Hi and welcome back! Lately, a new fight’s brewing in the upper echelons of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This one speaks to the coming holy war for evangelicals between pretendy-progressives and die-hard, old guard fundagelical culture warriors. And one of the SBC’s oldest, most powerful subgroups has found itself caught in the crosshairs of the battle royale of these two factions. Today, let me show you how the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) is fighting for its life lately — and why that fight represents just one more sign of the SBC’s fully-deserved decline.
(Note: It’s important to note that the two factions I’ll be describing today aren’t the only ones that exist in the SBC. A very, very small contingent of SBC leaders are genuine progressives. Mostly, this faction consists of Black pastors and their allies. This faction has NEVER been okay with Donald Trump or Trumpism as a whole, and they tend to stay out of the culture wars. But the SBC’s doing its best to chase these folks out of their denomination.)
(Abbreviations: EC = Executive Committee. ERLC = Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. SBC = Southern Baptist Convention. WTAF = today’s story.)
Everyone, Meet the ERLC.
Within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), we find an absolutely hilariously-misnamed subgroup called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC. In one form or another, it has existed for more than a century. It began life around 1907 as the Christian Life Commission. The name changed in 1947. During the Conservative Resurgence, the ERLC polarized along with the rest of the tribe.
Officially, the ERLC’s high muckety-mucks spend their days doing their level best to destroy Americans’ civil liberties and human rights so fundagelicals can take control of everything — and convincing the flocks in their churches that this is exactly what Jesus wants Christians to do. I’m not kidding there, or exaggerating. When fundagelicals talk about “religious liberty,” they actually mean enshrining their wackadoodle fundagelical rules and social structure into law at all levels of government. So that’s the “religious liberty” part of the ERLC’s name.
At the same time, they wage their tribe’s culture wars in the trenches of society and makes sure churches toe the line in those wars. To do these things, the ERLC gins up moral panics and hammers hard at their tribal enemies. And these activities make up the “ethics” part of the ERLC’s name.
The ERLC claims credit for a lot of legislation. However, just looking at one of them, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, I can see that a lot of people and groups were involved there.
Broken clocks, twice a day, something something.
How the ERLC Rolls.
You can probably guess I’m not super-thrilled with the ERLC. I’m not. In a lot of ways, it represents exactly why the SBC damned well should be in decline. Not one Southern Baptist has ever been made a better person through anything the ERLC has ever done — especially not since the late 1980s/early 1990s. They actively work against human rights so often that one must suppose it’s an accident when they bumble their way into supporting something genuinely good for anybody but themselves.
Whenever a very authoritarian group emerges from the muck of extremist religion, we should expect scandals to accompany them. And oh boy, the ERLC delivered.
In this case, their previous top leader, Richard Land, delivered. At one point, Time once called this guy one of the most influential evangelicals in America. Dude seriously sees himself as a grand paladin fighting against satanic liberalism.
Consider Land part of the faction we’ll call the Old Guard culture warriors. Indeed, Richard Land fully embraced the Conservative Resurgence and has never met a culture war talking point he didn’t internalize.
Right after Sandy Hook, Richard Land explained his oh-so-very fundagelical reinterpretation of the Golden Rule:
If I find that someone is trying to do harm to someone else, I believe that I have a moral and Christian obligation to do what ever [sic] I can – with the least amount of violence necessary – but if necessary, lethal violence to stop them from harming others. That’s loving my neighbor as myself. That’s doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.
Amazingly, the ERLC didn’t summarily fire Richard Land for saying that.
No, our paladin LARPer got fired in 2013 for saying something else that was shocking, reprehensible, utterly hypocritical, and disgusting. And racist too! And that’s not all!
Christian Love from Richard Land of the ERLC.
In 2012, Richard Land decided to offer an opinion on media coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder. Specifically, he accused Barack Obama and civil rights leaders of capitalizing on this young man’s death to get more votes. Seriously.
This happened on his podcast, Richard Land Live! (Yes, the bang’s there in the original.) When a bunch of Southern Baptist leaders, including Dwight McKissic, took serious exception to his repulsive accusation, Land just doubled down on it — and accused his critics of worshiping “the false god of political correctness.” (That’s a good example of DARVO, btw.) King Richard Land would not “bow” to this false god like his critics were! No no, not him! He was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and all that!
Then, someone figured out that Land had actually plagiarized almost all of his presentation on that podcast, and that in fact he plagiarized rather a lot of stuff from a lot of other people without crediting them.
In response to the twin scandals, the ERLC did one of those fundagelical dog-and-pony-show pseudo-investigations and Land finally lost his job. Their report clearly tried to make it sound like both offenses had led to their decision. (To me, it felt like they were putting Land’s racist conspiracy-theorizing on the same shelf as his plagiarism.)
Next, the ERLC hired Russell Moore to lead them.
Russell Moore and the Pretend Progressive Faction.
Knowing how Richard Land got fired, I can easily understand why the ERLC chose Russell Moore as their next president.
Oh, Moore is still a one-hundred-and-crazy-percent culture warrior. He is, after all, the Chairman of the Board for that completely creepy and misogynistic Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. They wouldn’t have hired him if he’d been anything less than a die-hard culture warrior.
But Russell Moore clearly fancies himself more evolved than the Richard Land-style culture warriors.
See, he’s not a brash, bombastic, in-your-face, make-the-libs-cry type of culture warrior. Oh, sure, I mean he definitely holds literally every one of the same culture-war opinions as Richard Land did and does. He’s just a little more aware of the disastrous optics involved in saying the quiet stuff out loud like Land did all the time.
Ultimately, Russell Moore thinks there’s a nice way to destroy human rights and civil liberties. Worse, he thinks there’s a viable way for fundagelicals to impose their demands and social structure on others in a way that won’t result in scandals springing up everywhere constantly — and maybe to peel systemic, entrenched, vicious racism from Southern Baptist hearts through sheer Jesus Power. He’s flat wrong in all cases, but he flatters his faction into thinking it could happen.
Consider Moore part of the faction of Pretend Progressive culture warriors.
And even this pretense of progressiveness makes him the worst enemy of the Old Guard faction.
How Russell Moore Already Almost Got Fired.
As I mentioned at the time, Moore was hardly the only fundagelical criticizing Donald Trump. And like the rest of the Pretend Progressives, Moore criticized Trump for exactly the wrong reasons. His main problem with Trump was that he wasn’t completely sold on Trump’s conversion to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ or his loyalty to the culture wars. In particular, Moore distrusted Trump’s sincerity regarding abortion.
To express their displeasure with Russell Moore, a few churches in the SBC began withholding donations from the SBC’s “umbrella fund,” the Cooperative Program (CP).
With the SBC’s ongoing declines in membership and credibility, donations are becoming more important than ever. So this reluctance to donate was serious.
In early March 2017, in response, the EC commissioned a big “escrow study” about the ERLC. This was an attack on the legitimacy of the ERLC, nothing less.
Following the ERLC Money.
The Cooperative Program bankrolls the ERLC itself, along with a lot of other SBC projects. The SBC’s leadership also noted that they’d had 49 churches withdraw from the denomination over the previous year, compared with the 6-ish that did most years. They didn’t know that these churches were leaving over Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump, but they suspected so.
About a week after that initial escrow study’s announcement, Frank Page, the leader of the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC), called Moore on the carpet. (This happened right before Frank Page was forced into retirement over his own sex scandal.) Page definitely qualifies as an Old Guard SBC leader, so I’m sure this meeting made Moore very nervous.
Moore emerged from that meeting still employed, though chastened. And in June 2017, that escrow study came back fine.
The damage had been done, however.
Russell Moore had revealed himself as a Pretend Progressive in a denomination that’s starting to form factions in preparation for a fight over the heart of the denomination itself. So his affiliation tainted the entire ERLC.
There might be a lot of Pretend Progressives in the tribe and some might be highly placed (I’d consider J.D. Greear one). But I strongly suspect that the Old Guard outnumbers them — and they are certainly well-entrenched. Many of the Old Guard are veterans of the Conservative Resurgence years ago, and they know that this upcoming battle ain’t nothing compared to that one.
After this dust-up, the Old Guard as a whole began to regard the ERLC warily.
To be fundagelical is to be authoritarian. And to be authoritarian is to never, ever relax one’s guard — especially around known or suspected enemies.
And Now: The ERLC Battle Royale.
We’re Southern Baptists. We have a long history of train wrecks and never seem to tire of them.
I know that was a LOT of lead-up. But hopefully it will be worth it.
The section above describes events in 2017. Now let’s jump to March 2020. That’s when the EC decided to begin a dog-and-pony investuhmagayshun to totally “review the past and present activities” of the ERLC. They began this review specifically because unnamed, anonymous people expressed concerns about the ERLC. The EC was nervous that this concern might lead to withheld donations again.
What’s wacky is that I don’t think the EC actually has the power to do anything to Russell Moore or the ERLC. It’s not hard to find various Baptists expressing outrage over this organizational overreach. But the SBC’s overlords didn’t care. They wanted blood.
On February 2, Baptist Standard released a story about what that review had discovered: “Report calls ERLC ‘impediment’ to Cooperative Program.”
Oh. My. DOG.
Here’s what happened:
The EC sent out questionnaires to all 41 state conventions in the denomination. (BTW, the SBC used to have 42 state conventions. In 2018, they threw the Washington, DC convention out on its ear for being way too nice to gay people. You can see the number flip here, on p. 136.)
About a quarter of those conventions actually replied.
But it was enough to confirm a few things for the EC.
What Could Happen Now.
The EC, as noted, doesn’t really have the power to defund any entity within the SBC. I’m not even sure Ronnie Floyd could fire Russell Moore, any more than Frank Page could have. But dang, the EC does have one power that must have the ERLC’s paid staff quaking in their booties right about now:
At the SBC’s big Annual Meeting each year, the EC is the group that writes up and recommends the SBC’s budget for the year ahead.
While they can’t just set a subgroup’s budget at zero, I don’t think, the EC could hurt the ERLC at least, and also humiliate them by forcing them to explicitly justify their existence and budget.
Money’s at a serious premium in the SBC these days. I see signs of infighting around money in a number of subgroups within the denomination — and lately, it always seems to shake out along the same factional lines: simpering Pretend Progressives and snarling Old Guard. In addition, the next candidates for president of the denomination are also shaking out along those lines. It’s been interesting to see how subgroups and specific leaders within the SBC are aligning.
The Executive Committee (now led by Ronnie Floyd, a culture-warrior himself and definitely Old Guard) has brought the hammer down on the ERLC. Whether the EC is allowed to do it or not, they’ve done it.
But the ERLC is one of the most venerable subgroups within the SBC. I’m sure they won’t go down without a fight.
Get your popcorn ready for their Annual Meeting this year, is what I’m sayin’.
The Purely Human Nature of the SBC’s Squabbling.
Nothing supernatural is going on at the SBC — or ever has.
Every single time I hear about yet another round of bickering and arguing in this huge denomination, I look to see if any gods have shown up to help out or say anything. So far, none ever have. And yet every single one of the men involved in these squabbles thinks that Jesus Christ himself is 100% behind him and approves 100% of each of his servants’ tactics and goals.
Moreover, the leaders of this denomination as a whole at least say that they care enormously about doing what their imaginary friend wants them to do. They certainly make a big preening show of talking to the ceiling and asking for divine advice, or studying the mythology book they mistakenly think contains true demands, instructions, and promises from their god. And yet somehow, it’s rare to find any two SBC leaders who agree completely with each other, and one can best compare the denomination’s infighting to a really dysfunctional group of middle-school students.
Goodness! I reckon if the SBC really is receiving any input or guidance from their god, then humanity’s much better off without the lot of them. Cuz going by the SBC’s own behavior, Jesus clearly can’t find his own ass with both hands, a roadmap, a light-up miner’s helmet, and a mission statement.
Christians’ squabbles constantly reveal how untrue their claims are. Maybe the leaders of the SBC should spend a little time figuring out exactly how to tell what their god wants them to do before they try to rule others with iron fists.
NEXT UP: Speaking of ruling with an iron fist, Hillsong’s leader, Brian Houston, recently told us something we already knew about the nature of his megachurch. And this time, I don’t think the people he’s hurt are buyin’ what he’s sellin’. Good. See you tomorrow!
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Last notes: We’ll be talking more soon about these two factions I’ve been noticing lately, especially as we cruise into the Annual Meeting season and the presidential candidates get louder.