Southern Baptist Convention president Ed Litton resurfaced on Twitter this past week after the release of a new interview where he discusses the fallout of his sermon plagiarism scandal. The accusations, which were originally limited to a single J. D. Greear sermon, quickly ballooned until it became embarrassingly apparent that Litton was stealing work verbatim on a mass scale, not just from Greear but from Tim Keller. So complete was the theft that original footage of Greear could be perfectly overlaid and synchronized with Litton’s “covers,” even down to personal anecdotes and side jokes. To make things worse, it further emerged that Litton’s co-pastor Taylor Anderson was practicing the sincerest form of flattery and likewise “borrowing” from Greear.
Yet even now, in the face of this overwhelmingly damning public evidence, Litton resolutely continues to deny any wrongdoing. The best that could be said of him at this point is that he is unconditionally committed to his own bullshit. In this latest interview, he insists that he didn’t plagiarize but reluctantly confesses there might have been “sin” in “not crediting J. D.” (This prompted Jake Meador to tweet in all caps “THAT IS WHAT PLAGIARISM IS!” I give props to Jake for consistently calling BS here.) Litton goes on to say he’s currently “fasting” from other pastors’ sermon content, since, he smirks, he seems to have a “problem” with “remembering what he hears.” Ha, ha.
In an earlier interview, he told a long seminary story about a fellow student who compulsively cited every source in a sermon for a class. The professor had told the student that when a miner digs out a diamond, he displays the diamond, not the pickaxe and shovel he used to dig it out. The point finally being that Litton seems to think his is an analogous situation.
Either that, or he knows perfectly well that it’s not. He just calculates that he has enough blue sky and crony cred to get away with it.
The sad thing is, he might not be wrong. The loudest voices currently calling him on the carpet are to his disfavored right. And he’s fresh off a presidential win that was hailed as something of a coup. Removing him from ministry now would throw that fight wide open again, launching a yet-more-bitter turf war where the specter of a Mike Stone victory would loom even larger. And who with any leverage in the SBC right now wants that?
If I sound angry about this, it’s because I am. I’m an Anglican, so technically I shouldn’t have a dog in this particular internecine Southern Baptist fight. But it always disturbs me when I see misconduct this blatant excused and enabled in broad daylight by people who claim to be Christians. The hypocrisy is especially grating from the sort who harp endlessly on Public Witness, etc. How is it good for our Public Witness to wink at the sort of thing that can get students kicked out of seminary? The sort of thing we penalize high schoolers for at the school where I teach, including students from tough blue-collar backgrounds? We don’t give them a pass. We set standards for them, in hopes that this will guide and shape their character.
The operative word here being “character.”
Part of what’s at work here, I think, is that certain evangelicals are only tuned in to particular frequencies of sin. They’re attuned to spectacular falls from grace due to sexual scandal, but “white-collar sins,” white-collar lies, slip under their radar.
To give another example, I could name prominent voices in evangelical New Testament scholarship who have equivocated and at moments outright lied in presenting their research, in order to keep up an illusory narrative of their views for their evangelical audience. One in particular who, when profound flaws in his book-length thesis were exposed and refuted at length, was unable to handle the criticism, resorting to cheap credentialism and sneering dismissal. But, as with Litton, this apologist has nobody in his tribe willing to hold him accountable and demand a higher level of scholarly integrity. Meanwhile, since it involves questions of biblical scholarship, it takes a certain amount of time to tease out and explain precisely wherein lies that lack of integrity. A general audience who can immediately grasp the sensational shock of a cheating pastor is going to tune out halfway through such an explanation.
But integrity matters, in all spheres. Honesty matters, in all spheres. Christian ministers, scholars and apologists are called to model what they preach, and if they can’t do so consistently, they are called to remove themselves from their pedestal before they bring yet more shame to the name of Christ. This applies equally to the philanderer, the sermon plagiarizer, and the academic fraud. We do nobody any favors, least of all sinners themselves, by focusing only on the splashiest and sexiest sins while sins no less corrosive and deadly get a pass by virtue of dullness.
If our evangelical institutions had any integrity, Ed Litton would have been invited to step down from his presidency and perhaps even his pulpit months ago. The people who had backed him as a candidate would publicly mourn and call for accountability. The people who had built their lives around working for him would likewise mourn, then take their gifts and callings elsewhere where they could be employed in the service of men who deserve them.
If. If only.