SBC Picks a New Leader

And linkages to broader US politics.

“Baptist” by Steven Snodgrass is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The NYT reports on the outcome of the SBC leadership vote, Southern Baptists Head Off Takeover by Conservative Insurgents.

In a dramatic showdown on Tuesday, Southern Baptists elected a moderate pastor from Alabama as their next president, narrowly heading off an attempted takeover by the denomination’s insurgent right wing.

The election of the pastor, Ed Litton, was the result of what was effectively a three-way standoff for the leadership of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In the first round of voting on Tuesday afternoon, Southern Baptists rejected a prominent mainstream candidate and one-time favorite for the presidency, Al Mohler Jr., who received 26 percent of some 14,000 votes.

The race then headed for an immediate runoff vote that pitted an ultraconservative pastor from Georgia, Mike Stone, against Mr. Litton, who has largely avoided the culture wars. When officials announced the results from the stage — Mr. Litton bested Mr. Stone by just 556 votes, or three percentage points — the floor erupted in a mixture of cheers and boos.

Litton is pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland (a suburb of Mobile) and while I am certain I have heard the name, I have no specific knowledge about him or his career. The Tennessean headline on his election was as follows: Southern Baptists elect new convention president, bucking effort to push conservative denomination to the right and the Religious News Service’s write-up was as follows: Ed Litton, a pastor known for racial reconciliation, is surprise winner for SBC president.

Had Stone been elected, he would have represented a turn for the SBC into a more trumpesque direction.

At a standing-room-only breakfast hosted by the Conservative Baptist Network on Tuesday morning, Mr. Stone portrayed himself as a populist outsider with no interest in making nice with the denomination’s mainstream leaders and its national headquarters in Nashville.

All of this strikes me as interesting insofar as one might have expected that the SBC would have been more likely to elect the ultraconservative instead of the moderate (and yes, we are speaking of a moderate within the SBC, not in terms of American politics). As we seek to understand where the country is, or is not, going in terms of macro-political trends, the behavior of an organization like the SBC is of interest insofar as it clearly is linked to a substantial number of Republican voters.

To be more generic for a moment: the behavior of large organizations such of the SBC can provide some sense of the currents in broader national politics. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country and clearly helps form a substantial part of the GOP coalition. At a minimum, we know that a key GOP constituency is white, southern, and Evangelical.

Without a doubt, the boos and the cheers in response to Litton’s election indicate that the convention is not as unified as a casual observer might assume (as the close vote also underscores).

A newly empowered ultraconservative faction in the denomination is pushing back against a national leadership they describe as out-of-touch elitists. Mainstream Baptist churches and those on the far right agree that the convention’s results will serve as a referendum about the denomination’s priorities and could accelerate the fracturing of an already shrinking institution.

I would note that this fissure indicates more complexity in Evangelical circles than one might think exists, especially if one’s assumption is that Trump has truly and completely taken over the right. This is not to say that many SBC moderates will be voting for Democrats (SBC moderates are still likely quite conservative and with only two parties, well, it is likely where they will land). But the entire report on the convention does not paint a picture of trumpismo.

By the same token, there was clear division and one wonders if a split might not be coming:

Conservatives, especially, had made an unusual effort to boost turnout. The Conservative Baptist Network, an increasingly influential group founded last year, released a video last week featuring images of an empty motorboat slipping loose from a pier and floating into the middle of a lake under cloudy skies. “On June 15, Southern Baptists can stop the drift,” the network’s spokesman, Brad Jurkovich, intoned.

In Nashville, tempers were running high. Irate messengers confronted at least two high-profile leaders in the halls of the convention center, accusing them of fomenting liberalism. Some leaders were provided with extra security.

“We are at a defining moment for our convention,” J.D. Greear, the outgoing president, told the assembly in a fiery speech hours before they would elect his successor. He excoriated the “Pharisees” within the denomination who placed ideological purity over its evangelistic mission, alienating Black and Latino 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 gospel witness?” Mr. Greear asked. “What’s the more important part of our name: Southern or Baptist?”

That question is perhaps more salient than many might think. As someone raised in the SBC and who has lived a long time in the deep South, the words “Southern” and “Baptist” are powerful markers of identity and are also linked to conservativism writ large and the GOP specifically in the minds of many. And I think that we are in a moment in American politics wherein identity is extremely important, which raises the stakes and intensity in these kinds of divisions.

Again, I think it is interesting and noteworthy that the group is not acting monolithically.

To shift to issues:

messengers also tackled a slate of resolutions on racial issues, abortion and the Equality Act, a sweeping piece of legislation in Congress that would extend civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity while eroding some religious liberty protections. A resolution on “Christian citizenship” included a denunciation of “the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021.”

It is hardly surprising that an extremely socially conservative denomination would have opinions on social issues. But, it is telling, and I think important, that they denounced the 1/6 Insurrection. Again, this is not cleaving to MAGAism and, more importantly, it is a healthy outcome for any significant US organization to be willing to denounce those actions.

And then there is what seems to be the topic of the week, Critical Race Theory:

The most contentious topic heading into the meeting was critical race theory, an academic lens for analyzing racism in society and institutions that has swept the imagination of American conservatives. Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed measures against the perceived influence of C.R.T. in public schools.

On Tuesday afternoon, messengers passed a resolution that the denomination, which was founded before the Civil War in defense of slavery, reaffirm its 1995 apology for systemic racism but also reject “any theory or worldview” that denies that racial discrimination is rooted in sin. At its 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., messengers affirmed that critical race theory could be used by faithful Baptists, a moment that many conservatives in Nashville characterized as galvanizing.

The NYT write up is a bit confusing, but it is interesting to note that the resolution danced around the term “CRT” and used Christianspeak to only indirectly reject it (i.e., clearly CRT does not talk about racism as a “sin” in the way a Baptist would define the term).

The Tennessean has a more complete discussion here: Southern Baptists take on critical race theory but not by name. Here’s why.

During its annual meeting in Nashville, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a measure rejecting “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”

Although it didn’t name critical race theory directly, the nonbinding statement came as debates over it are sweeping the nation— from churches to statehouses and classrooms. 

Critical race theory teaches racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that white people benefit from it. Many conservative Southern Baptists are adamantly opposed to the theory, calling it incompatible with Baptist beliefs and criticized the resolution for not explicitly naming it.  


The resolution was worded not to limit itself to just one theory, but to settle the issue “once and for all,” he said.

The issue, Merritt said, is any theory that teaches that “our problem is anything other than sin and our solution is anything other than salvation.”

Without getting into the merits of their position, it strikes as quite interesting that while the SBC is stepping back from its acceptance of CRT in 2019 (although attempts to withdraw that resolution failed), it is also not doing a Fox News number on it, either. The soft-pedaling of the resolution is a sign of a lack of consensus that is interesting when considering broader politics and pressures.

Again, note how Stone, the losing candidate for president, views the issue:

Georgia Pastor Mike Stone, who is on the steering council for the Conservative Baptist Network, said he was disappointed it did not explicitly name critical race theory and intersectionality. 

“It is a failure on the part of this convention’s leadership to not expect Southern Baptists to address an issue that secular school boards are addressing, that secular state legislatures are addressing,” said Stone, a nominee to become the next convention president.

Litton, in contrast, was a signatory of the “Justice, Repentance, and the SBC” statement, which was described by an RNS story as follows:

The “Justice, Repentance, and the SBC” statement comes as Black Baptists and others continue to object to the rejection of “critical race theory,” a set of ideas about systemic racism, by the six white SBC seminary presidents.

Luter joined more than 230 other signers of the statement, which was issued on the 155th anniversary of the proclamation of the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the U.S. It had more than 230 signatures by noon Eastern on Saturday.

Let me try and be as explicit as possible here. I would not have necessarily predicted these outcomes given the way that conservative politics (broadly defined) have been going in the US in the last half decade in particular. It is worthwhile to note that we see here a significant segment of elites within a major conservative denomination not going full MAGA (an outcome that I think a lot of readers of this site might find surprising).

This an example of the fact that the actual behavior of people is a bit more subtle and nuanced than may sometimes appear to be the case. At a minimum, the lack of a shift toward Trumpist populism is positive, even if one might find any number of areas to disagree with the SBC.

Fundamentally (no pun intended) I find this story of interest because it represents a major meeting of a group that can be understood to be part of the rightward national political coalition. Its choice of leader, in particular, runs counter to some of the trends we have seen in that rightward coalition. And, perhaps more importantly, the general tenor of the meeting is less linked to Trumpist impulses in the American right than one might have predicted.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Slugger says:

    Their history of opposition to abolition and integration and the ethnic composition of their congregations has made me think that we should undertake some studies, critical studies, of the role of racism in American culture.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t know that I’m surprised, though I am relieved. I have never had a strong association with the SBC, I come from a different tradition. And yet, Greaar’s words seem to have the right of it – Let’s get very grounded in what we see our purpose is.

    I think this is parallel to the “liberal” candidates who win local elections by campaigning on things like “I’m going to fix the traffic issue in Fairfax county”. I mean, that’s the actual work government does, right? So what is the work that SBC pastors and elders and deacons do?

    I understand a reasonably sized group of black pastors were threatening to break with the SBC if the anti-CRT faction got its way. Quite understandable. I guess this formulation got their approval.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    “What’s the more important part of our name: Southern or Baptist?”

    I think that’s obvious given the only reason the SBC exists at all is because the South threw a hissy fit when the American Baptist Convention banned missionaries from owning slaves

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m torn. Typically when politics and religion go into a room together, only politics comes out alive.

    On the one hand I’m pleased to see what may actually be a sort of high water mark for the Trump cult. There have been hints, omens, soft polls and tiny stirrings indicating that we might be reaching this point. At the very least the frenzied dancing around the Tangerine Calf has flagged and the cult is no longer growing. This is good.

    On the other hand, this effort to get the SBC back into the religion business may help keep the denomination afloat a bit longer. The good ship Donald is taking on water and I’d certainly be pleased to see the SBC – a denomination explicitly founded on racist beliefs – go down with him.

    Rats not quite deserting the sinking ship, but starting to eyeball the gangplank. That’s a good sign. I want the ship to sink; just not thrilled that the rats may survive. But you can’t have your cake and also let rats eat it. Or something like that.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    Well, thank you! I’d scanned the headlines and first paragraph in several of the stories on the media smorgasbord about this. Had not looked into the subtler parts that you point to.

    Here’s hoping that the straws in the wind that do seem to be wafting in good directions are in fact early indicators.

  6. Mu Yixiao says:

    There’s even more going on than the articles you quote talk about.

    From NPR yesterday:

    The leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. said today that Southern Baptists might be at the most important crossroads of a generation. The statement comes as leaders are deciding how to address sexual abuse in churches. Southern Baptist congregations are in Nashville this week for their annual meeting, and they’re grappling with some newly released secret recordings. The audio was made public by a leading pastor, trying to show the convention has been more concerned about preserving the core of the denomination than caring for survivors.

  7. @Mu Yixiao: This is true. And what you note is a major issue, including Stone’s behavior at the convention in regards to that issue.

  8. Scott F. says:

    This an example of the fact that the actual behavior of people is a bit more subtle and nuanced than may sometimes appear to be the case. At a minimum, the lack of a shift toward Trumpist populism is positive, even if one might find any number of areas to disagree with the SBC.

    Subtle, indeed. A “lack of shift toward Trumpist populism” strikes this Christian as a profoundly low bar for good behavior from any denomination, even a staunchly conservative one.

    I’m the son of a Methodist preacher man and I heard my dad sermonize every Sunday until I left home for college. I got a very thorough versing in the Bible, albeit the Methodists tend to focus on the Gospels. I heard a lot about the Christian virtues like faith, hope, and charity; not quite as much about Christian sins like greed, lust, and pride.

    A person of Trump’s character (is there even one of the seven sins he doesn’t check the box for?) or a political movement fashioned on his instincts should be anathema to anyone raised in the church I recognize. That Trumpism doesn’t repulse Christians from the GOP is beyond my understanding.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:
    I think we are discovering that a great many people don’t actually believe what they say they believe, to include 99% of the Republican Party, the majority of Christians and elements on the Left as well. Identity is easy, virtue is hard.

  10. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Your mileage surely varies, but I know plenty of Christians whose beliefs drive them to good and virtuous acts. Since virtue is indeed hard, if identifying in a sect helps you get there, that’s good by me. As long as the yardstick is how you act and not what you profess to believe, people can follow their own arrow.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:
    I agree. There are nuns out in the ass end of the earth working in terrible conditions to help people. I’ve always said that if Christians ever started acting like Christians I’d be hard put to complain about anything. I’m with Ghandi in that I admire Christ, it’s just the Christians I have a hard time with.

    I am all about judging people by their actions. It clarifies so much, doesn’t it? Of the people standing on soap boxes and loudly professing their beliefs not a tenth part actually live those professed beliefs, and that applies across the board, to all religions and non-religions. Any jackass can talk the talk. Very few can walk the walk.

  12. Kathy says:

    This feels a little like when the Central Committee of the USSR had one of their internal wars to pick a new General Secretary. With one exception, the new guy might be an improvement over the old one, but then you find out an improved tyrant is still a tyrant.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Scott F.: Virtue is hard. Perfection is unreachable. And the constant search for opportunities to jump out of the brush, point, and declare “See! You messed up! I KNEW YOU DIDN’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU SAY!” makes me wonder why I bother even trying.

    And then I think about what I might have become, dust myself off, ignore the Reynoldses, and go on doing as well as I can.