As Americans face a racial reckoning, a fierce political debate is emerging over how race is discussed in schools.
The Southern Baptist Convention tamped down a push from the right at its largest meeting in decades on Tuesday, electing a new president who has worked to bridge racial divides in the church and defeating an effort to make an issue of critical race theory.
Ed Litton, a pastor from Alabama, won 52 percent of the vote in a runoff against Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor backed by a new group called the Conservative Baptist Network that has sought to move the already-conservative denomination further right.
Litton, who is white, was nominated by Fred Luter, the only Black pastor to serve as president of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination.
Luter became the denomination’s first and so far only Black president in 2012. His election was seen at the time an historic shift for Southern Baptists. The group began as the church of slaveholders, had in the past supported white supremacy and segregation and some members resisted the Black civil rights movement.
“At a time when conservative Southern Baptist African American leaders are questioning their connection to the convention, Ed has uniquely shown his commitment to racial reconciliation,” Luter said, according to USA Today.
“My goal is to build bridges and not walls and to help people connect, talk through things, have honest, open discussions,” Litton said at a news conference following his election. “Not shutdown those conversations, but for all us to again return to the roots of what God calls us to do.”
In the end, the message that seemed to resonate with voters was that Stone — who supported a motion to repudiate critical race theory, an academic construct for framing systemic racism that has been a target of religious and political conservatives — was a divisive choice.
“We’re a family, and at times it seems like an incredibly dysfunctional family,” Litton said. “But we love each other.”
Delegates rejected a proposal that would have explicitly denounced critical race theory. Instead, they approved a consensus measure that does not mention it by name but rejects any view that sees racism as rooted in “anything other than sin”.
The measure also affirmed a 1995 resolution apologising for the history of racism in a denomination that was founded in 1845 in support of slavery and for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime”.
One white delegate urged the convention to denounce critical race theory by name, saying it held him “guilty because of the melanin content of my skin”. But another argued that the convention should not be swayed by a political movement that has already seen some state legislatures ban the teaching of the theory.
“If some people in this room were as passionate about the gospel as they are about critical race theory, we would win this world to Christ,” said James Merritt, chairman of the resolutions committee and a former convention president.
Several Black pastors have voiced frustration over critical race theory debates playing out in the SBC instead of the denomination confronting systemic racism itself.
In an enthusiastically applauded address, outgoing president JD Greear, himself a target of criticism, lamented “the slander, the distortion, the character assassination and baseless accusations” some Southern Baptist leaders have endured. While denouncing liberalism, he also criticised what he saw as power-seeking and divisiveness over secondary issues.
The Southern Baptist Convention cannot be a “cultural affinity group” or “voting bloc”, Greear said, but must focus on its spiritual mission.
On critical race theory, he said it arises from “a worldview at odds with the gospel”, but he heeded “leaders of colour who tell us that our denunciations of justice movements fall on deaf ears when we remain silent on the suffering of our neighbours”.
Pastor Bryan Kent of Compass Church in Mason, Michigan, commended Greear’s remarks, saying that if critical race theory “has an echo of truth among our brothers and sisters of colour … we should not be in such a rush to condemn”.
Several Black pastors have already departed the Southern Baptist Convention over what they said was racial insensitivity from overwhelmingly white leadership. Litton addressed pastors and other members of colour and stressed his appreciation for what they bring to the denomination.
“We want you here. We love you here. We can’t reach every man woman, man, boy, girl in this nation without you,” Litton said, according to USA Today. “I’m just so grateful for my brothers and sisters in Christ of colour … we have much to learn from them.”
The two-day meeting of 15,000 church representatives concludes on Wednesday when delegates will consider proposals for a sweeping review of the denomination’s response to sexual abuse in its churches, an issue that recently erupted with secret recordings and leaked letters purportedly showing that some leaders tried to slow-walk efforts to hold churches accountable and to intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue. Stone was among those specifically called out.
The convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring that “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor”.
Opponents had argued that it precludes the possibility of an abuser repenting and transforming, but proponents from the resolution committee emphasized a scriptural injunction that pastors be “above reproach”.
Jennifer Lyell, one of the several survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches who has been advocating for convention reforms, also applauded the result. “I know that no SBC President alone can resolve the systemic problems with abuse of power & unrepentant sin in SBC leadership,” she tweeted. “I am immensely thankful that a shepherd who listens was elected.”