Friday, August 10, 2018

Southern Baptist Convention distances itself from the GOP

J.D. Greear, new president
of Southern Baptist Convention
Out of a mix of "pragmatism and principle," the Southern Baptist Convention is distancing itself from the Republican Party and making serious efforts to reach out to minorities and women. Without a fresh infusion of members, it fears that its future is in jeopardy:

"For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low," Jonathan Merritt reports for The Atlantic. "Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping 1 million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done."

In the last 30 years, SBC leaders have purged moderate cultural and political viewpoints from the denomination and become a powerful ally to the Republican Party. But two leaders of that movement have been shunned because of recent scandals: several men accused Paul Pressler of sexually abusing them or soliciting them for sex, and Paige Patterson was dismissed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after being accused of not properly reporting rape allegations (more than 3,000 Southern Baptist women signed a petition calling for his resignation). Patterson was also criticized for encouraging abused women to submit to their violent husbands, Merritt reports.

Patterson's ouster signaled a sea change in the SBC, as its membership continued shifting to younger Southern Baptists who think differently about culture and politics than older members. With the backing of such young members, 45-year-old megachurch pastor J.D. Greear of North Carolina won 69 percent of the vote in June to become the convention's new president. In a campaign video, Greear called for a "new culture and a new posture" in the SBC, and promised to listen to, honor, and include in top leadership roles women and minorities, Merritt reports.

The convention made some strides in that direction at this year's meeting. "This included resolutions that condemned the abuse of women, affirmed the importance of women’s contributions to churches, and offered a confession that Baptists have often “wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women," Merritt reports. "The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the denomination’s public-policy arm, hosted a packed #metoo panel discussion. And several leaders publicly suggested that women must be included in top levels of leadership. Multiple prominent leaders even insinuated that it may be time to elect a woman as SBC president, a notion that would have been considered unthinkable, if not heretical, even a decade ago.

The convention took steps to increase minorities' role as well: the SBC pastors' meeting was led by an African American, and half its speakers were people of color. That could be a step toward political change. "This predominately white denomination knows that it must reach out to Baptists of color, but if it takes Baptists of color’s concerns seriously, it is going to have to change in other ways, including politically," says Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University.

It's unclear how such a change would play out. Though many Southern Baptists believe endorsing President Trump puts their moral credibility at risk, most are still politically and culturally conservative. But, "this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant," Merritt reports. "In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals."

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