THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION has long been a bellwether for conservative politics. At its annual gathering, controversial resolutions often forecast the upcoming battles of our nation’s culture wars. For too many in the denomination, soul competency has given way to partisan loyalty. This transformation began in 1979 when Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson launched an unprecedented, highly orchestrated campaign to persuade members to vote for a fundamentalist SBC president, who then began a cascade of fundamentalist appointments at every level of the denomination. Being “moderate” on abortion, gender roles, and gay rights, among other issues, became deal breakers. Those who found themselves on the outs with fundamentalist extremists were, as they have described, exiled.
Gendered hierarchies are fertile ground for sexual abuse, and in 2018 Patterson was fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for mishandling sexual assault investigations. The toppling of this fundamentalist leader reverberated through the SBC, and a growing chorus of voices, most notably former member Beth Moore, called on the denomination to address this issue as well as restrictions placed on women in ministry. And the politicization of critical race theory, which David Theo Goldberg of the Boston Review called the “weaponization of colorblindness,” also perched high on the SBC agenda. Both issues figured prominently in the choice of a new SBC president this spring.
Candidate Ed Litton of Alabama conceded that there should be conversations about structural racism and investigations into the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse, while Mike Stone of Georgia doubled down on the fundamentalist position championed for years by Patterson and his acolytes. Thus, the 2021 election of the SBC president was seen as a referendum not only on these issues, but also on the Trumpian politics of political extremism and absolutism that underscore them. Stone took an early lead in the voting, which signaled to many observers that the bond between the SBC and Trump’s Republican Party would prove unbreakable. Moderates breathed a sigh of relief when Litton emerged as the winner; headlines noted that the SBC had pushed back against the denomination’s version of Trump extremism.