More cracks seen in American evangelicalism after Southern Baptist vote sends mixed signals

(Photo: Adam Covington, Baptist Press)Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville June 2021.

The establishment narrowly headed off a takeover attempt by a hard-right movement at this week's Southern Baptist convention in Nashville.


Ed Litton, a moderate pastor from Alabama, won the crucial three-way contest in the presidential election with the potential to reshape the future of the country's largest Protestant denomination, The New York Times reported June 16.

"From the moment the gavel dropped – or actually, with the gavel that dropped – calling them to order, it was clear messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting June 15-16 in Nashville were ready to make changes and challenge traditions in the name of advancing the Gospel," wrote Baptist Press.

Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, was elected SBC president in a runoff with a 52 percent majority over Georgia pastor Mike Stone, immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee.

"Stone is a steering council member for the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), a group alleging leftward drift in the convention. Litton has suggested the CBN is unnecessary because Southern Baptists are unwaveringly conservative," said Baptist Press.


Southern Baptists "are a family, and at times we may seem dysfunctional," Litton told reporters after his election. "But we love each other."

Some backers of the losing candidate are now considering leaving the biggest U.S denomination altogether, said The New York Times.

"Southern Baptists agree that the Bible is divinely inspired and without error, that belief in Jesus is the only way to Heaven, that women may not serve as head pastors, and that true marriage is between one man and one woman," Ruth Graham reported in the Times.

"But fears of liberal drift are embedded almost as deeply in the denomination's roots," she wrote.

Graham explained that at the first Southern Baptist Convention meeting in two years, establishment conservatives narrowly headed off an aggressive takeover attempt by an ascendant hard-right movement.

"But instead of calming a turbulent debate, the Nashville votes for a new president and on a series of hot-button cultural issues — only underscored the sharp divisions within the denomination and portended further fractures within American evangelicalism," wrote Graham.

In winning, Litton bested a better-known rival in the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who ran an aggressive campaign fueled by some of the SBC's most prominent hard-line conservatives, The Associated Press reported.


Among Litton's notable attributes are a long record of hard work promoting racial reconciliation, and his perseverance in the face of personal tragedy.

Litton's wife of 25 years, Tammy, was killed in an automobile accident in 2007; two years later, he married Kathy Ferguson, the widow of another SBC pastor killed in a 2002 car crash.

lan Cross, an SBC pastor from California who has worked with him on racial reconciliation projects, evoked those attributes in endorsing Litton's candidacy.

"He will do a good job because he has character and integrity, he operates in humility, he trusts and lifts up Jesus, he has suffered and experienced the love of God in the midst of great grief," Cross wrote on the blog SBC Voices.

Litton, 62, earned a bachelor's degree in religion and theater from Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university in Phoenix, and later received a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Before the convention New York Magazine's Ed Kilgore noted that a generation ago, hard-core conservatives took over the Southern Baptist Convention, and birthed what is now called "the Christian right."

"They overcame a tradition of congregational and state-convention autonomy to impose biblical inerrancy, the subordination of women in the pews and at home, and aggressively traditionalist views on sexuality and abortion as litmus tests for seminaries, clergy, and members," said Kilgore.


The SBC was a mainstay for the Christian right, with leaders like Jerry Falwell (senior and junior) and Franklin Graham joining actual politician (and ordained Southern Baptist minister) Mike Huckabee in the vanguard.

The ancient Baptist commitment to strict church-state separation was a casualty of the self-proclaimed "conservative resurgence," as the denomination's new leadership was ready to enlist its allies in the Republican Party to smite the wicked and bring closer the Kingdom of God, said the New York Magazine article.

Now it says the edifice of Southern Baptist confidence is eroding with SBC membership dropping for 13 straight years, the sharpest drop occurring most recently.

"No longer can Baptists mock 'liberal' mainline Protestants for membership declines allegedly attributable to their moral and theological laxity, such as their tolerance for feminists and gays.

"The conservative evangelical lurch into right-wing nationalist 'populism' has become more fraught than ever thanks to the Christian right's full surrender to the pagan cult of Donald Trump," wrote Kilgore.

He said the willingness of Southern Baptists to scornfully attack other churches for sexual impropriety has been exposed as hypocritical due to " horrifying allegations" that church leaders covered up sexual assaults and pedophilia by clergy and other church employees.

"It's unclear whether the potential schism in the Southern Baptist Convention will spread to the breaking point, fizzle out, or get papered over," wrote Kilgore.

Karen Tumulty was more upbeat when she wrote in The Washington Post, "That the nation's largest Protestant denomination would choose as its new president a pastor known for his work on racial reconciliation was a welcome surprise.

"It might be an early sign of a new direction for the Southern Baptist Convention, at a time when so many of its most influential leaders have aligned themselves with former president Donald Trump and claimed scriptural justification for taking what are regarded as partisan stances."

But she cautioned that it is also possible to overread the meaning of the close election in which Litton narrowly won the presidency of the convention over two better-known, ultraconservative rivals.

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