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As they headed to Nashville for the annual Southern Baptist Convention reunion, the cars with black pirate flags strapped to their windows – complete with smiling skulls and crossbones – were a good indicator that some of the passengers were spoiling themselves. for a fight.
These Protestant swashbucklers were supporters of a coalition called the Conservative Baptist Network, whose leaders warned of a left-wing drift by a denomination known for its deep-rooted conservatism on both political and theological issues. Ahead of the reunion, held this week at the Music City Center in downtown Nashville, CBN supporters filled their social media profiles with emojis and memes of Jolly Roger comparing himself to buccaneer gangs in marauding. Their rallying cry before the rally made it clear their intentions: “Take the ship. “
This year’s convention – the first in the post-Trump era and one of the busiest in decades – would be an opportunity to claim their rights, insert leaders into positions of power and make a statement public to the world that any hint of “liberalism” among this group of believers would not be tolerated. And while they ultimately fell short of their goals – with a more moderate pastor, the Reverend Ed Litton, winning the election as denomination president – their loud presence signaled that even the strictly Tory leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention will never be considered pure enough for some. .
The Southern Baptist Convention is different from most American religious denominations, in that it includes more than 47,000 independent churches that exercise power from the bottom up, instead of following edicts issued from above. Members of these congregations – called “messengers” in Baptist jargon – meet annually to deal with the affairs of the year: they elect leaders, pass resolutions on matters of theology or policy and, between battles , pray together. The power and influence of the Southern Baptist Convention rests on its size. Membership reaches over 14 million, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the United States
According to the rules of the convention, any messenger can speak from the room. A formal power structure exists, but representatives of even the smallest church can rock the convention, if they can manage the system properly.
The meeting was held at a time of decline for Southern Baptists, who recently experienced the largest drop in membership in a century. Since 2017, more than a million people have abandoned the denomination. Meanwhile, baptisms and donations have plummeted. With a declining brand, some churches in the network have abandoned the name “Southern Baptist” altogether, choosing to call themselves a “family” or “community” church. Even at the convention meeting, massive placards in the halls called out “Great Baptists of the Commission” – a call to Christ’s command in the Gospel of Matthew to “go and make disciples of all nations. – instead of the original name.
On political issues, this is a time of division, as leaders grapple with deep disagreements that have plagued the denomination for years. While some of the theological debates may seem obscure to outsiders, many points of contention about the denomination will likely sound familiar: Like the rest of us, they discuss critical theory of race, white privilege, l gender equality in the treatment of sexual assault cases. , and who among them deserves a “cancellation”.
“The issues that rock the SBC are the same issues that rock the evangelical movement and, to some extent, American culture,” said Daniel Darling, former vice president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The SBC, as the largest Protestant denomination, is making headlines, but these conversations and these battles find their way into all the institutions of American life. “
Members of the CBN, which has positioned itself to the far right of the already conservative parent organization, see themselves as direct heirs to the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence” that came to power in the 1980s and 1990s. , who purged the denomination of leaders who opposed their strict interpretation of the Scriptures. At the time, those in pulpit or in seminary chairs who questioned the inerrancy of the Bible were cast out or left for other spiritual pastures. Some of the leaders who designed this takeover supported CBN’s new campaign, which focused on, among other things, racial reconciliation and the role of women in church leadership.
The presidential candidate chosen by the CBN this year was Reverend Mike Stone, a pastor at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga., Who has spent months denouncing critical race theory, which he says has made its way into the seminaries and the Baptist churches of the South. Opposing Stone was Reverend Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, who is known to advocate racial reconciliation. Litton had the support of many congregations of color and pastors like Reverend Fred Luter, the first black president of the SBC. Litton also allowed his wife to speak alongside him in a series of marriage sermons, which fueled accusations within the CBN that he is backing by allowing women to preach. (He denies the accusation.)
In modern battles for the future of the SBC, racing has taken center stage. The issue at this year’s meeting was a resolution passed in 2019 that dealt with the critical theory of race and intersectionality, stating that these schools of thought could be “used as analytical tools subordinate to the Scriptures.” CBN leaders argue that the elevation of critical race theory reduces the Bible’s teaching on the subject and is therefore heretical.
The anti-CRT message resonated with Southern Baptists like Reverend Michael Wilhite, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Newtonville, Indiana, who came to support Stone.
“It’s the complete opposite of the gospel. In critical race theory, there is no hope. If you are white, you are automatically racist because of white supremacy. But with the gospel there is hope, ”Wilhite said. “I don’t need a critical race theory to diagnose what’s wrong with humanity. I have the Bible, and it does a good job doing it.
In the months leading up to the meeting, Southern Baptists were troubled by public feuds between its leaders, strategic leaks of secret conversations taped behind the scenes, and departures of high-level teachers and leaders. Late last year, some predominantly black churches ended their association with the SBC, citing intractable disagreements over the treatment of racial issues. In March, Beth Moore, a renowned teacher, announced that she no longer considered herself a Southern Baptist; and Russell Moore (unrelated to Beth), the denomination’s chief ethicist and most open voice to the public, not only quit his job, but cut ties with the Southern Baptists altogether.
After Russell Moore left, private letters he sent to faith leaders warning of sexual abuse and racism within the SBC began leaking to the media. A former Moore staff member then posted the audio of SBC executives, including Stone, resisting efforts to investigate the sexual abuse.
Due to the Baptist’s radically democratic approach, members are used to having a large part of their family fight in public. Their annual convention is broadcast online and the doors are open to journalists. The future is decided by the people in the room by means of paper ballots, and there are ways of grieving. Like any organization, deals are made behind closed doors – but if you have a problem with a sibling, there are rules of engagement in the rumble court.
And there was plenty to fight for.
Early Tuesday morning, before the election of the SBC president, more than a thousand CBN supporters gathered in a Marriott ballroom near the convention hall for a political rally of encouragement. Speakers included representatives from the Family Research Council and Liberty University, as well as Carol Swain, a black scholar and author who has been a leading critic of critical race theory.
“Hello. Are you awake? Swain told the audience of mostly white men.“ We’re the ones who are really awake… When it comes to apologizing for racism, I’ve lost count of the number of times where the Southern Baptists apologized, and I think it’s about time somebody got an apology. “
The group faced a long day ahead: a series of grueling sessions inside the convention hall in which the messengers debated resolutions and motions, and fought over a limited agenda.
Rod Martin, a seasoned tech entrepreneur who helped found PayPal, gave instructions. “You’re going to be in this room all day. Did you hear me All day, ”said Martin. “If you go, I’ll track you down and shoot you.” We have critical votes until the closing hammer blow today. Do not go.
After breakfast, they joined over 14,000 Baptists in the Music City Center convention hall, filling every chair and lining every wall around the room. Some had red stickers that read “STOP CRT”. The messengers held their yellow voting cards in their hands and tore off parts of them with each vote.
Four candidates were initially nominated for the presidency. Stone and Litton received the most votes, which led to a second round. In the end, Litton beat Stone by just 558 votes.
The messengers also passed a resolution to base racial reconciliation on biblical teaching, but did not respond to CBN’s call to address and reject critical race theory by name.
In the end, the ship would not be taken.
“They were sunk,” said a member of the SBC executive committee after the vote. “They’re down with Davy Jones’ locker.”
This feeling is probably wishful thinking. After all, the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 20th century took years to materialize. There is no indication that debates over critical race theory will abate anytime soon, or that CBN intends to end after a loss.
“We will be back next year. And the next and the next, ”Martin told fans earlier in the morning. “All but one of the apostles are martyred, and we’re going to be pissed off by some nasty tweets?” No! We are here. We are rooted. We are here until death! We will not stop. We will not stop. We won’t stop. “