At this week’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the tortured state of American conservatism is on full display
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting begins this week amid a swirl of scandals related to racism and sex abuse. Again.
For those who have not been following the current drama, enter “Russell Moore” into a search engine to get a flavor. As Moore stepped away this month from his eight-year run as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—a position that made him one of the most well-known voices in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States—his letters eviscerating a new right-wing faction in the SBC were released, leading to a media frenzy over the past several days. It is eye-popping indeed that in his May 31st letter, Moore linked other prominent Southern Baptists—including Mike Stone, a contender in this week’s SBC presidential election—to “gutter-level racism” and to mishandling sex abuse; Moore’s letter describes his SBC adversaries as displaying “undiluted rage” toward those attempting to hold sexual predators accountable.
As I discuss in my recently published book with Elizabeth H. Flowers on women and gender in the Southern Baptist Convention, it has always been a challenge, to say the least, for the SBC to position itself as a guiding light in modern American life while holding onto its deep roots in the patriarchal and white supremist South—a culture the SBC has helped shaped since its founding fifteen years before the Confederacy and then carried to the rest of the country as the denomination became a national behemoth, driving the rise of the Christian right itself.
Old-guard SBC conservatives, including Moore and his long-time ally and former mentor R. Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and one of the leading public faces of the SBC since the late twentieth century—have tried to walk the line of holding onto their base and expanding the denomination’s broader influence by rebranding their own patriarchal theology and speaking of “racial reconciliation.” But, just as conservatives in the Republican Party have been learning that the conservatism of the Reagan and Bush eras is no longer conservative enough for their party’s base, old-guard conservatives in the SBC have been facing their own uprising from the right.
Both Mohler and Moore built their careers riding the wave of the SBC’s late-twentieth-century “conservative resurgence.” As has been common since the resurgence, Mohler and Moore have long demonstrated their understanding of biblical inerrancy by working to root out evangelical feminism. Soon after he assumed the presidency of SBTS in 1993, Mohler oversaw the forced resignation of those deemed too liberal, including theologian Molly Marshall (who went on to become president of the American Baptists’ Central Seminary). Moore joined the faculty of SBTS in the early 2000s, celebrating what he saw as the populist crusade that had given rise to his good fortune. In 2006, Moore defended the SBC’s opposition to evangelical feminism—and all other forms of feminism— stating, “Patriarchy is good for women, good for children, and good for families.”
Mohler, Moore, and their network believe that a key to pushing back egalitarian cultural trends is to be “winsome” patriarchs. Efforts to win over skeptics have included the development of complementarian theology, which emphasizes that patriarchy is an arrangement of God-given gender roles beneficial to both men and women, who, they argue, have equal value even as men retain spiritual authority over women. Both Mohler and Moore have been deeply involved in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, founded in 1987 by conservative figures in several denominations, including architects of the SBC’s conservative resurgence, and which has helped embed complementarian theology in the heart of conservative American Protestantism.
Being “winsome” has also meant giving more emphasis to racial equality, even as gender equality has been scrapped. Both Mohler and Moore have supported the SBC’s 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation and subsequent attempts to address racism in the denomination. Such efforts to be winsome have ultimately put both of them in the crosshairs during the SBC’s continued rightward march. Being a winsome conservative is a mismatch with the mood of the Trump era.
And so, remarkably, both Mohler and Moore have become targets of SBC populism. Once again, the SBC has shown itself to be a mirror of the U.S. political landscape, from anguished struggles around race and gender to the messiness of democratic politics itself.
The latest battle in the SBC features a relatively new player: the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), founded on Valentine’s Day 2020. The day the network was launched, founder Brad Jurkovich proclaimed that the SBC needed a new conservative resurgence. Given that Southern Baptists have been central to white evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump, and that the focus on biblical inerrancy and anti-feminism codified in the 2000 revision of the SBC’s statement of faith continues to be sacrosanct for any Southern Baptist leader, this came as a surprise to not a few, both inside and outside the SBC. As historian Randall Balmer wrote in response to the CBN’s announced effort to save the SBC from its “liberal drift”: Who knew?
Mike Stone, a steering council member of the CBN who recently served as chair of the SBC Executive Committee, has been putting pressure on Mohler and Moore as part of this new resurgence. In January 2021, Stone announced that he would run against Mohler for the presidency of the SBC. Stone frames himself as the candidate who speaks for ordinary Southern Baptists who are “tired of being called racists, legalists, and Christian nationalists.” The CBN enthusiastically endorses Stone for this powerful position: He is the man who “holds that the Bible is the only analytical tool he needs, leading him to reject unbiblical ideologies such as Critical Race Theory.”
In addition, Stone chaired an SBC Executive Committee task force that released a report in February 2021 critical of Moore’s leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The task force report alluded to Moore’s anti-Trump stance, pressing him to “refrain from opposing specific candidates for public office.” The report also called for the ERLC “to demonstrate a greater appreciation for how its positions, including social media usage, affect the spirit of cooperation among Southern Baptists.” Given recent developments, it is certainly possible to read this as a directive to Moore to stand down from his calls for SBC accountability in addressing issues of sex abuse.
Following the release of the task force report, Moore announced in May that he would be leaving the Commission to join the staff of Christianity Today, which has no affiliation with the SBC. He then wrote the (now public) letter, essentially throwing Stone under the bus.
Mohler, on the other hand, has been working hard to maintain his power in the SBC. He made a media splash in April 2020 when he reversed his position on Donald Trump and publicly committed himself to supporting him—just as Mohler himself was launching his SBC presidential campaign. Attempting to navigate the new political fault lines, he promises that if elected SBC president, “I will do everything within my power to make certain that Southern Baptists are not ‘woke’ and not mean.’” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website currently features the candidates for the SBC presidency, all of whom dutifully commit themselves to the complementarian orthodoxy enshrined in the SBC confessional document. Mohler goes a step further to emphasize that he is the candidate who “had a personal role in the development of that statement,” a statement that insists that “the office of ‘pastor’ is limited to men as qualified by scripture.”
At this week’s SBC meeting, Southern Baptist delegates will decide if they will give Mohler the chance to lead the convention. Whether or not Mohler wins this particular skirmish, all signs are suggesting that the SBC will continue to be mired in its racist and sexist heritage.
Karen K. Seat is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor, with Elizabeth H. Flowers, of A Marginal Majority: Women, Gender, and a Reimagining of Southern Baptists (University of Tennessee Press, 2020).