Opinion

The Southern Baptist Convention's ominous cracks

Why Beth Moore's exit might be a warning for all Americans

Beth Moore has left the Southern Baptist Convention. "I am still a Baptist," the prolific Bible study author said in an interview with Religion News Service published Tuesday, "but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists."

The import of this departure, as many have observed, is difficult to explain if you don't already know who Moore is. She's something like the book club leader version of Reese Witherspoon for conservative evangelical Christians, except she also writes the books and teaches classes and draws giant women's conference crowds, and she's worked through decades of dismissal and ridicule by male coreligionists.

Moore is an institution in evangelicalism generally and the SBC specifically — or she was, until she started speaking out against racism and Christian nationalism, sexism and excusal of sexual abuse, and their convergence in white evangelical support for former President Donald Trump. Though many Baptists and other evangelicals welcomed Moore's stand, it was met with severe backlash, too. Moore was rejected by critics as a heretic and, maybe worse, a liberal. This week, not quite two years after saying she hoped to serve the SBC "to my death if it will have me," she left.

The question that strikes me is whether Moore is a harbinger. Is her exit a preview of Southern Baptist divisions to come, and, if so, what will those divisions mean for the whole United States?

The SBC is the country's largest Protestant denomination — one in every 20 Americans is a Southern Baptist — with significant cultural and political pull. It's also a denomination in the throes of controversy, of which Moore's departure is just one part. There's a sense in which this is merely an internecine issue, as the difficulty of describing Moore's significance makes clear. But the history of politics-linked denominational splits in the United States suggests a wider relevance.

In the run-up to the Civil War, church splits over slavery prefigured national disunion. I suspect the nature of church life makes these divisions come to a head inside religious organizations before that happens in society more broadly, because the intensity of community commitment forces difficult conversations that can more easily be avoided in the looser relationships outside of shared faith. If that's correct, the recent rise in political tensions within the SBC could be a bellwether all Americans would do well to notice.

U.S. history has a multitude of denominational divisions, but there are two schisms that are most relevant here. One is the break-up of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which previously held the title of biggest U.S. Protestant group. Though Methodism was founded by an abolitionist, slavery had long been a matter of disagreement among American Methodists. In the early 1800s, northern and southern congregations were moving further apart on the issue. In the spring of 1844, slavery was the primary topic at the denomination's general conference meeting, where debate focused on a bishop who held slaves. Northern churches determined to secede from the denomination if he retained his post; southern churches left instead after a motion asking him to resign was successfully carried by northern votes. Their withdrawal resolution decried the northern Methodists' abolitionism as "officious, and unwarranted interference" in the southern Methodists' life and faith.

The other noteworthy split is the origin of the SBC itself. The same year the Methodists voted out the slaveholding bishop, the Triennial Convention also split over slavery. This national Baptist denomination had previously maintained neutrality on the issue, but the conflict became unavoidable when northern Baptists refused to approve a slaveholder as a missionary. An Alabama preacher and slave owner then drafted a resolution demanding "the distinct, explicit, avowal that slaveholders are eligible, and entitled, equally with non-slaveholders" to all posts and privileges within the denomination. The resolution was rejected, and the Southern Baptist Convention formed the next year.

These divisions didn't simply foreshadow the coming political break. They also contributed to it. "The chasm between the churches of the North and South had a profound destructive impact on America's already turbulent political life," historian Herman Hattaway and Rev. Lloyd A. Hunter argue in Reflections of a Civil War Historian, and "[d]ividing the churches subsequently impacted the divisions of the mainline political parties." Sen. John C. Calhoun, whose vehement pro-slavery views were influential in the South's secession a decade after his death, explicitly cited the Methodist and Baptist rifts in his last formal speech in the Senate in 1850. National disunion could only come after the sundering of many "cords which bound these States together," he said, and the broken churches were two such cords snapped. We can recognize the reality of that sociological effect, I think, while believing the abolitionists were absolutely right to stand their ground.

So what about the SBC's current controversies? Moore isn't the first prominent Southern Baptist (or even the first Southern Baptist named Moore) to land in denominational hot water over Trump and associated issues of nationalism, racism, sexism, and sexual assault. But her exit is unique, and it could "carry a lot of [Southern Baptist] women with her," as Beth Allison Barr, a historian and dean at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, predicted in the report of Moore's leaving.

Meanwhile, several Black pastors recently left the SBC over a November statement issued by six seminary presidents which condemned critical race theory as incompatible with Baptist faith. A new coalition called the Conservative Baptist Network emerged within the SBC in 2019 and has grown rapidly, self-describing as an opponent of "worldly ideologies infiltrating the Southern Baptist Convention, including Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and other unbiblical agendas deceptively labeled as 'Social Justice.'" Roles of women remain an ongoing debate (the denomination didn't formally forbid women from pastoral roles until 2000, albeit then with little internal controversy), and questions of LGBTQ church membership are starting to come up, too. At a meeting of the convention's executive committee this year, four congregations were booted, two over pastoral sexual abuse and two for "membership and leadership standards [that] affirm homosexual behavior."

The historical comparison only goes so far, of course. The fate of the SBC may not forecast the fate of the nation as church splits did nearly two centuries ago, because church no longer has the same place in our public life. And unlike the churches in the slavery debate, the present-day SBC doesn't have two clearly delineated ideological camps with separate geographic territories.

Still, our history shows church schisms can escalate instead of containing the political strife that occasions them. Given that history, even for non-Baptists, the Southern Baptist trajectory is worth our notice.

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