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Character Is Destiny for the Southern Baptist Convention
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Character Is Destiny for the Southern Baptist Convention

When it comes to the crisis of character in the SBC, please Baptists, heed your own true words.

This week an estimated 16,000 Southern Baptists will descend upon Nashville for one of the most important conventions of this decade. Note that I did not say “Baptist” conventions or even “religious” conventions. I just said “conventions.” Period. The decisions made by the “messengers” to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting will echo across the church and across the culture. Their divisions reflect the divisions in the broader Evangelical church. Their culture reflects the culture of the church. And the culture of the church continues to shape the culture of this nation. 

In fact, a list of the key issues at the convention represents a snapshot of the key issues that are roiling the American right and broader American society. How should large and powerful institutions respond to allegations of sex abuse? To what extent should Critical Race Theory and intersectionality influence Christian thought, if at all? To what extent should political loyalties shape our religious communities? 

On the last point, for example, a group called the “Conservative Baptist Network” is expected to make a show of force at the convention. The right-wing radio host Todd Starnes has praised its efforts to “to save the nation’s largest denomination from a radical group of Never Trumpers and woke critical race theorists.”

But to frame the dispute as one between true “conservatives” versus “liberals” or the “woke” is to warp the debate. The battle isn’t left versus right, and there are precious few true critical race theorists in Baptist ranks. Instead, the battle is over much more elemental concerns, including truth, transparency, corruption, and—ultimately—character. 

Last week I wrote about how my friend Russell Moore’s extraordinary letters leaked into the public domain. Moore is the former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC), and he described a campaign of “psychological terror” waged against him within the SBC, a campaign that included “vicious guerilla tactics.” And what was the reason for the campaign? It wasn’t his well-known opposition to Donald Trump. It was his attempts to reform the SBC’s approach to sexual abuse and his attempts to enhance the SBC’s efforts at racial reconciliation.

In his letters, Moore described how key leaders spoke about sexual assault victims behind closed doors. He alleged one leader called a victim a “whore.” He said victims were described as “crazy” or compared to “Potiphar’s wife,” a biblical figure who tried to seduce the patriarch Joseph before falsely accusing him of sexual assault.

Moore also described deeply troubling interactions on matters of race. He recounted a time when one senior SBC leader said the wrong side won the Civil War. Another leader, Moore alleged, once said that “only those with guns would prevent black people from burning down all of our cities.” He also said that his family had experienced vicious attacks from “neo-confederates” within the SBC itself, including “constant threats from white nationalists and white supremacists.” 

As expected, Moore’s letter launched a firestorm of controversy. Then the leaks got worse. On June 7, a website called Baptist Voices published an email by the former executive vice president and general counsel of the SBC’s Executive Committee, Augie Boto. In the email, Boto justifies opposing what he believes to be efforts to change the SBC’s “denominational structure” to establish a committee empowered to respond to sexual abuse in the SBC. Certainly denominational structure is a valid consideration in any proposal, but here’s how he describes the opposing point of view:

This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play. Yes, Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander have succumbed to an availability heuristic because of their victimizations. They have gone to the SBC looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it. Their outcries have certainly caused an availability cascade (just like Lois Gibbs did in the Love Canal example). But they are not to blame. This is the devil being temporarily successful. 

The hits kept coming. Last Thursday, Texas pastor Phillip Bethancourt, a former vice president of the ERLC, released recordings of powerful Southern Baptist leaders Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, and Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a leading candidate for SBC president. Here’s how the Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana and Adelle Banks described the their content:

Newly released audio clips from a Southern Baptist whistleblower appear to corroborate accusations Southern Baptist Convention leaders were reluctant to take action against churches accused of mishandling abuse.

The audio contains a recording of Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, telling SBC leaders in an October 2019 meeting that he is concerned about preserving the base in the denomination—even if that leads to criticism from abuse survivors.

“As you think through strategy—and I am not concerned about anything survivors can say,” Floyd says in the recording, taken during a meeting to debrief the Caring Well Conference, held to address the handling of sexual abuse allegations within the SBC. “OK. I am not worried about that. I’m thinking the base. I just want to preserve the base.”

As the website SBC Voices chronicles, a “culture of dismissal,” retribution and hypocrisy has persisted for years at the highest levels of the SBC. To take another example, Frank Page, a former president of the SBC Executive Committee, conducted an “investigation” of Russell Moore at the exact same time that Page was involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” that would trigger his resignation a year later. 

With revelation piling on revelation, on Friday, the SBC Executive Committee announced that it had engaged a respected, independent firm called Guidepost Solutions to “review recent allegations against the SBC Executive Committee of mishandling sexual abuse allegations and mistreating sexual abuse victims” and to review “allegations of a pattern of intimidation.”

All this barely scratches the surface of the sex-abuse issue, which is troubling and complicated enough to fill out a convention’s worth of debate on its own. But then there’s also the roiling controversy over Critical Race Theory. In fact, just as decisive opposition to CRT is becoming a litmus test for Republicans, so it is becoming a litmus test for the most conservative wing of the SBC. 

The convention will feature an effort to effectively void 2019’s Resolution 9, a resolution on Critical Race Theory and intersectionality that said CRT could serve as a useful “analytical tool” so long as it was “subordinate to scripture.” Even though the resolution specifically repudiated “the misuse of insights gained from critical race theory [and] intersectionality” especially when “absolutized as a worldview,” critics still deem it too “woke.” 

The end result is that thousands of messengers will flock to Nashville, some under a pirate flag, vowing to “take the ship” and repudiate “wokeness” at exactly the time when two of the SBC’s most prominent members, Russell Moore and Beth Moore (no relation to each other), have been chased from the denomination under a hail of hatred from the far-right, including from outright racists in the SBC itself.

Thus it is no surprise that there are now black Southern Baptists who vow to leave the denomination if the SBC completely disavows CRT. Especially since, as Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic notes, the “National African American Fellowship of the SBC [is] unanimously opposed to denouncing CRT in its entirety.”

And to compound the challenges facing the SBC, it’s in the midst of a long-term membership decline. It’s lost 2.3 million members since 2006, including more than 435,000 last year alone

Watching the drama unfold, three words come to mind: Character is destiny.

Longtime readers have heard me reference this document before, but at the 1998 annual meeting, in the face of the Clinton sex and perjury scandals, the SBC issued a resolution on the importance of moral character in public officials that contained a simple truth: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” 

Those words are scriptural and true. Indeed, we live every day with the dreadful consequences of character failures in national politics, including hatred, division, and incompetence. Yet if those words are true for politicians, how much more are they for leaders of the church? 

There are good-faith arguments to be had about the best institutional methods of dealing with sex abuse. Calling victims “whores” or “crazy” is not among those methods. 

Rachael Denhollander is a formidable person, and her thoughts are worth serious consideration. They’re not, however, beyond debate or critique. Yet describing Denhollander as an instrument of a “Satanic scheme” is utterly vile.

Unwinding and ameliorating the complex and enduring effects of America’s racist past—along with responding to present day hatred and bigotry—is difficult and complicated even when everyone in the conversation operates with a level of mutual affection and respect.

When leaders lament, however, that the wrong side won the Civil War or state that only armed citizens will save cities from “black people,” they do not provide Americans with assurance that the nation’s largest and most powerful denomination has decisively rejected a shameful racial pastThat’s the context that surrounds efforts to completely condemn CRT.

Again, it is worth emphasizing that the allegations and emails and recordings above relate to the conduct of senior leaders, not the actions of isolated individuals in the pews. 

It’s just wrong to equate the conflicts outlined above as fights between “liberals” versus “conservatives” or as the “woke” versus the “anti-woke.” It should never be considered ideological to endeavor to respect and protect victims of sexual abuse. And to denigrate good-faith efforts to achieve biblical justice and racial reconciliation as “woke”—when all sides agree on the authority of scripture—is to substitute name-calling for argument. 

There is much room for healthy debate and disagreement within the SBC. There should be no room for corruption and cruelty. The true issue in the SBC isn’t ideological. It’s not theological. It’s sin, including sin at the highest levels. And when it comes to the power of sinful leaders to corrupt a culture, few institutions have spoken more eloquently than the SBC. 

Yet in spite of its own words, the SBC has “tolerated serious wrongs.” It has thus “seared the conscience” of too many of its own members. And now lawlessness persists. What is the remedy? Again, here is the SBC’s own resolution: “we implore our … leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character.” Repentance is necessary. Accountability is imperative. 

When it comes to the crisis of character in the SBC, please Baptists, heed your own true words.

One last thing …

I’m going to break with tradition and share a song that isn’t obviously Christian. I’m also going to really break with tradition and share a viral clip from a game show. Millions have seen it. Millions more should. It’s from America’s Got Talent, and it features an original song by a remarkable young woman.

Jane Marczweski goes by the stage name “Nightbirde,” and she’s a young Christian woman facing a terrible cancer diagnosis. The clip below sent me down a rabbit hole of her work, and I came across this searing and honest post by a believer in pain. These words … wow:

I see mercy in the dusty sunlight that outlines the trees, in my mother’s crooked hands, in the blanket my friend left for me, in the harmony of the wind chimes. It’s not the mercy that I asked for, but it is mercy nonetheless. And I learn a new prayer: thank you. It’s a prayer I don’t mean yet, but will repeat until I do.

Call me cursed, call me lost, call me scorned. But that’s not all. Call me chosen, blessed, sought-after. Call me the one who God whispers his secrets to. I am the one whose belly is filled with loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.

Even on days when I’m not so sick, sometimes I go lay on the mat in the afternoon light to listen for Him. I know it sounds crazy, and I can’t really explain it, but God is in there—even now. I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true. Look lower. God is on the bathroom floor.

Here’s the clip:

And here’s the full, beautiful song:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.