Want a preview of the 2022 election cycle? Look no further than the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC, starting this week in Nashville, Tennessee. The Republican "culture wars" playbook will be front and center at this high-profile meeting of America's largest Protestant denomination. The SBC is set to tackle buzzy topics like critical race theory, or CRT, sex abuse and women's role in ministry. But the most pressing question is how will a denomination that formed in part to defend slavery deal with racism. Will it condemn CRT and risk losing Black churches and members? Or will it strike a middle ground?
SBC 2021 is a litmus test not only for the denomination, but also for the Republican Party. Since 2008, the group's membership has shifted 20 percent to the right, according to sociologist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University. This shift represents not only a large bloc of evangelical voters who are in a denomination that is becoming even more connected to right-wing conservative politicians. Demographically, it also shows the fault lines that threaten to tear it apart. The denomination has lost over 2 million members since 2006, which dovetails with the lowest numbers of Republican Party affiliation in 10 years.
Despite the declining numbers, the SBC may very well decide to play the race card, gambling that white fear of America's racist history is important to its conservative membership. This is the same gamble GOP lawmakers are making across the country, as state and national lawmakers try to legislate school curricula.
At issue is the denomination's official 2019 statement on CRT, which conceded that the (very general) concept can be useful. Some hope to make the language even stronger this year, while others want to rescind the 2019 statement altogether. A resolution endorsed by conservative members claims that CRT is "rooted in Neo-Marxist and postmodern world views."
It's a potentially defining move for the denomination, which has continually made statements since the 1990s to repent of its former slaveholder leadership in the denomination, as well as in its seminaries. CRT, for some Southern Baptists, is a structural problem. For others, that is a bridge too far. It is important to note that the SBC has never rescinded previous statements, including a resolution in 1861 aligning the convention with the Confederacy.
It also puts the SBC's Black congregations in a tough spot. The SBC has made a push to diversify recently, even paying top dollar to Black pastors who wanted to join its ranks with generous startup funds. But these efforts to recruit Black Baptist churches and pastors could be undermined by what happens this week. Several Black pastors broke with the SBC in December over a statement condemning CRT by six presidents of SBC seminaries. Prominent Black pastors like Dwight McKissick have already threatened to leave the denomination if the vote goes negatively. Another Black SBC pastor, Tez Andrews, was fired last year for speaking out against an anti-CRT candidate for SBC president.
And CRT isn't the only issue dividing Baptists right now. The group's rightward drift and unwavering support for former President Donald Trump have roiled the community and led to several high-profile departures. Arguably its most prominent evangelist, Beth Moore, left the denomination this year after she was pilloried for her criticism of Trump and the denomination's handling of sexual misconduct scandals.
Russell Moore, another prominent evangelist with no relation to Beth Moore, wrote two scathing letters to SBC leadership that were then leaked publicly. Moore, the former president of the SBC's policy arm, who left his position last month, alleged a culture of racism and sexism at the SBC and accused church leaders of trying to intimidate sexual abuse survivors.
Meanwhile, hard-line conservatives within the denomination have appropriated "Take the Ship" language in the hope of steering the convention even more to the right than it already is.
In my most recent book, I discuss how morality is used as a shield to hide power grabs and racism within evangelical churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is no exception. While the SBC is trying to make critical race theory a theological concern by stating that it does not follow biblical teachings, it continues to support racist policies and the erasure of teaching the history that was crucial to its formation — slavery. This also keeps it in lockstep with the messaging from the Republican Party about CRT and the broader question of how we teach history in our country's schools.
No matter what decisions are made this week, the clash between hard-line evangelical conservatives and evangelical moderates is an important prognosticator of the 2022 election cycle. The SBC's membership is a potent GOP voting bloc, garnering a visit by then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2018. If the SBC rallies around Republican talking points about race, this seems unlikely to change. But just like in American electoral politics, it's bound to increase polarization.
If the SBC conservatives prevail, the denomination moves backward on issues of race and racism. While the theme of this year's conference is "We Are Great Commission Baptists," perhaps it might be more aptly called "We Are Great Omission Baptists" if it refuses to deal with the historic issues of racism in the denomination and in America.