The SBC is the Southern Baptist Convention, not the Southern Baptist Church. That’s an important distinction for anyone trying to make sense of recent developments in America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Take that phrase, for example, “largest … denomination.” Southern Baptists love to talk about the “largest” part. That’s a point of pride for them, something they regard as evidence of God’s blessing in contrast with the shrinking mainline Protestant denominations. But the word “denomination” doesn’t sit well with them. That’s not how Baptists are organized — to the extent it’s ever possible to describe Baptists as “organized.”
Baptists have “conventions” or “associations.” Mostly autonomous local congregations choose to work together for some common purposes — many of which require formal institutional structures — but it’s all a kind of nonbinding democracy. There’s no monolithic institution, no hierarchy, and no “headquarters.”
That was a forbidden word when I worked at the national offices of the American Baptist Convention in Valley Forge. We were never, ever, permitted to think of ourselves, let alone refer to ourselves, as being the ABC “headquarters.” We were employees hired by and working for the associating congregations of the “denomination,” not elders or bishops. That included the office of the ABC’s “president” — an executive who was elected by the congregations’ representatives to oversee their cooperative efforts, not to oversee them.
The main denominational functions of these Not Headquarters Baptist structures are their various “mission boards.” These date back to the early 1800s when Baptist congregations began joining together to commission and support missionaries — a task that could be done far more effectively and efficiently through formal cooperative structures than by autonomous congregations working separately. The work of those mission boards led to further forms of institutionalized cooperation — such as publishing houses for Sunday school curriculums, seminaries for training clergy, hospitals, nursing homes, and pension boards to handle the sometimes tricky financial aspects of compensation for ministers and missionaries.
These various “mission boards” are also literally “boards” in that they’re all overseen by boards of trustees or directors who are either directly elected by representatives of the associated congregations or appointed by the pseudo-denominational executives they elected. They’re designed and intended to be practical and task-oriented.
Think of your local public school board. That’s an elected office, but it wasn’t designed or intended to be a partisan or a political office. The job is just to ensure that schools are staffed and equipped to fulfill the task of educating the children of the community. The role of a school board member is to be scrupulously competent, not ideological. The only ideology that a school board requires, or can accommodate, is a commitment to quality public education.
That’s an oversimplification, of course, since everyone’s understanding of what “a commitment to quality public education” means is inherently tangled up with ideology. Nothing is ever wholly “a-political.”
But the plague of “politicized” school boards involves more than that. It’s the trend of turning school boards into something other than school boards — into proxies or additional fronts for the partisan political struggles of our national politics — eclipsing the primary purpose and function those boards were designed and intended to serve. We now have school boards that include elected members who are indifferent toward or even opposed to the steady, capable function of our schools — who view the idea of ensuring “quality public education” with hostility.
These anti-school school-board members didn’t seek election to keep the schools running well, they sought election in pursuit of the power they hoped would help them achieve some (mostly) unrelated political goal.
I think that’s helpful for understanding the so-called “conservative resurgence” that transformed the SBC in the early 1990s and the aftershocks of that which shaped its annual meeting last week in Nashville.
The biggest news out of that meeting was the three-way election to selection the convention’s next president. One candidate for the position was Al Mohler, who helped to lead that “conservative resurgence” and orchestrated a purge of all non-fundamentalists at Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville. Another candidate was Georgia pastor Mike Stone, representing a faction of fundies who believe that Mohler has gotten soft and now merits purging himself. And the third candidate was Alabama pastor Ed Litton, who ultimately won the run-off against Stone by a narrow margin.
Several outlets described the new president as a “moderate,” apparently because in contrast with guys like Mohler and Stone, anyone might appear relatively moderate. But there were no “moderates” — theologically or politically — on the ballot. As Greg Thornbury put it:
I know Ed, I’ve met Ed. Ed is a super-conservative guy, but The New York Times called him a moderate.
I mean, compared to what? Idi Amin? The SBC is already so far to the right that anybody who says anything in general about unity or love or kindness is viewed as a compromiser.
Or as Jacob Lupfer wrote: “Thinking [Litton] is anything other than a strident theological conservative reveals just how dramatically to the right the goalposts keep shifting.”
Veteran SBC-beat journalist Bob Smietana agrees:
Litton described himself as both theologically and politically conservative. Like Stone, Mohler and other candidates, he is an inerrantist and a complementarian — believing the Bible is without error and that men and women have different roles in the church and family.
Some critics of Litton have referred to him as “moderate” or liberal. The term “moderate” was used during the Southern Baptist conflicts over the Bible and theology of the 1980s and 1990s to refer to those who opposed inerrantists and other conservatives. …
The current debates among Southern Baptists are among varying conservative camps.
Like Mike Stone and Al Mohler, and like anyone else who had any chance of becoming the SBC’s next president, Ed Litton is extremely conservative politically and extremely fundamentalist theologically (which is really more modernist than “conservative,” because the left-right thing doesn’t track for theology, but fundies think of themselves as ultra-conservatives so in that sense that’s what he is).
When people refer to Litton as a “moderate,” then, they mean it in the sense that people like David French or John Kasich are now sometimes described as a “moderates.” It’s not about his political ideology or his theology, but about his respect for the role and function of institutions in opposition to the bull-in-a-china-shop lawlessness of someone like Donald Trump or Paige Patterson.
The choice between Stone and Litton was not a choice between “conservative” and “moderate,” or even a choice between “ultra-conservative” and “conservative.” It was a choice between the faction that views all institutions as mere tools for the will-to-power and the faction that respects the actual purpose and function of those institutions. Stone and Mohler, like Trump and Patterson, look at the various Southern Baptist mission boards and view them primarily as levers for power — seats that can be stocked with loyal foot-soldiers who will ignore their intended functions and use those positions to consolidate and concentrate authoritarian power.
Litton thus became the preferred candidate for SBC congregations who want those institutions to do what they were intended to do — to send missionaries, publish Sunday school materials, secure pensions for clergy, etc. And he became the preferred candidate who want the SBC to remain a “convention” and not a hierarchical denomination complete with a magisterium and a pope.
That’s the split here and the choice that Litton’s too-close-for-comfort election represented. Once you understand how the Paige Patterson faction of the SBC views institutions and power, you will appreciate that Thornbury’s “Idi Amin” line wasn’t quite as hyperbolic as it seemed.