NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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.
But fears of liberal drift are embedded almost as deeply in the denomination’s roots.
This week at the Southern Baptist Convention’s first meeting in two years, establishment conservatives narrowly headed off an aggressive takeover attempt by an ascendant hard-right movement. But rather than calm a turbulent debate, the votes in Nashville — 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.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has said we are going to have to have serious, hard conversations within our churches,” said Tom Buck, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Lindale, Texas, which held an online fundraiser to send like-minded staunch conservatives to vote at this week’s meeting. “We gave more than $225,000 last year to the SBC, and we feel like we have no voice,” he added, referring to his congregation’s contributions to the denomination.
The debate among Southern Baptists has echoed the soul-searching among Republicans in the post-Trump era. On issues of gender and race, the denomination is riven over how best to position itself in a fast-changing culture.
Much of the denomination’s establishment leaders, including its departing president, J.D. Greear, have insisted they can promote traditionally conservative Baptist theology while adopting a more welcoming tone on culture war issues, such as sexuality. They embrace the theological red lines drawn in the 1980s, when conservatives wrested control of the denomination in defense of the inerrant truth of the Bible. But they resist attempts to attach the denomination to Republican causes.
“Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant,” Greear said in an address to the convention Tuesday. “And the offspring does not look like God the Father.”
This differentiates them from the ultraconservatives who sought this week to capture control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Leaders of the insurgency characterize Greear and his newly elected successor, Ed Litton, as moderate, or even progressive — which they intend as slurs.
In the broad spectrum of American Christian culture, Litton can only be described as conservative. “I believe in the inerrancy, infallibility and sufficiency of God’s word,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “I am pro-life, and I believe that marriage is between a man and woman.” He also describes himself as a complementarian, meaning he believes that women should not lead churches, and should submit to their husbands.
But many who opposed Litton’s candidacy pointed to a series of sermons on marriage he preached with his wife, which they see as a violation of biblical strictures against women preaching in church.
“This is about politics,” said Griffin Gulledge, a pastor at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, Georgia, who supported Litton’s candidacy. “It’s not about the truth, it’s not about the Bible, it’s not about our beliefs, it’s not about our theology, it’s not about our mission.”
The most closely watched vote Tuesday was to determine the denomination’s next president. The race was effectively a three-way contest with no clear favorite. After a runoff, Litton edged out the conservative favorite, Mike Stone.
Both men are longtime pastors of churches in the South, Litton in Alabama and Stone in Georgia. But they have drastically different approaches in tone.
“I am a conservative but I’m not angry about it,” Litton said, echoing a line popularized by Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor. “I want to build bridges instead of walls.” (Huckabee endorsed Stone’s candidacy.)
Stone, by contrast, has embraced the denomination’s combative conservative wing that wants to foreground culture war issues like critical race theory.
Less than 24 hours after Litton’s election, Josh Buice, the pastor of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church west of Atlanta, was preparing to send an email to his congregation asking for prayer about its future in the denomination.
When Buice, who is also the founder of a conference that attracts many ultraconservative Baptists, asked his followers on Twitter whether Litton’s victory was “indicative of a leftward theological move that will necessitate your church’s departure from the SBC,” 70% of more than 600 people answered that they were at least giving it serious consideration.
Those alarmed by Stone’s candidacy were relieved by his defeat, however narrow. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, warned last week that he would leave the denomination if Stone or Al Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took the presidency.
“I will remain,” McKissic, a leader of the denomination’s anti-racism efforts, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday evening. The Southern Baptist Convention, he said, “is in good hands with Litton.”
There are more than 14 million Southern Baptists in the United States, making them the country’s largest Protestant denomination and an avatar for white evangelicalism. Their seminaries train thousands of young conservative Christians a year, and their leaders’ pronouncements about politics and culture make national headlines.
Southern Baptist membership has been in decline for more than a decade. But it is still far more robust than formerly ascendant mainline Protestant denominations. As many Southern Baptists are quick to point out, the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church are among those in the United States that have wrestled with similar conflicts over cultural politics and generally opted to move leftward.
Southern Baptists of all persuasions recognized the meeting’s high stakes before it started. The hard right in particular spent months drumming up turnout, sounding the alarm about the need to stop the liberal drift. With some 17,000 registrations, it was the largest meeting since the mid-1990s. Delegates, called messengers, submitted 40 proposed resolutions in advance, a number that a spokesperson said was likely the highest in recent history.
Conservatives hoped that their turnout efforts would propel Stone to victory, allowing him to start making appointments that could eventually remake the denomination.
Instead, messengers narrowly elected Litton.
The denomination’s hard-right wing suffered other blows this week. Messengers almost unanimously voted down the budget proposed by the executive committee, suggesting a lack of confidence in an entity that many accuse of mishandling the issue of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings. An attempt to rescind a 2019 resolution that cautiously affirmed the use of critical race theory failed.
But ultraconservatives did not lose every fight, with messengers Wednesday passing a resolution that calls for the abolishment of abortion and denouncing the incremental approach favored by many anti-abortion activists as a way to chip away at abortion access state by state.
Even if some churches depart the denomination, few think this is the end of the war. Southern Baptists are accustomed to playing the long game. The so-called conservative resurgence that began in 1979 took a decade to transform the denomination through steady gains in appointments to trustee boards and other lower-profile positions. The success of that movement — the foundational story of the denomination’s contemporary form — is familiar to almost every active Southern Baptist.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.