The headline-grabbing news out of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville this week was an unexpected defeat for the far right.
On Tuesday, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States elected as its next leader Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor known for his work on racial reconciliation and the favored candidate of younger and nonwhite Southern Baptists (of whom there are many more than you might think). Generally considered the underdog, Litton narrowly beat Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor championed by the hard-right wing of the SBC, those members who worry — in the phrasing of popular author Beth Moore, who left the SBC in March — that their convention has come under sway of "woke feminist liberals." Further disappointing the ultraconservatives were the outcomes of two other votes — one concerning a resolution on racism, the other on sexual abuse.
But beware of reading too much into the outcome of the skirmishes in Nashville. For they are just skirmishes, and the SBC still has serious internal disagreements. It could even be heading for a split.
For outside observers, what transpires at the convention may seem irrelevant. Why pay attention to intra-church debates if you aren't a Southern Baptist, or perhaps not even a Christian?
One reason is that the SBC holds a unique place in American society. Though losing members at a record pace, it is still enormous and influential among American Christians beyond its formal membership. Moreover, the SBC has become something of a synecdoche for evangelicalism (especially white evangelicalism, though its new growth is predominantly nonwhite), with which we've maintained a national fascination since 2016. Evangelicals have no pope to proclaim official positions, but the sheer scale of the SBC makes it a valuable bellwether. If you want to know where evangelicals — by some measures, a quarter of the American public — are trending, the Southern Baptist Convention is just about the best place to look.
It's important to note, though, where the SBC sits on the Christian spectrum. Many Wednesday morning headlines about Litton's win said the "moderates" triumphed, which isn't wrong, per se, but probably misleading for those unfamiliar with the SBC. These aren't "fights between 'liberals' versus 'conservatives' or as the 'woke' versus the 'anti-woke,'" explained conservative writer David French on Sunday. That's exactly the framing employed alike by the SBC's far-right wing and non-SBC critics from the left. It's more accurate to say, as religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey observed at The Washington Post, that SBC disagreements are between "theological conservatives" and "ultraconservative[s]." And in that case the theological conservatives are winning, but hardly dominating.
The weakness of their victory is related to the second, more general reason to watch the SBC: Big church splits can prefigure big national splits. The original church schism that created the SBC was part of the run-up to the Civil War, both chronologically and in the sense that it helped make the national schism possible, as contemporary observers and historians alike have recognized. The Baptists weren't the only large denomination to break over slavery in the two decades before the war (the Methodists, who were then the most populous Protestant body, went first), and those breaks accelerated the severance of social and political ties that made disunion plausible.
I don't anticipate civil strife comparable to the Civil War in our near future (though my colleague Damon Linker has made several cases for it worth consideration). Yet the dissolution of the largest Protestant denomination in America over race and sex would certainly change that calculus.
We tend to imagine that breaking up churches or other groups who can't agree on political issues will calm things down, keep the peace. Instead, they often have an escalatory effect. Nothing is calmed as battle lines harden. Sometimes such splits are indeed necessary, and estrangement has obvious attractions in times of strife. But binding ourselves in relationship with other people whom we believe are wrong — and love anyway — can make for a more robust and flexible peace, one maintained by conversation rather than fragile silence.