After Ed Litton emerged victorious in the Southern Baptist Convention’s presidential election on Tuesday (June 15), reports and analysis quickly portrayed the news as a defeat for the denomination’s fundamentalist wing. The messengers (i.e. delegates) rejected the attempt to shift the convention further to the right. While the contest for the SBC’s top office tells that story, other votes reveal something else at play throughout the annual meeting. Rather than fundamentalism being dismissed, anti-elitism was embraced.
Consider what transpired shortly after the meeting began. Ronnie Floyd, the man who runs the denomination on a day-to-day basis as CEO of the Executive Committee, approached the microphone with other leaders to give a report. But the EC recommendations quickly sparked debate, amendments, and opposition.
An attempt from the EC to change its own mission statement brought a challenge from the floor. Instead of saying the EC “exists to minister to the churches,” the proposed revision would indicate that the EC “seeks to empower churches.” Messenger Spence Shelton of North Carolina successfully pushed to change the word “empower” to “serve.”
“We are a bottom-up not a top-down convention of churches. The local church is the headquarters,” Shelton said to applause. “The churches empower the Executive Committee to serve us. [The EC] does not empower local churches.”
This linguistic reminder of who actually runs the convention was only the beginning.
An outcry arose to another EC recommendation granting itself the power to compel reports and actions from other SBC institutions, with the refusal to comply involving the risk of seeing funds escrowed.
“I don’t think it is wise to give our Executive Committee additional authority at this time when they are under investigation for their response to sexual abuse and other perceived overreaches,” protested Jon Canler of Kentucky.
Others expressed concerns the new language could jeopardize accreditation of SBC seminaries or create legal problems. The EC recommendation then failed in a virtually unanimous vote. The masses on the floor upstaged the leaders on the platform.
Later, a rewrite of the ministry statement for Lifeway Christian Resources failed, and the messengers refused to give another term to the EC member the EC just elected on Monday as their new vice chair — which means the EC will be forced to elect someone else to that role.
The unspoken but clearly obvious guerilla warfare continued. Something no less significant than Floyd’s vision for the entire SBC was the next target. Floyd had talked about this plan for over a year. He led those gathered in prayer before offering a passionate, nearly 40-minute sermon on “Vision 2025.” He prayed again before calling for a vote. The open microphones revealed his prayers were not answered as he had hoped.
First, the messengers amended Vision 2025 by adding a sixth “strategic action.” Ben Cole of Texas — perhaps one of the most vocal public critics of SBC elites — moved to include that the SBC “prayerfully endeavor to eliminate all incidents of sexual abuse and racial discrimination among our churches.” Then, a smaller edit to the wording of another one of the initiatives was proposed. The alterations passed.
The planners of the annual meeting clearly were caught off guard by the pushback. Massive banners naming Vision 2025’s original five initiatives and unaltered wording greeted messengers as they left the plenary hall. They stood as symbols of the expected submission missing in Nashville.
Still, the rebellion continued on. Just as members of Congress can maneuver around leadership to bring legislation to the floor with a discharge petition, so messengers can force consideration of resolutions on the floor by a two-thirds vote. This mechanism was used, over the objection of former SBC president and current Resolutions Committee chair James Merritt, for an anti-abortion resolution widely understood as more extreme than previous positions taken by the denomination.
The statement denounces legislation or policies that contain any exceptions in abortion prohibitions as guilty of “complicity” that helps “legitimize” the practice. It passed overwhelmingly even after a Christian ethics professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the research director for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission spoke against the resolution during the debate.
Tom Ascol, who is perceived as either a reformer or a rebellion leader in guiding a group known as Founders Ministries, celebrated this moment by calling the resolution’s success “a clear reminder that denominational elites do not always have to get their way if grassroots church members will unite to wisely engage the process to challenge their agenda at those points that are problematic.”
Perhaps the biggest rebuke to the SBC’s leaders came in a call to investigate the EC’s mishandling of clergy sexual abuse cases. Amid growing controversies in the weeks leading up to the meeting, Floyd announced a third-party group would conduct a limited inquiry and the EC rejected a push to broaden the investigation into its own practices.
So, messenger Grant Gaines of Tennessee motioned to create a task force outside the EC to provide oversight of the review. SBC leaders then shockingly referred that motion to the EC itself, letting the proverbial foxes vote on how their guarding of the henhouse would be scrutinized.
The messengers challenged that decision, and the vast majority raised their yellow ballots into the air to establish an independent task force probing the missteps of Floyd and the EC.
These other votes illuminate the dynamics of the presidential election. Albert Mohler, president of the SBC’s flagship seminary for almost three decades and arguably the most well known leader in the denomination, failed to advance past the first round of balloting. The candidate of the elites came in a distant third to two congregational pastors, Mike Stone and Ed Litton.
In the runoff, the second most elite candidate lost. While both Litton and Stone stressed their pastoral roles in the campaign, Stone is the immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee. News reports on various EC scandals in the weeks prior to the meeting highlighted this aspect of Stone’s resume. Further reinforcement occurred from damaging letters that emerged in the wake of Russell Moore’s resignation as president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Both Litton and Stone employed “I’m just a pastor” rhetoric in competing for the top job. There is a parallel here to the rise of outsider candidates in political campaigns, most notably the way former President Donald Trump triumphed over an array of governors and senators in the 2016 Republican primary by railing against the elites. Rather than promoting the value of experience, refrains that one is “not a career politician” are far more common today among those seeking careers in politics. Those with elite backgrounds, such as Senators Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, even pose as insurgents fighting an establishment they claim to abhor yet desperately want to be.
For the elites, with their long histories of credentials and years of ladder-climbing, the current social atmosphere must be disorienting. Mohler, who watched from the sidelines instead of being crowned by the convention, found himself jeered during the SBC meeting while holding one of his grandchildren. The incident understandably left him “more than a little shaken.”
This is not new for Baptists to revolt against their own elites. As historian Nathan Hatch argued in The Democratization of Christianity, the Baptists in early America held “an aversion to central control and a quest for self-reliance,” so they sought leadership from outside “religious elites.”
“Increasingly assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands,” Hatch wrote. “As many of the early republic’s most visible Baptist leaders inched toward influence and respectability, a considerable network of lesser lights continued to champion local control.”
Perhaps we are witnessing another such moment today. Litton’s victory is important in the ideological sense captured by most news reports. That the more fundamentalist candidates lost will impact the life of the denomination over at least the next year or two as Litton tries to hold off additional losses of Black churches or others put off by the more extreme forces.
But reducing his victory to ideology misses something equally important. After all, Stone’s running mate won the election for 1st vice president and that far-right anti-abortion resolution passed. These are not signs of moderation or establishment conservatism.
As the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the SBC both influences and reflects cultural shifts. The anti-establishment ideology roiling Washington, D.C. and state houses showed up at a church convention in Tennessee. This rabid rejection of elitism leads many — especially Republicans and White evangelicals like the bulk of Southern Baptists — to not trust the explanations of the media or the government officials about who won the last election or the importance of masking and vaccination during the coronavirus pandemic.
At its worst, this brand of politics leads to moments like the Jan. 6 insurrection — a potent mix of Christian Nationalism and conspiratorial thinking. (Amid contentious debate and amendments on other topics, the SBC Resolutions Committee pulled its planned resolution Tuesday that would have condemned the Jan. 6 insurrection.)
The real story here is not about who won or lost but about where power was most forcefully wielded. The populism within the SBC’s theological DNA should serve as a warning sign to Ed Litton. He is no longer an outsider, no longer just a local church pastor. Now, he is the establishment. That means the insurgents are coming for him.