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.
In addition to the elevation of women, the second Southern Baptist revolution is committed to fostering greater diversity throughout the denomination.
When I attended the annual gatherings as a child, the crowd was almost completely Caucasian. This year’s event, however, included a noticeable increase of people of color—not just in the crowd, but on the platform. The SBC pastor’s conference, which takes place on the first days of the gathering, was led by a black pastor and six out of 12 speakers were people of color. Three sources within the denomination, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations, also told me that it is seriously considering a black candidate to become the CEO of the Executive Committee, which oversees the denomination’s day-to-day operations at its headquarters in Nashville.
The inclusion of more minority voices in Baptist life will only hasten the changes already underway, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University and the author of The Challenge of Being Baptist. “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,” he said.
Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.
In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama was invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”