How the Southern Baptist Convention Rejected Populist Fundamentalism
“This is a seminal moment. We are deciding as a people if we’re going to stay on target. Are we going to be distracted by politics? Or are we going to get serious about the gospel and the difference it makes, the transformational difference it makes in people’s lives?”
— Pastor Ed Litton, newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention
In the 1960s, William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk stood against the John Birch Society. There were many points of disagreement, but the main was the Birchers’ rabid conspiracy theories which claimed that the civil rights movement and much of the U.S. government was secretly in cahoots with America’s Communist adversaries.
The details of this history are messy and complicated. But the overarching story is true: Conservatism as a movement was saved, renewed, and refocused for the next 30 years and Buckley’s rejection of the Birchers and their ilk was joined by the next three Republican presidents.
Over the last five years maybe people have wondered if such a renewal could happen again. Could a populist insurgency against a mainstream conservative institution still be defeated? And if so, how?
Well, last week in Nashville, Southern Baptists demonstrated that it is possible to defeat a well-organized populist-fundamentalist takeover. The lessons from this moment are worth studying.
Since 2015, populist insurgents have found it easy to take control of existing conservative institutions. The playbook is simple: Accuse your opponents of being in league with the Left as part of an elite plot to destroy fill-in-the-blank. Whether those accusations can be substantiated or not is immaterial. Once they are made, the debate is frozen at the point of accusation and those accused are on the defensive, soon to be routed. Fear of the accusation is often enough to get everyone to comply.
Last week a number of pastors and pundits tried to inject such populism into America’s largest evangelical institution with the same approach. But they hit a wall. In the selection of a new president for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Ed Litton, the lesser known and more traditionally conservative evangelical candidate, defeated Mike Stone, the populist-fundamentalist candidate backed by the insurgent Conservative Baptist Network that had formed into a religio-political machine.
Additionally, a massive, two-years-in-the-making push to make Critical Race Theory the big enemy that Southern Baptists have to specifically oppose everywhere gave way to a more positive statement on a biblical way to address racism called On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation.
At almost every significant point, the populist-fundamentalist movement was defeated.
So why didn’t the SBC fall into a more reactionary posture as almost every other conservative institution has over the past five years? And, what can we learn from this reemergence of actual conservatism?
The answer starts with the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has been and is a biblically conservative evangelical denomination—and its adherents know it. The accusations from the populist-fundamentalist wing trying to take over didn’t stick for the majority of delegates to the convention.
The SBC is thoroughly conservative theologically, morally, and politically. It’s leaders are conservative. It’s churches, pastors, confession of faith, and ethical and moral stances are conservative theologically. When criticism arose from fundamentalist baptists mirroring political criticisms from the populist right claiming that the SBC wasn’t conservative enough, these accusations were, on their face, absurd.
When Russell Moore and various seminary professors and pastors were accused of being “liberal,” the majority of Southern Baptists (especially those who participate in the convention) didn’t fall for it. Truth began to win out.
But the best example of how truth won out was the SBC’s resolution on scripture and race. Since 2018, fundamentalist factions in the SBC have expressed concern that SBC seminaries and churches were being infiltrated by social justice warriors and Critical Race Theory.
Conferences, blog posts, tweets, and videos have alleged that SBC leadership was overtaken by “the left” and had fallen in league with Marxists and Critical Race Theorists to make the SBC “woke.”
But in reality, the SBC has been affirming biblical racial reconciliation and biblical justice for decades. Our confession of faith calls for it—as have many prior resolutions and motions over the years.
Instead of giving in to pressure to condemn Critical Race Theory as the major problem when it comes to race, the Resolutions Committee, led by Dr. James Merritt—a large-church pastor in Georgia, past president of the SBC, and respected statesman—decided to continue the SBC’s decades-long tradition of opposing racism and ungodly ideologies by affirming a biblical approach to race, racism, reconciliation, and injustice.
The key here was that the SBC resisted the call to radicalism by digging deeper into its historical foundation, remembering the good work they’ve started, and then doubling down.
Four paragraphs in the final section of this year’s resolution on race are worth looking at closely because they model how to reject insurgent attacks by reaffirming an institution’s core values:
RESOLVED, That we reject any theory or worldview that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ.
This moves the discussion from reacting to political grievances about CRT to a biblical worldview. The wellspring of evil for all of humanity comes when we assert our own will and way over God and others. Sometimes that manifests as racism—and this has been specifically the case in America throughout our history. But Southern Baptists believe the problem is deeper and that it can only be confronted and redeemed through Jesus.
RESOLVED, We, therefore, reject any theory or worldview that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin.
Here, the SBC is explicitly tying the scourge of racism to the deepest, most intractable problem humanity faces—one that is impossible to defeat or educate away on its own. Racism, oppression, and discrimination are reaffirmed here as core spiritual problems stemming from human sin. This doesn’t mean that racism should not be addressed in structural ways—but it does means that we must understand these problems as part of the core of our human experience and, as such, understand that they cannot be dealt with through purely mechanistic approaches.
RESOLVED, That, understanding we live in a fallen world, we reaffirm the 1995 Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention, which includes, “That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27),” applying this disposition to every instance of racism.
By reaffirming a rejection of both individual and systemic racism, Southern Baptists agree with the assertion that racism can be more than personal, that it developed in history and shaped and worked through our structures and institutions, and that those past developments affect us to this day and can manifest in new ways.
The resolution calls us back to the great Dutch Reformed truth first articulated by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674 in Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, which says, “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” This move of constant repentance and awareness of how sin can affect both the individual and systems requires us to constantly be renewed at the root of what we believe, which is the person and work of Jesus. We must consistently dig in to ancient truth and be reformed not by the moment or by a quest for power or prominence, but by a fidelity to truth, justice, mercy, and humility.
RESOLVED, We affirm that our reconciliation in Christ gives us the opportunity and responsibility to pursue reconciliation with others so that we can display and share the hope of the gospel with the world.
Racial and ethnic justice and reconciliation are not add-ons or distractions to the Christian’s mission—they are core components of everything we do. Getting this right is key to a return to our core values which will shape and sustain us.
Last week in Nashville, in the midst of a full-blown populist-fundamentalist onslaught intent on takeover, Southern Baptists conserved their hard fought and deeply rooted positions by acknowledging problems and failures, repenting, opposing clearly the false accusations being lobbed against them, and by digging deep into their core values and ancient transcendent truths. They kept the ship afloat and moving forward by going back to the Scriptures and by agreeing to keep reforming, keep repenting—and keep receiving and giving grace.
Renew the center, save the whole. Maybe there’s a lesson there for all of us in how good things can be conserved.