A generation ago, hard-core conservatives took over the largest Protestant church denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention, and birthed what we now call “the Christian right.” They overcame a tradition of congregational and state-convention autonomy to impose biblical inerrancy, the subordination of women in the pews and at home, and aggressively traditionalist views on sexuality and abortion as litmus tests for seminaries, clergy, and members. The SBC was a mainstay — perhaps the mainstay — for the Christian right, with leaders like Jerry Falwell (senior and junior) and Franklin Graham joining actual politician (and ordained Southern Baptist minister) Mike Huckabee in the vanguard. The ancient Baptist commitment to strict church-state separation was one casualty of the self-proclaimed “conservative resurgence,” as the new leadership of the denomination was ready to enlist its allies in the Republican Party to smite the wicked and bring closer the Kingdom of God.
By the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention’s reported membership had more than doubled since the 1950s; in 1967, their numbers outstripped Methodists for the first time. After an intensive period of consolidation of power that paralleled the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, a highly self-conscious group of religious ideologues had achieved domination of the SBC. It had become a loud, proud, and supremely confident bastion of religious, cultural, and political conservatism.
Now the edifice of Southern Baptist confidence is eroding. SBC membership has dropped for 13 consecutive years, with the sharpest drop occurring most recently. No longer can Baptists mock “liberal” mainline Protestants for membership declines allegedly attributable to their moral and theological laxity, such as their tolerance for feminists and gays. The conservative evangelical lurch into right-wing nationalist “populism” has become more fraught than ever thanks to the Christian right’s full surrender to the pagan cult of Donald Trump. And now the willingness of Southern Baptists to scornfully attack other churches for sexual impropriety has been exposed as hypocritical thanks to horrifying allegations that church leaders covered up sexual assaults and pedophilia by clergy and other church employees.
The crisis in this supremely self-righteous religious grouping is now being dramatized by challenges from some of its best-known public figures. In March, famed Bible teacher Beth Moore, who has supported sexual-abuse victims and expressed frustration about the limitations placed on women in the SBC, told Religion News Service she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” In May, the renowned head of the SBC’s public-policy arm, Russell Moore, stepped down from his post after nine stormy years, and he soon separated himself from the denomination entirely while bitterly charging its leadership with defending white supremacists and suppressing sexual-abuse allegations. (The Moores are not related.) And now the denomination’s largest congregation, home of perhaps the most famous Southern Baptist preacher of them all, Rick Warren, is directly challenging the SBC’s doctrine of men-only clergy by ordaining three women as pastors at his Saddleback Church.
The departure of the wildly popular Beth Moore from the SBC probably will have the most profound impact on people in the pews, who adored her teachings. And the willingness of an institution like Warren’s church to defy sexist doctrine could eventually break up the denomination entirely. But for the moment, Russell Moore’s anguished savaging of his former colleagues is creating what evangelical writer Peter Wehner is calling an “earthquake,” not just in the SBC but throughout conservative Christendom:
His departure was not primarily prompted, as many people had assumed, by his role as an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, although that had clearly upset powerful members within the politically and theologically conservative denomination. Instead, the letter suggests, the breach was caused by the stands he had taken against sexual abuse within the SBC and on racial reconciliation, which had infuriated the executive committee.
The timing is not coincidental: Moore’s main accusations were aimed at the denomination’s executive committee just before its next annual meeting, as the Washington Post explains:
Moore’s letter took direct aim at several members of the SBC’s Executive Committee, the group based in Nashville that runs the business of the convention and handles its finances. He described the “spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors by the Executive Committee itself,” as well as “a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”
Chief among them is ultraconservative Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who is trying to become the next ultraconservative SBC president.
Right-wing Baptist critics of both Moores (and of Warren, for that matter) like to call them “liberals” or secular-minded troublemakers furious about Trump’s massive popularity among the conservative evangelical rank-and-file. That’s hard to back up. Russell Moore has been a staunch defender of conservative Baptist doctrine, promoting “complementarianism” (the view that God eternally ordained distinct and exclusive gender roles, which is the basis for excluding women from the pulpit), the anti-abortion movement, opposition to same-sex marriage, and an expansive definition of “religious liberty” to protect church-based discrimination. His hostility to Trump has been partly based on the 45th president’s personal conduct (including an attitude toward women “of a Bronze Age warlord”) and partly on grounds that no secular politician should be idolized by believers. Beth Moore focused even more narrowly on Trump’s alleged sexual assaults and deferred to “complementarian” prejudices until it all but eliminated her ability to teach from the Bible.
But specifics aside, any protest movement focused on restraining the lordly prerogatives of the patriarchy on matters of sex and family, or on exposing and atoning for past and continuing white racism, is not going to be accepted by the MAGA wing of the SBC or by conservative evangelicalism generally. The reason Russell Moore’s “J’accuse!” in particular is roiling conservative Christians is that he is claiming they exhibit precisely the bad faith, idolatry, and hedonistic license they have so often accused those outside their ranks of manifesting.
All the right-wing heresies and the decline in SBC membership cannot entirely be separated. In one of the leaked letters that is creating such grief, Russell Moore recalled one SBC leader very recently saying, “The conservative resurgence is like the Civil War, except this time, unlike the last one, the right side won.” This coming from a denomination in which racial diversification was supposed to be the preferred strategy for offsetting membership losses! Late last year there was a damaging mini-exodus of Black pastors from the SBC when some of its seminary presidents insisted on issuing a statement aping MAGA attacks on “critical race theory.” Even considerations of self-preservation haven’t trumped Trumpism as priorities for church-based culture warriors.
It’s unclear whether the potential schism in the Southern Baptist Convention will spread to the breaking point, fizzle out, or get papered over. Similarly, the political fallout is hard to predict. But at a time when conservative white Christianity is the single strongest amalgam for the conservative populist political cause, which cannot afford many defections, the loss of unity and esprit de corps among the largest single group of evangelicals is no small matter. As the old liberal bumper sticker had it back when Southern Baptists flocked to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority political activist group: “The Moral Majority Is Neither!” The SBC, the Christian right, and the broader conservative movement don’t seem to be growing, and they have a lot of sins to confess.