The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and other outlets published major articles previewing the 2021 annual Southern Baptist Convention. Now that the convention is over, here’s a more detailed overview of what happened from an insider’s perspective. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and an observer of Baptist politics over the last decade, I offer the following thoughts.
The 2021 SBC was essentially a family squabble worked out through a democratic polity on the national stage. This year, the squabble was composed of three interrelated issues: the aftermath of Russell Moore’s resignation, the SBC presidency, and denomination’s relation to critical race theory (CRT). Let’s look at those in turn.
In 2013, Russell Moore was appointed head of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm. Moore did a wonderful job speaking truth to power and working to show that the Bible is sufficient for all of life.
In May 2021, two letters were leaked. The first, written by Moore to the ERLC’s trustees, describes the attempts of one Southern Baptist politician-pastor, Mike Stone, to launch two secret investigations of Moore. In both cases, Moore was exonerated.
The effects of these investigations on Moore’s reputation, however, were significant. He describes having to answer his son’s question: “Dad, have you had a moral failing?” That’s Southern Baptist language for committing adultery.
Moore also describes a damning account of executive committee officers working to use the power of the purse to prevent sexual assault survivors from sharing their stories. The second letter, written to 2019-2021 Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greer, reiterates much of the first but adds a note of comradery between Moore and Greer, who both faced opposition in their efforts to advance conversations about racial reconciliation.
Written by a prominent ethicist with the courage to withstand the SBC’s strong pro-Donald Trump element and a consistent witness on racial reconciliation and sexual assault within churches, Moore’s letters, and subsequent resigniation, provoked an immediate response.
Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention can propose motions and resolutions demanding action and affirmations from the convention. This year, five proposed resolutions called for the executive committee to be investigated by a third-party organization.
Executive committee leadership had already announced they would be commissioning such an investigation through Guidepost Solutions, but in a surprising turn of events, the convention voted that the newly elected SBC president would appoint a task force to oversee that investigation. This means the executive committee will not be allowed to supervise their own investigation.
In the midst of this drama, questions arose about responses to sexual assault and abuse of power by trusted individuals. It appeared to some that a small group of leaders was trying to avoid accountability—an accountability forced onto them by the overwhelming majority of messengers. The SBC began with an air of tension, and its decision of how to respond to the executive committee comprised the first major chain of events at the 2021 convention.
Electing the President
In 2021, four men campaigned for the SBC presidency. Randy Adams from Oregon ran on a platform of changing the structures of funding North American missions. Mike Stone ran on an anti-CRT and blessing-of-Paige-Patterson platform. Al Mohler ran on name recognition and a willingness to oppose secular culture. Ed Litton emphasized racial reconciliation and continuity in leadership.
To win the election, a candidate must receive 50 percent of the vote; an initial split vote resulted in a run-off between Litton and Stone. Despite immense recognition in the convention as a hero of the Conservative Resurgence, president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and host of The Briefing podcast, Mohler lacked two key qualities to win pastors’ votes: he has spent his career in the academy, adjacent to the church; and he is a man of (metaphorical) war.
Mohler’s work has been key to advancing conservative theological scholarship, but that is not the work of a pastor. He has also cultivated an aura of consistent opposition to increased secularism. Mohler’s method of worldview analysis clarifies the differences between secular and Christian life, but does not provide a pastoral spirit preparing Christians to live without cultural hegemony. Mohler leans towards a culture warrior mentality rather than pastoral counsel. In the minds of many voting messengers, Mohler was not the unifying leader needed for this moment.
Stone deserves a bit more backstory. As pastor of a church with approximately 1,000 members, his candidacy for president seems odd, as it is typical for serious candidates to lead the largest churches in the convention, which total many thousands more members. Stone’s candidacy was made possible by his connection to Paige Patterson.
Three years ago, Patterson was ousted from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As a denominational statesman and fellow leader of the Conservative Resurgence alongside Mohler, Danny Akin, and Judge Pressler, Patterson’s shadow loomed large. His departure from seminary leadership resulted in the formation of the Conservative Baptist Network, of which Stone is a key leader.
Stone rode the wave of anti-CRT sentiment and nostalgia for Patterson’s leadership to a competitive position in the SBC presidential race. Then, just as his bid for office seemed to pit him as the conservative, CRT-hating candidate against Litton, Moore’s leaked letters described Stone as the chief agent in multiple false attacks on Moore’s character.
The SBC presidential race was really about three different visions of the Southern Baptist Convention: Stone would publicly rally the conservative base against CRT while possibly continuing the worst of backroom politics; Mohler would sound the charge of culture war; Litton would lead the convention towards racial reconciliation, equipping pastors to lead churches, and encouraging growth in evangelism and missions. When faced with the runoff choices of Litton versus Stone, the convention voted for Litton.
Casting Litton as a theological liberal or political progressive misunderstands the question; no liberal ran for the SBC presidency. Instead, the question was one of transparency, unity, and future vision for Southern Baptists.
Critical Race Theory
Woven through this year’s convention were multiple calls to ban CRT explicitly. To understand CRT’s role in Southern Baptist life, two factors merit attention.
First, the vast majority of Southern Baptists do not study arcane matters of academic interest or complexity; they trust pastors, seminary professors, and Christian academics to guard the SBC’s orthodoxy. Second, in 2019, the last year the SBC met in person, the convention adopted Resolution 9. Thousands of messengers voted to affirm that a thing called “intersectionality” could be used as a tool for gospel proclamation.
Since 2019, an internet cottage industry has grown up decrying CRT. Neil Shenvi is the most recent (and most helpful) of such public intellectuals, while Tom Ascol of Founder’s Ministries is perhaps the most prolific. By the conclusion of the convention, messengers voted to reject any “vain philosophy” that operates in contradiction to the gospel—an intentionally broad statement that could apply to CRT or any other philosophical position contrary to historic Christianity.
One year, one resolution, one convention at a time, Southern Baptists strive to follow Jesus. Hopefully, next year’s Anaheim convention will be more peaceful. But who knows? After all, our King did say, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.”