IIs the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest and possibly most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States, held together by culture wars rather than biblical teaching? That’s the question in recent weeks, when thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.
Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism one last chance to save white Christian America: theology and, for Trump, Christian morality, to hell.
I am a historian of Evangelical Christianity and have written a lot about Southern Baptists. Although I am not a Southern Baptist, for the past two decades I have often defended them as serious about theology, even when that theology is often shaped in part by cultural concerns. By 2020, he had come to believe that CBS right-wing conservatives were not only subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but that they had in fact lost themselves as Baptists.
The most striking example of this is Al Mohler. Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and possibly the leading intellectual of the Southern Baptist community. During the 2016 election, Mohler was never a Trumper, saying the candidate was “below the benchmark level of human decency” that Christians could accept and vote for. His comments It couldn’t have been more forceful. Mohler was waging what appeared to be a losing battle: In 2016, Trump was elected with the support for of about 80% of white evangelical voters and the endorsement of some of the SBC’s most powerful and respected Conservative leaders, including Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham and others.
However, in 2020, even Mohler had supported Trump’s re-election. She said she changed her mind because of Trump’s court appointments and the prospect of ending abortion on demand, but others saw it differently. Jonathan Merritt of the Atlantic speculated that Mohler supported Trump because he wanted to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which would be the greatest achievement of his career. Regardless of whether one accepts Merritt’s assessment of Mohler’s motives, it seemed undeniable that if Mohler had remained the face of opposition to Trump, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to win the SBC presidency. No one expecting to be CBS president could be seen as an opponent of the things that Trump represents in the eyes of white evangelicals: Christian nationalism, white Protestant America, religious freedom, immigration restriction, restriction abortion, etc.
Then something interesting happened at the SBC annual meeting last week. The ultraconservative, The outspoken pro-Trump candidate, Mike Stone, and the centrist candidate calling on CBS to move away from the culture war and focus on evangelism, missions, and racial justice, Ed Litton, finished in the top two and it was a second round; Mohler finished in a distant third place. Mohler’s intellectual approach to culture warfare may have proved too elitist for a denomination and a nation, now divided by populism. Or people on both sides just saw him as having lost his moral authority due to his change from never-Trump to pro-Trump.
The less political candidate, Litton, triumphed in the second round and became president of the SBC by a dramatically narrow victory. He defeated Stone by just 556 votes, out of about 14,000. Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice in culture, independent of the Republican Party, won this round, but this does not mean that CBS has turned a corner.
The divide between that faction and the more explicitly right-wing pro-Trump faction runs deep, though it’s not really about theology. Both sides are conservative and orthodox on the central themes of evangelical Christianity: that Christ appeared on earth as God in flesh; that he was crucified, died, and was buried for the forgiveness of sins; that he literally rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, where he reigns with God the Father; and that it will come again in a glorious Second Coming. Both parties also oppose same-sex marriage and support the submission of the wife and the prohibition of the shepherds, and believe in an “infallible Bible”, although they disagree on how to apply its teachings to the culture. As outgoing CBS president JD Greear argued in his farewell sermon last week, the differences between the two sides are not theological. Rather, it is culture and culture war, until the end.
One side, the side that has temporarily regained control of CBS, wants to focus on evangelism and missionary work. They want to “testify” about positions like abortion and gay marriage, but also about injustices related to race, gender, immigration, and poverty that adhere to the Bible and not to a particular political party.
The other side, the one that lost last week, wants to be more political, align more explicitly with the Republican party of the Trump era, and aggressively pursue culture wars. I think they are motivated by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the white identity politics of the Republican Party, and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe that white Christian America is besieged and surrounded by a hostile secular liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the very existence of the Christian faith in America and whose ideologies are seeping into CBS, as Mike Stone accuses. As he said while preparing for his career in the SBC presidency: “Our Lord has not awakened.”
Historically, critics of Southern Baptist conservative leaders have argued that CBS conservatives are not really motivated by the Bible as they claim, and that theology is a kind of ruse for a cultural and political program: that they effectively misled the people making them think they were really worried. about the Bible when it came to abortion, teaching evolution in schools, prayer in schools, gender issues in marriage and ministry, etc., which were his real concerns. Conservatives resented this accusation, but now it increasingly feels like an accurate summary of the politicking state of right-wing Southern Baptists.
Unfortunately for evangelical Christianity, the future of CBS likely hinges more on the future of the Republican Party than on the theology or internal affairs of the denomination. Having joined the Party in the 1980s, CBS finds it difficult to free itself from the clutches of the right-wing culture war, despite the efforts of outgoing President Greear and incoming President Litton. As Greear said in his outgoing address: “When the church gets into bed with politics, the church gets pregnant and the offspring don’t look like our heavenly Father.” This should be a warning to other evangelicals.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism