled insults to one another. And then a lot of passion about we cannot, you know, won the 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 society. And you’re going to have to answer to us for us. And so the people who are answering are saying, no, we don’t like party, but we do care about racism. And so and then it’s a very, very at the same time, there’s all it’s like a giant business feeding Robert’s Rules of Order. So you get talked about laws. And so a pastor got up and talked about something in one of the annual reports that didn’t conform to bylaw section. You know, whatever
S1: sounds like boys state meets Bible camp.
S2: Yes, it is. But there was tension everywhere. And you could see like you just read the room, like these folks don’t trust those leaders.
S1: Bob could see this tension when it came time to talk about the sexual abuse allegations the church is dealing with. A group of pastors made a motion for an independent investigation of SBC leadership, but leadership turned that motion down. Bob says that did not fly with the members in attendance. They didn’t want the executive committee to investigate itself.
S2: And the the whole body of messengers, they’re called 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, know, passionate debate about it and it passed overwhelmingly.
S1: That sounds like a victory for abuse victim.
S2: It was it was seen as fun for them. That’s a huge change because the executive committee leadership in the past has long resisted any national actions on sexual abuse. So the way the SBC is set up, it’s kind of an inverted triangle, inverted pyramid with all the powers 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. But so they’ve taken that to mean we can’t track abuse abusers, we can’t do anything.
S1: It means also we have no responsibility, no responsibility.
S2: So there was a hostility towards or taking any national action on this. And so that was that was a huge change.
S1: In addition to those resolutions about what Southern Baptists believe, attendees also had to vote on the ABC’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 species liberal drift. In the end, it came down to a runoff between Stone and an Alabama pastor named Ed Litten. He was a relatively moderate candidate. He wanted to focus on building bridges between members. When the totals came back, Litten, the moderate had won, but only narrowly by two percent.
S2: You know, more people showed up who wanted the open hearted kind of approach. Litten, if you look at him, he has to work on racial reconciliation. He’s a very good preacher, but he’s a pastor first in terms of like caring for people and empathy. He lost his wife about fifteen years ago in a car wreck and an accident. His second wife, she, her husband had been a Baptist pastor and he died in a car wreck. So they have a. Family that is kind of overcome tragedy and walk through really hard times, so they’re pretty soft hearted,
S1: reminds me of Biden.
S2: There’s a personality like Biden. The principles are very different from the approaches. You know, they’re going to listen to you and tell you what they think, but they also care about you as a person. And so it is maybe a little bit like the US and that we have a different approach in the White House, but we haven’t resolved those existential questions.
S1: Well, it’s interesting you say the CBN, the conservative Baptist Network, they 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. Yes. And so while I think you could look at what happened at the Southern Baptist Convention and if you don’t know the inner workings, think like, oh, well, it looks like the convention members are choosing a more progressive direction. I think you could say that. But it sounds like it’s not quite that. It can’t quite be that because they’re still such fiery disagreements.
S2: They’re having the same problem that the GOP is. How do we how do we put these conservative principles to 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. Very early on, the 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.
S1: You’ve talked about how the Southern Baptist Convention is sort of having the same issues that we’re seeing play out everywhere else in politics right now, but I wonder a little bit if watching. The Southern Baptist Convention meet up, I wonder if you feel like it teaches you anything about the way democracy works. In a larger sense, because it is this very democratic system, and so I wonder if it has lessons for that wider system for our government, for how we participate in it.
S2: I think it does, I think has lessons on, you know, how do we act on our principles? I think there’s lessons in how we treat one another. So 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? So I think that’s you know, there’s a lesson for America is like in all this change, you know, I think people forget how much change has happened politically, socially, economically, technologically. Everything about America has changed. And so we’re a different country than, you know, I was born in sixty five. It’s a different country. I’m fifty six. It’s a different world than my parents were in. And how do we be Americans in this world or how about this, I think be Southern Baptist in this modern world that 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 towards one and change our behaviors?
S1: Bob, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: It was a great pleasure.
S1: Bob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. And that is the show What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Mary Wilson, Danielle, Hewitt and Alan Ashworth’s. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. You can go track me down whenever you want on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk. Meanwhile, I catch you back here in this feed tomorrow.