As they headed toward Nashville for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, the cars with black pirate flags strapped to their windows — complete with smirking skulls and crossbones — were a good indicator that some of the passengers were spoiling for a fight.
These Protestant swashbucklers were followers of a coalition called the Conservative Baptist Network, whose leaders have warned of a leftward drift in a denomination known for its deep-rooted conservatism on issues both political and theological. Before the meeting, held this week at the Music City Center in downtown Nashville, CBN supporters filled their social-media profiles with Jolly Roger emojis and memes comparing themselves to gangs of marauding buccaneers. Their rallying cry heading into the gathering made their intentions clear: “Take the ship.”
This year’s convention — the first of the post-Trump era and one of the most highly attended in decades — would be an opportunity to stake their claim, insert leaders in positions of power, and make a public statement to the world that any hint of “liberalism” among this group of the faithful would not be tolerated. And though they ultimately fell short of their goals — with a more moderate pastor, Reverend Ed Litton, winning the election as the denomination’s president — their boisterous presence signaled that even rigidly conservative leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention will never be considered pure enough for some.
The Southern Baptist Convention is unlike most American religious denominations, in that it comprises more than 47,000 independent churches that exercise power from the bottom up, instead of following edicts delivered from the top. Members of these congregations — called “messengers” in Baptist parlance — gather annually to hammer out the entire year’s business: They elect leaders, vote on resolutions on issues of theology or politics, and, between battles, worship together. The Southern Baptist Convention’s power and influence rest on its size. Membership numbers clock in at more than 14 million people, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Under the convention rules, any messenger can speak from the floor. A formal power structure exists, but representatives from even the smallest church can swing the convention, if they can manage the system properly.
The meeting was held at a time of decline for Southern Baptists, who recently saw the largest drop in membership in a century. Since 2017, more than a million people have abandoned the denomination. Meanwhile, baptisms and donations have dropped. With a declining brand, some churches within the network have abandoned the name “Southern Baptist” altogether, opting to call themselves a “Family” or “Community” church. Even at the convention meeting, massive signs throughout the hallways blared the name “Great Commission Baptists” — a call to Christ’s commandment in the Gospel of Matthew to “go and make disciples of all nations” — instead of the original name.
On political issues, it is a time of division, as leaders grapple with deep-seated disagreements that have plagued the denomination for years. While some of the theological debates might seem obscure to outsiders, many of the denomination’s points of contention will probably sound familiar: Like the rest of us, they argue over critical race theory, white privilege, gender equality, the handling of sexual-assault cases, and who among them is deserving of “cancellation.”
“The issues that are roiling the SBC are the same issues roiling the Evangelical movement and to a certain extent, American culture,” said Daniel Darling, a former vice president at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The SBC, by virtue of being the largest Protestant denomination, makes the headlines, but these conversations and battles are making their way through every institution in American life.”
Members of the CBN, which has positioned itself to the far right of the already conservative parent organization, see themselves as direct inheritors of the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence” that rose to power in the 1980s and 1990s, which purged the denomination of leaders who were opposed to their strict interpretation of scripture. At the time, those in pulpits or seminary chairs who questioned the inerrancy of the Bible were forced out or left for other spiritual pastures. Some leaders who engineered that takeover have supported CBN’s new campaign, which has focused, among other issues, on racial reconciliation and the role of women in church leadership.
The CBN’s chosen presidential candidate this year was Reverend Mike Stone, a pastor from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia, who has spent months railing against critical race theory, which he claims has made its way into Southern Baptist seminaries and churches. Opposing Stone was Reverend Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, who is known for advocating racial reconciliation. Litton had the backing of many congregations of color and pastors like Reverend Fred Luter, the SBC’s first Black president. Litton also allowed his wife to speak alongside him during a sermon series on marriage, which fueled accusations from within the CBN that he supports allowing women to preach. (He denies the accusation.)
In the modern fights over the future of the SBC, race has taken center stage. At issue at this year’s meeting was a resolution passed in 2019 that addressed critical race theory and intersectionality, stating that these schools of thought could be “employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture.” The CBN’s leaders contend that the elevation of critical race theory reduces the Bible’s teaching on the subject and is therefore heretical.
The anti-CRT message resonated with Southern Baptists like Reverend Michael Wilhite, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Newtonville, Indiana, who came to support Stone.
“It’s just the opposite of the gospel. Under critical race theory, there is no hope. If you’re white, you’re automatically a racist because of white supremacy. But with the gospel there’s hope,” Wilhite said. “I don’t need critical race theory to diagnose what’s wrong with mankind. I’ve got the Bible, and it does a fine job doing that.”
In the months leading up to the meeting, Southern Baptists were roiled by public in-fighting among its leaders, strategic leaks of secretly recorded backroom conversations, and departures of high-profile teachers and leaders. Late last year, some predominantly Black churches discontinued their fellowship with the SBC, citing intractable disagreements over the handling of racial issues. In March, Beth Moore, a renowned teacher, announced that she no longer considered herself a Southern Baptist; and Russell Moore (unrelated to Beth), the denomination’s chief ethicist and most public-facing voice, not only quit his job, but cut ties to Southern Baptists completely.
After Russell Moore’s departure, private letters that he had sent to denominational heads warning about sexual abuse and racism within the SBC began to leak to media outlets. A former Moore staff member later released audio of SBC leaders, including Stone, resisting efforts to investigate sexual abuse.
Due to the Baptist’s radically democratic approach, members are accustomed to doing much of their family fighting in public. Their annual convention is broadcast online and the doors are open to journalists. The future is decided by the people in the room through paper ballots, and there are avenues to air grievances. Like any organization, deals are made behind closed doors — but if you’ve got a beef with a brother, there are rules for engagement in the rumble yard.
And there was much to fight about.
Early on Tuesday morning, before the election for SBC president, more than a thousand supporters of the CBN packed into a ballroom of a Marriott near the convention hall for a political pep rally. Speakers included representatives from the Family Research Council and Liberty University, as well as Carol Swain, a Black academic and author who has been a leading critic of critical race theory.
“Good morning. Are you woke?” Swain told the audience of mostly white men. “We are the ones that are truly woke … When it comes to apologizing for racism, I have lost count of how many times Southern Baptists have apologized, and I think it’s about time for someone to receive the apologies.”
The group faced a long day ahead: a series of grueling sessions inside the convention hall in which messengers debated resolutions and motions, and battled over limited agenda time.
Rod Martin, a veteran tech entrepreneur who helped found PayPal, delivered instructions. “You’re going to be in that room all day. Did you hear me? All day,” Martin said. “If you leave, I will hunt you down and shoot you. We have critical votes until the closing gavel today. Don’t leave.”
After breakfast, they joined more than 14,000 Baptists in the Music City Center convention hall, filling every chair and lining every wall around the room. Some wore red stickers that read “STOP CRT.” Messengers held their yellow voting cards in their hands, and tore off parts of it for each vote.
Four candidates were initially nominated for the presidency. Stone and Litton received the most votes, which led to a runoff. In the end, Litton defeated Stone by a mere 558 votes.
The messengers also passed a resolution to base racial reconciliation on Biblical teaching, but fell short of the CBN’s call to address and reject critical race theory by name.
In the end, the ship would not be taken.
“They’ve been sunk,” an SBC executive committee staff member gloated after the vote. “They’re down with Davy Jones’s locker.”
That sentiment is probably wishful thinking. After all, the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 20th century took years to come to fruition. There’s no indication that the debates over critical race theory will subside any time soon, or that CBN has any plans to stop after one loss.
“We will come back next year. And the next and the next,” Martin told supporters earlier that morning. “All the apostles but one went to a martyr’s death, and we’re going to be unnerved by a few mean tweets? No! We are here. We are rooted. We are here to the death! We will not stop. We will not stop. We will not stop.”