NASHVILLE – In a dramatic showdown on Tuesday, the Southern Baptists elected a moderate pastor from Alabama as their next president, narrowly preventing an attempt at power by the insurgent right wing of the denomination.
The election of Pastor Ed Litton was the result of a triple stalemate for the leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in the country. In the first ballot on Tuesday afternoon, the Southern Baptists turned down a prominent mainstream candidate and former favorite for the presidency, Al Mohler Jr., who received 26 percent of around 14,000 votes.
The race then resulted in an immediate runoff, with an ultra-conservative pastor from Georgia, Mike Stone, running against Mr. Litton, who largely avoided the culture wars. When officials announced the results from the stage – Mr. Litton beat Mr. Stone by just 556 votes, or three percentage points – the word broke into a mixture of cheers and boos.
Some had warned that the commitment to the denomination, which often serves as the guideline for evangelicalism among white Americans, has never been higher.
A newly empowered ultra-conservative faction in the denomination is pushing against a national leadership they call contactless elites. Mainstream Baptist churches and the far right agree that the results of the convention could serve as a referendum on the denomination’s priorities and accelerate the breakup of an already shrinking institution.
In Nashville, delegates known as “messengers” voted on a new president and a range of hot cultural topics. Some on both sides have threatened to leave depending on the bottom line.
Pastors and activists had spent months drummed up the participation of churches, large and small, across the country for the Congress.
The Conservatives in particular had made unusual efforts to increase voter turnout. The Conservative Baptist Network, an increasingly influential group formed last year, released a video last week with images of an empty motorboat sliding off a pier and floating in the middle of a lake under a cloudy sky. “On June 15, the Southern Baptists can stop the drift,” said network spokesman Brad Jurkovich.
Emotions were high in Nashville. In the halls of the convention center, angry messengers confronted at least two high-profile leaders, accusing them of stirring up liberalism. Some leaders were given extra security.
“We are at a crucial moment for our Congress,” JD Greear, the outgoing President, told the congregation in a fiery speech hours before the election of his successor. He angered the “Pharisees” within the denomination, who placed ideological purity above their evangelistic mission and alienated black and Latin American pastors, sexual abuse survivors, and others in their zeal.
“Are we primarily a cultural and political affinity group, or do we see our primary calling as being a testimony of the gospel?” Asked Mr. Greear. “What’s the more important part of our name: Southern or Baptist?”
Mr. Greear praised an earlier generation of Conservatives who had kept the faith true to its theological principles. But he warned of a new threat to Southern Baptists in the 21st century. “The danger of liberalism is real, but so is the danger of Phariseeism,” he said.
Tuesday’s vote crowned months of furious debates over race, gender, and other cultural differences during the Trump era and beyond, as denomination leaders and insurgents argued over whether their future depended on pulling the church even further to the right or expand their reach.
Last summer’s annual meeting was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and attendance – and tensions – haven’t been so high since the mid-1990s when Conservatives finalized a sweeping takeover that some now say they haven’t went far enough. The organizers moved the meeting to a larger convention hall in downtown Nashville when it became clear in April that attendance numbers were well above expectations.
The most anticipated moment of the day was the election of a new president.
But messengers also looked at a number of resolutions on racial issues, abortion, and the Equality Act, a sweeping law in Congress that would expand protection of civil rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity while undermining some protections of religious freedom. A resolution on “Christian citizenship” contained an indictment against “the Capitol Uprising of January 6, 2021”.
The most controversial topic of the meeting was critical racial theory, an academic lens for analyzing racism in society and institutions that has captured the imagination of American Conservatives. Republican-controlled state lawmakers have passed measures against the perceived influence of CRT in public schools.
On Tuesday afternoon, messengers passed a resolution that the denomination, formed in defense of slavery prior to the Civil War, reiterated its 1995 apology for systemic racism, but also rejects “any theory or belief” that denies that racial discrimination is rooted in sin is. At their 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, messengers confirmed that critical racial theory could be harnessed by loyal Baptists, a moment many Nashville Conservatives have described as invigorating.
In the months leading up to Congress, there were a number of high profile departures and unusually venomous clashes by an organization that prides itself on the unity of essentially faith.
Russell Moore, the denomination leader in ethics and public order, left the denomination on June 1. In two letters leaked after his departure, he accused the denominational executive committee of having a pattern of intimidation against survivors of sexual abuse and “spiritual and psychological abuse”. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the denomination has angrily accused some leaders of drifting to the left.
Many Baptists hoped that after months of savage sniping on the Internet, the gathering in the same room would have a calming effect. But the Nashville meeting included several moments of unusually direct confrontation.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Mohler was approached in the congress center by a young messenger who loudly accused him of admitting critical racial theories into the seminar he was leading. Mr. Mohler, probably the most famous face within the denomination, was holding his little grandchild in his arms when the angry man approached him. He left the scene “more than a little shaken,” he said later.
Mr. Greear’s office confirmed a similar confrontation a few days ago when a messenger confronted the denominational president at the convention center, asking him to “repent”.
The convention was shackled Monday by conflicting reports of an impromptu encounter between Mr. Stone and Hannah-Kate Williams, a sexual abuse victim working for denominational reform. Ms. Williams was in a convention center atrium handing out copies of a statement signed by several victims calling for an external review of patterns of abuse. Mr. Stone approached her and introduced himself, apparently unaware of her advocacy.
The encounter soon turned ugly, according to Ms. Williams’ report.
“He said I am doing more harm than good to the Southern Baptist Convention and am not doing it right for the survivors,” she tearfully recalled Monday night. “And he said the Southern Baptist Convention was bigger than my problems.”
Mr. Stone described the conversation as “polite” in a statement posted on Twitter: “I was never rude at any time.”
The split in the party congress had become clear in the run-up to the vote on Tuesday.
In a smoky cigar bar near the convention center, a small group of messengers, largely opposed to Mr Stone’s candidacy, gathered on Monday evening to discuss their plans to file motions the next day and make predictions about the president’s results . Some of them wore teal ribbons on their shirts to aid victims of sexual abuse.
At a standing-only breakfast held Tuesday morning by the Conservative Baptist Network, Mr. Stone presented himself as a populist outsider who had no interest in being nice with mainstream denominational leaders and their national headquarters in Nashville.
He had planted oak trees in his garden in the small town of Blackshear, Georgia, which he hoped his grandchildren would one day play among them, he said. “In other words, you have nothing I want in Nashville and I have nothing in Blackshear for you to take away.”