Sunday, June 13, 2021

Southern Baptists gather as race, gender issues and politics tribulate their convention and other evangelical churches

Revs. Ronnie Floyd and Dwight McKissic in 2014
after Floyd was elected president of the Southern
Baptist Convention. (AP photo by Steve Ruark)
The Southern Baptist Convention, which was created because of race and slavery 15 years before the Civil War, is arguing about race, sex and other touchy social issues as it prepares to convene Tuesday in Nashville. And it reflects simmering political conflicts in much of American evangelicalism.

With talk of critical race theory, "demands for political loyalty" and "a fight between conservatives and ultraconservatives, it sounds like current debates within the Republican Party," writes Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post. The meeting will shape the future of the 14-million-member denomination, and will be "probably the largest religious gathering since the pandemic, as well as the biggest Baptist meeting in decades," with 16,000 attendees expected.

"What is especially unusual about the meeting is infighting at the highest levels of leadership that has become public in recent weeks," Bailey reports. "New details released to news-media outlets have shined a light on the backroom dealings of several of its high-profile leaders." Russell Moore, who ran the SBC's public-policy office, "recently left his position and his church for a new position at Christianity Today magazine. On his way out, two letters he sent to SBC leadership were leaked to media, in which Moore described a culture of racism and mishandling of sexual-abuse claims."

The current flash point is critical race theory, the concept that racism is a product of society, not only individuals, and is often embedded in societal institutions. "Prominent members of the SBC, including Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s oldest academic institution, have demonized C.R.T., calling it, among other things, Marxist and anti-Biblical. Mohler, of Louisville, and south Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who has called CRT a “weapon of division,” are running for SBC president. The other candidate is Ed Litton, "a soft-spoken pastor who has been involved in racial-reconciliation efforts in Mobile, and who believes that the fight over CRT has become a way to avoid talking about the need for structural change" in the convention, Eliza Griswold reports for The New Yorker magazine.

If Litton doesn't win, that is expected to accelerate the departure of Black pastors and congregations, Griswold reports. Her object example is the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas, who got SBC help to start his church 38 years ago but isn't going to the convention: "Until recently, much of the racism that he’d encountered in the SBC was 'passive,' McKissic said. But after the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, he felt that the racist rhetoric became more overt. McKissic was also unsettled by what he saw as a growing antipathy toward allowing women to serve in leadership roles in the church."

The long-simmering gender conflict in the denomination, which limits the roles of women, was highlighted this spring when "Beth Moore, a hugely popular speaker and author, stepped away from the SBC because of what she saw as its continued racism and sexism," Griswold notes.

Bailey notes that the convention, like most evangelical groups, is less of a denomination than most denominations: "The SBC prides itself in the 'autonomy' of individual churches, which operate independently but contribute to multi-million-dollar budgets for missions, seminaries and other collective efforts" of the convention. "The transactional nature of the denomination allows pastors and lay members to financially benefit from things such as pastors’ health insurance and reduced tuition rates at its schools. What matters at the convention is that individual members come forward and vote collectively to find a unifying voice on different matters and to vote for its next president."

The tribulations of the SBC reflect those in other evangelical groups and society, Baptist professors told Griswold. Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said she sees an “evangelical reckoning . . . These tensions reflect an emerging schism in what it means to be an evangelical. Theological conservatives are reclaiming the moral authority of following Jesus without blindly following the old battle lines of the culture wars.”

Keith Whitfield, a theology professor at Southeastern, told Griswold, “We’ve understood since 1995 that we have to open the doors for other people to come in if we’re going to remain viable for the future—if not, the effectiveness of our gospel witness will be compromised. . . . The SBC is a mirror for what’s happening in American evangelicalism, and the culture writ large.”

Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist who runs the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, told Griswold that churches have become increasingly politicized: “People are now sorting themselves into churches that align more with their political ideology than their theology They want the sermons they hear on Sundays to align with what they hear on cable news all week.”

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