Southern Baptists signal move away from conservatism with election of youngest president in 37 years
According to Jonathan Merritt of the Atlantic, Southern Baptists are attempting to shred their deep ties with the Republican Party and to re-engage with modern culture, as evidenced by their election of 45-year-old North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear as denomination president of the largest Protestant group in the U.S. Greear’s campaign video called for a “new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
According to Barry Hankins, co-author of Baptists in America: A History, “The younger generation thinks differently than the old guard Christian right about culture and politics, and they are demanding change.” This change did not come to the Southern Baptists without a fight, however, as the fundamentalist wing nominated Ken Hemphill as an opposing candidate. Yet Greear carried 70 percent of the vote to easily win.
Greear won in part because of his reasoning that the denomination has failed to listen to and honor women and minorities in the past, and his vows to “include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” Helping the Southern Baptists come to grips that their old ways will have to change in order to survive are scandals involving two architects of what opponents called the “Fundamentalist Takeover.”
Judge Paul Pressler is facing a lawsuit alleging decades of sexual molestation, with two plaintiff alleging that the abuses began when they were just 14 years old. Additionally, there are two other affidavits claiming that Pressler committed sexual misconduct with young boys. Paige Patterson has rightfully drawn criticism for claiming that abused women should submit to their abusive husbands. Patterson was dismissed as president of Southwestern Seminary after failing to report at least two rapes during his tenure. More than 3,000 Southern Baptist women signed a petition calling for his removal.
According to Keith Harper, Baptist historian and co-author of SBC FAQ’s: A Ready Reference, “When Southwestern’s executive committee terminated Paige Patterson as president, Southern Baptists closed the book on the Patterson-Pressler era… It signaled an opportunity for something new—new leadership, new direction, and a new emphasis on engaging our culture.” The Patterson-Pressler era was marked by patriarchal positions, which included teachings that leaned at least towards encouraging victims of abuse to remain with their abusers.
At this year’s Southern Baptist Conference, there was even talk of a need to elect a woman president of the denomination, something that would have been deemed unthinkable merely ten years ago, and a #MeToo panel discussion, which was packed out.
There was a noticeable presence of African American preachers. The opening pastor’s conference was conducted by a Black pastor and 6 of the 12 panelists were people of color. As Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist Studies and Church History at Wake Forest University tells the Atlantic, “This predominately white denomination knows that it must reach out to Baptists of color, but if it takes Baptists of color’s concerns seriously, it is going to have to change in other ways, including politically.”
That change has been accelerated by the rise of Trumpism in the ranks of the GOP, a party the Southern Baptists have long tethered themselves to. A president who has openly committed adultery, pushes to dehumanize large swaths of the population and brags that he has never asked God for forgiveness cannot be reconciled with their stated values.
More evidence of this shift lies reactions to Vice President Mike Pence’s address to the convention, which was met with much resistance at the SBC, including mass walk-outs. It looks like the traditionally conservative denomination is finally undergoing a metamorphosis, but time will tell if it will last and become truly transformative.