Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War

America’s largest Protestant group moves to cut ties with the Republican Party and reengage with mainstream culture.

Terrance Pickett leads worship during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas.  (Jeffrey McWhorter / AP)

It was immediately clear that change was afoot in Dallas. I’ve attended the annual gatherings of the Southern Baptist Convention dozens of times, but walking around the convention center this week, I was struck by how unfamiliar it all felt. When I was a child, the convention hall was a sea of silver combovers and smelled of denture paste. While the older, more traditionalist crowd was still present in Dallas, the younger, fresh-faced attendees now predominated.

“The generational shift happening in the SBC has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis,” says Barry Hankins, the chair of the department of history at Baylor University and co-author of Baptists in America: A History. “The younger generation thinks differently than the old-guard Christian right about culture and politics, and they are demanding change.”

To enact this change, young Baptists nominated 45-year-old pastor J.D. Greear from North Carolina to be president of the denomination. In a campaign video, Greear called for “a new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Refusing to cede power without a fight, fundamentalist Baptists nominated Ken Hemphill as an opposition candidate. But Greear won with nearly 70 percent of the vote, becoming the youngest SBC president in 37 years.

Greear has promised to lead the denomination down a different path, which, he has said, must include efforts both to repent of a “failure to listen to and honor women and racial minorities” and “to include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” If the meeting in Dallas is any indication, his vision is resonating with a large number of the next wave of Baptist leaders.

In 1967, at New Orleans’s historic Café du Monde, a young seminary student named Paige Patterson and Texas Judge Paul Pressler met over a plate of beignets to hatch a plan to unite conservative Southern Baptists and take over America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The two men successfully executed their strategy in the subsequent decades, a movement they labeled the “Conservative Resurgence” and their opponents dubbed the “Fundamentalist Takeover.” Whatever one calls it, the result was a purging of moderates from among denominational ranks, the codifying of literal interpretations of the Bible, and the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention into a powerful ally of the Republican Party.

For years, the two men were revered by many of the roughly 15 million members of the SBC as paragons of virtue. When the Southern Baptist Convention met last week in Dallas, however, public scandals kept both leaders away.

A lawsuit filed against Pressler alleging decades of sexual molestation, beginning while the plaintiff was just 14, included two additional affidavits from individuals alleging that Pressler had committed sexual misconduct against them while they were young men. And Patterson has drawn criticism for encouraging abused women to submit to their violent husbands. He was dismissed from his post as president of Southwestern Seminary after being accused of failing to properly report at least two allegations of rape. More than 3,000 Southern Baptist women signed a petition calling for his resignation.

“When Southwestern’s executive committee terminated Paige Patterson as president, Southern Baptists closed the book on the Patterson-Pressler era,” said Keith Harper, a Baptist historian and co-author of SBC FAQs: A Ready Reference. “It signaled an opportunity for something new—new leadership, new direction, and a new emphasis on engaging our culture.”

In a blink, the paragons became personae non grata among their brethren. And their ignominious departures created a power vacuum that primed the denomination for revolution.

Central to the Patterson-Pressler revolution were teachings that barred women from the pastorate and urged wives to “lovingly submit” to their husbands. At this year’s meeting, however, the convention wrestled with its patriarchal positions. This included resolutions that condemned the abuse of women, affirmed the importance of women’s contributions to churches, and offered a confession that Baptists have often “wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women.”

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.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” Leonard said. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.