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Southern Baptists’ Losing Faith

A statue of evangelist Billy Graham

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A statue of evangelist Billy Graham outside the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tennessee, 2017

Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) narrowly averted a takeover by an emergent hard-right faction of its constituency led by Pastor Mike Stone of Georgia. The SBC voted by a slim margin to install instead the moderate Alabamian minister Ed Litton as its new president.

It’s important to understand what “moderate” means in a Southern Baptist context: Litton is antichoice, does not believe women should serve in leadership positions in the church, and opposes same-sex marriage. To the right of Litton—to the right of the already right, that is—is a group of hardliners, with Stone at their head, who take the same positions but are also keen to take up the mantle of the political right on culture war issues, many of which have little or nothing to do with Biblical theology and everything to do with the organization’s demographics and politics.

Recently, this group has embraced the moral panic over Critical Race Theory, a niche body of legal scholarship that has been redefined by conservatives to mean any discussion of systemic racism, or, in some cases, any discussion of race at all. This has led to declarations from the pulpit that children are being indoctrinated in some form of Marxism at elementary school level, a proposition as far-fetched as the notion that your average fourth-grader might be learning about tax law or reading Michel Foucault as part of the core curriculum.

Nonetheless, this fantasy has taken hold of the imagination of the hard right within the SBC, and it is a reliable proxy for one of the underlying issues the convention is wrestling with: its legacy on race. The Southern convention was founded in 1845 as a protest against Northern Baptists who opposed slavery. Early Southern Baptists believed that slavery was God-ordained, justified by the Bible, and that Black people were inferior in the eyes of God. In 1995, on its 150th anniversary, the organization issued a resolution apologizing for all of this and actually acknowledged “systemic racism,” which many Baptist critics of Critical Race Theory now insist does not exist.

That the SBC is whiter, more conservative, and older than the general population is, in this light, no coincidence. There are approximately 14 million Southern Baptists in the United States, about 85 percent of whom are white, and 96 percent of whom trace their immigrant origins back three generations or more. Six percent of the convention’s membership is Black, and 3 percent Latino, while 60 percent of its membership consists of people who are Baby Boomers or older. The SBC’s numbers are in general decline, having lost more than 2 million members since 2006

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I, for one, am not optimistic that Litton’s election presages any kind of reform for the SBC. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church congregation in Alabama in the 1980s and 1990s, and I came to see how racism and misogyny were built into its teachings, some of which have little to do with Christian theology at all. I remember as a child hearing Biblical justifications for opposing interracial marriages and supporting segregation.

In the meantime, I was fed a steady diet of faux concern for people of other races in other countries who could be proselytized and preached to, but not invited to join the church back home. The refrain of a popular children’s song from that era ran: “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world. Red and yellow, Black and white, they are precious in his sight.” On the rare occasion that a nonwhite family wandered into a church service, enough was communicated to them that they never came back. For the eighteen years of my attendance, the church was all white.

Women were certainly not welcomed in leadership; “wives, submit to your husbands” was the doctrinaire position on equality between the sexes. Spiritual counselors acting as amateur psychologists dealt with issues of marital strife as a function of ungodliness, and women were encouraged to forgive men for a variety of abuses and to look inward to determine what they’d done to precipitate them.

I doubt whether any of this would be surprising to the supposedly moderate new president, Ed Litton, because these tenets were relatively common at the time. To this day, it’s not hard to find all-white Southern Baptist churches in Alabama that still teach these things.  

And therein lies the problem: if you remove the racism and the misogyny from the SBC, you remove its chief distinguishing features from other denominations. And there are plenty of other denominations for people who don’t like their theology wrapped in bigotry, or who, at the very least, want to veil their contempt for women and minorities. A couple of years ago, I visited a nondenominational megachurch in Houston, Texas, named Lakewood. It is housed in the former Compaq Center, a sports arena that was home to the Houston Rockets—a fact that Lakewood’s pastor, Joel Osteen, mentions liberally in his stock testimony, crediting his wife, Victoria, with realizing before he did that God wanted him to build his church there.

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Osteen is a second-generation pastor: his father, John, founded Lakewood in 1959. John was originally a Southern Baptist, but left the denomination to start a church that was more charismatic and Pentecostal, and, perhaps most importantly for its success, was available to millions via television broadcasts starting in the 1980s. The media-savvy Joel Osteen, who grew up editing video for his father’s televangelism operation, today offers something his Southern Baptist forebears do not: a slick, packaged version of social conservatism that doesn’t have the SBC’s racial baggage and is not obsessed with exclusionary categories.

Osteen also embraces a capitalistic view of Christianity that regards spiritual rewards in a very literal sense: if you follow God’s plan, you, too, can own your own Compaq Center. It’s a materialistic teaching very much at odds with much of Christian theology, which espouses modest living, but just as Southern Baptists have reinterpreted the Bible in ways they find politically expedient, so has Osteen. God really wants him to have his private jet, and this is just part of the abundance that Christianity promises. 

This style of prosperity gospel is appealing to a lot of people across the demographic spectrum. On Sunday mornings, Osteen’s congregation looks very white, but, as I discovered while attending throughout the week, it looks that way on camera largely because the church gets a lot of tourists for that service and they tend to skew white. The regular congregation itself is more reflective of the multicultural social mix of Houston and includes a lot of first-generation immigrants.

In the first service I attended, I sat next to a group of Latino teens in matching Thrasher T-shirts who were enthusiastically singing along to a jumbotron broadcast of the contemporary Christian group that was performing before the sermon. Osteen’s wife and sister are also ministers at the church, and Lakewood routinely invites other female ministers as guest speakers. (When I was there, Joyce Meyer, another megachurch millionaire prosperity gospel minister, was preaching while Osteen was on tour.) There are no whispers of disapproval about this, nor judgments about its propriety.

And there are many more flourishing and budding Osteens, many of them people of color—T. D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar are two of the best known and most popular. Their fast-growing churches offer traditional theology festooned with the trappings of modern self-help and wrapped in a promise of God-given wealth. The Lakewood bookstore is stocked with titles on diet and exercise and intermittent fasting, as well as on financial management and relationship advice. The message is simple: you can be healthy, wealthy, and wise—and this is what God wants for you, right now.

The emphasis on what can be done to improve the quality of life of congregants is also a differentiating factor from the old-time SBC. In my experience, when they’re not litigating what happened in the past, Southern Baptists tend to focus heavily on what happens in the next life, and less on what happens in this one. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I went home for my grandmother’s funeral, which had the usual cadence of a Southern Baptist ceremony: there were a few remarks about the deceased but nothing resembling a full eulogy, an insistence that the defining quality of the deceased (in this case, my “Mamaw”) was her devout dedication to God, and a little fire and brimstone thrown in for good measure. If you have not dedicated your life to Christ, you are invited to do so, and should you decline, you are reminded that the alternative is a very literal hell. But, you are assured, the deceased is in no danger of this, because she is at home with Jesus.

Occasionally, the minister may wave a hand over the coffin of the deceased, as the pastor did at my grandmother’s funeral, and declare, “She’s more alive now than she’s ever been!” (Mamaw had a sense of humor and would have found that line hilarious.)

This may be the best metaphor for why the SBC is not going to move on. Its constituency is shrinking because the convention has passed up opportunities to diversify its membership and promote women into leadership positions. Southern Baptists do not offer conservative Christians a compelling vision of how their lives might be better now, as opposed to in the hereafter.

The convention’s recent closely contested decision to prevent the hardliners’ takeover changes none of this. The hardliners are still there, but they now have competition from an even more uniquely American formula than the white Evangelicalism they’ve built around their socially conservative cultural politics for decades: a TV-ready Christianity of capitalism that excludes no one who’s willing to help build its earthly empire of megachurches. Followers of this credo are less likely to exploit culture war issues around synthetic terrors like Critical Race Theory because to do so would harm their churches’ growth prospects and alienate large swaths of their constituencies.

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If the election of Pastor Litton is the closest Southern Baptists can get to addressing the exclusionary nature of the convention and its failure to address racial reconciliation, that’s not progress; it’s stasis.

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