— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) June 14, 2021
When most journalists, and thus most news consumers, think of Southern Baptists it’s highly likely that “compromise” is not one of the first words that leaps to mind.
But think about this for a moment. The current firestorm surrounding the Southern Baptist Convention’s national meetings in Nashville (tomorrow and Wednesday) centers on recent efforts by the convention’s leaders to find working compromises on two explosive issues in church life — racism and sexual abuse. In both cases, forces have pulled at convention leaders to move further to the right or to pursue more “progressive” options that would clash with realities in SBC life and polity.
Consider the hellish realities of racism and, in particular, the complex secular doctrines of “Critical Race Theory.” The SBC could praise CRT and embrace it or totally reject this school of thought. A compromise? That would stress listening to conservative Black church leaders and saying that CRT makes some points about racism in America that are valid, but that it also contains secular views of evil and race that do not mesh with traditional Christian beliefs. Hold that thought.
On sexual abuse, there are progressives who want the SBC to start some kind of national agency that would be granted powers to yank abusive clergy and congregations into line. This would clash with Baptist teachings on the autonomy of local churches. At the same time, others say SBC leaders have already gone to far while trying to create a centrist, compromise, stance — providing some guidelines for churches facing accusations of sexual abuse, as well as best-practices materials on how to help victims.
So, here is the journalism question to ponder in the next few days: Can national-level religion reporters find a way to avoid the classic two-army, left vs. right, template that dominates most news coverage of clashes of this kind? This would allow readers to see the larger picture — the attempt to find compromises between two extremes that please enough conservatives to prevent a damaging explosion in SBC life.
By the way, as I stressed the other day, journalists face the difficult task of finding accurate labels to describe the believers in these various camps.
Is this, as the newborn Conservative Baptist Network’s leaders argue, a battle between “real” conservatives and “woke” SBC folks who are trending toward liberalism? That language is going to be used in some debates in Nashville, since one of those leaders — the Rev. Mike Stone of Georgia — is a candidate to lead the national convention.
Thus, consider this passage in the Associated Press advance story:
How Southern Baptists feel about these issues will likely determine who is elected SBC president. Stone is part of the Conservative Baptist Network, which accuses Russell Moore, current president J.D. Greear and others of contributing to a liberal drift.
Meanwhile, Sarah Pulliam Bailey took this approach in her latest report (“A great ‘reckoning’ in the Southern Baptist Convention is about to take place“) for the Washington Post:
Voting members of the Southern Baptist Convention, who are called “messengers,” are expected to vote on several major issues, including race, women’s roles and how to handle sex abuse. Several observers said the meeting … would test the direction of White evangelicalism, which is not only the largest religious group in the country but which also has become a major political force in national politics in recent decades.
The newest Southern Baptist battle does not pit liberals against conservatives nor Democrats against Republicans. Instead, it mostly pits theological conservatives against those who are ultraconservative in a struggle for powerful positions within a denomination of 14 million people.
It’s fair to ask (a) if this split involves different kinds of theological conservatism (noting the role of Calvinism in these debates, for example) and (b) whether conflicts linked to the Donald Trump era are making it impossible to separate theology and political rhetoric.
But let’s look at some of the language being used linked to the two big issues — the sins of racism and sexual abuse. Here is a crucial chunk of that Post report:
Stone has complained that SBC leaders have bent over backward to apologize for the exit of several Black pastors over the leaders’ rejection of critical race theory (CRT), a framework academics use to understand systemic racism in the United States. …
Many expect Albert Mohler, the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, to receive a good portion of votes because of his name recognition. Mohler, who has a popular podcast and blog, went from being a Trump critic to a Trump proponent in 2020 and also led an effort among SBC leaders to oppose the use of CRT. That move led to the departure of Black pastors. Mohler was also considered a key architect of the historic “conservative resurgence.”
Note this wording: “to oppose the use of CRT.” Is that any use of CRT in these discussions or is that the use of CRT alone? That issue is crucial when discussing compromise language. Any why do the centrists — Black and White — in this SBC fight think CRT cannot be embraced as it is? Because it is an essentially secular lens for what the SBC considers a theological subject — systematic racism in person and public life.
… The SBC in 2019 voted in favor of a resolution on CRT stating that the framework could be used as a tool as long as it was considered subordinate to the Bible.
“Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” the resolution stated.
Will that resolution be shot down in at @SBC2021? That’s one of the biggest questions right now.
Meanwhile, on sexual abuse, let’s turn to The Houston Chronicle, which has played a major role in these SBC debates. This is from the advance story (“Southern Baptists to again meet under the cloud of abuse scandals“) by Robert Downen:
… When the Southern Baptist Convention last gathered, in 2019, it was on the heels of a Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News investigation, Abuse of Faith, that found hundreds of children had been abused by SBC church leaders and volunteers.
So, what did the SBC leadership try to do that has offended some people in the convention?
In response, SBC church delegates empowered a committee to make “inquiries” into churches that have been accused of mishandling or concealing sexual abuse, and they advanced an amendment to their constitution that would allow them to remove churches that’ve mishandled abuses or knowingly employed predators.
The SBC’s public-policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also overhauled the theme of its annual three-day conference to deal solely with abuse issues. The ERLC has also been developing and pushing curriculum on how to “care well” for the abused.
At that national conference, the ERLC allowed a crucial activist to directly criticize the Executive Committee, including Stone, its leader at that time. See this previous GetReligion post: “That SBC powderkeg — Clearly, executive committee is bitterly divided on sexual-abuse issues.”
Meanwhile, you can also see, in this Post report, the pressures inside the SBC to go further in its attempt to attack sexual abuse in the convention’s agencies, seminaries and, yes, its autonomous congregations.
Read this next passage carefully:
Survivors and advocates have been critical of the SBC’s response, and have called for more sweeping reforms. …
Multiple pastors say they’ll push for stronger abuse reforms, including for the SBC to undergo a three-year, third-party audit of abuse and responses to it. … The SBC’s executive committee shot down a similar proposal in 2008, saying it could not compel any of the SBC’s 47,000 autonomous and self-governing churches to cooperate with inquiries.
Todd Benkert, the Indiana pastor who is proposing the idea, believes that “local church autonomy” is not in conflict with his proposal.
There’s the heart of that debate, right there. Will compromise efforts continue in an attempt to mollify the activists, while still remaining acceptable to most SBC conservatives?
Stay tuned. And please let us know if you see coverage that is especially clear in portraying the three-way nature of this showdown.
FIRST IMAGE: SBC “messengers” holding up their voting cards during a recent national meeting.