That has given rise to an internal conflict with a particularly Trumpian tone to it, pitting a populist group of self-identifying “real” Southern Baptists against those they say would transform the church into something unrecognizable to many traditionalists.
Tensions within the SBC have been on the rise for years but regularly bubble over at the annual meeting, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic. The one-year delay has only raised the stakes for the selection of a president to succeed J.D. Greear, a pastor from North Carolina first elected in 2018.
Rather than bring reconciliation, however, Greear’s moves have only deepened the divide, and in his last few months as president he has spoken out more starkly against the growing right-wing revolt.
Moderates maintain they have no serious differences with the conservatives on theology. But leaders on this side say the church is at risk of elevating partisan concerns at the expense of its mission to evangelize and bring more people into the faith.
“We are not, at our core, a political activism group,” Greear said in an address to the SBC’s Executive Committee in February. “Do we want to be a gospel people, or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name — Southern or Baptist?”
Make Southern Baptists Great Again?
For months, the organizing energy has been on the side of conservatives. The spirit of revolt against the church’s so-called liberals has been driven largely by the work of the Conservative Baptist Network, which has encouraged fellow travelers to attend the meeting in Nashville and take back the SBC.
The conservative faction’s presumed favorite for SBC president is Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who sits on the advisory board of the Conservative Baptist Network. Stone has criticized the church leadership’s adoption in 2019 of a nonbinding resolution that accepted critical race theory as a useful tool for understanding systemic racism — though the resolution reaffirmed “Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills.”
Stone told a Georgia congregation in March in a pitch for his candidacy that he supported revoking that resolution and even passing a resolution rejecting critical race theory.
Another contender for conservative support is Albert Mohler Jr., a theologian and popular podcast host. Despite his conservative bona fides and role as a leading evangelical intellectual, Mohler has found himself in a slightly more moderate space. (Mohler was a prominent voice of opposition against Trump in 2016, though he reversed himself in 2020 and endorsed Trump for reelection.)
As president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Mohler joined with the heads of the five other SBC-affiliated seminaries to issue a statement rejecting the teaching of critical race theory as “unbiblical.”
The moderates strike back
Moore described in his letter to Greear “the blatant, gutter-level racism that has been expressed to me behind closed doors along with the reprehensible treatment of my African-American employees and our African-American seminary professors by figures within the Southern Baptist ecosystem.”