Southern Baptists Take Baby Steps Away from the Culture Wars

Despite a widely-condemned resolution on transgender identity, the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting showed small glimmers of change.

Steve Ruark/AP

When the largest Protestant denomination in the country convenes for its annual meeting, there’s a good chance it’s going to make news no matter what. When that denomination is the culturally and politically pugilistic Southern Baptist Convention, and they opt to discuss religious freedom and transgender issues, the font size of the headlines expands accordingly.

And so, as 5,000 Southern Baptist delegates met in Baltimore last week to elect a new president and debate issues large and small, a resolution affirming that “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception” attracted the most mainstream attention by far. The resolution, titled “On Transgender Identity,” explicitly opposes gender re-assignment surgery and hormone therapies, and also decries bullying and abuse of transgender people. It passed overwhelmingly. Critics online, who included many Christians, called it “deplorable,” “heartbreaking madness,” and “harmful to the idea of democracy itself.”

The feeling was mutual. The influential president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, told the crowd as he nominated its new president, “The nation is embracing a horrifying moral rebellion that is transforming our culture before our very eyes.”

To be fair, that’s a line that could have been used at just about time in the SBC’s 169-year history. And “embattled minority” is a treasured pose for many participants in the culture wars, no matter how powerful or popular they happen to be. But the United States really is undergoing a moral revolution on certain sexuality issues the SBC considers crucial: support for gay marriage has grown by almost 20 percentage points since the turn of the millennium, for example. The “transgender tipping point” just made the cover of Time. Conservative Christians will likely discussing these issues for years to come, but it may be only a matter of time before they’re simply talking to themselves.

This is a challenging time for the Southern Baptist Convention. A few weeks ago, the denomination released its annual “church profile” that revealed membership numbers declined for the seventh year in a row. Baptisms, a key measure of health for a denomination whose very name reflects the importance of the practice, declined for the second year in a row, with a quarter of all SBC churches reporting no baptisms at all. Attendance at Sunday services was down, too. The only silver lining was a slight uptick in the number of churches.

On Tuesday, the SBC voted to elect Arkansas megachurch pastor Ronnie Floyd as its next president. Floyd has been pastor of Cross Church, which draws about 8,500 people to worship services at several locations in Northwest Arkansas, for 27 years. The runner-up was Dennis Kim, a Korean-American who leads a large bilingual church in Maryland; Kim would have been the denomination’s first Asian-American president.

Floyd takes over from Fred Luter, the SBC’s first black president, whose election in 2012 was a triumphant moment for a denomination founded by a pre-Civil War split with its Northern brethren over slavery. (In 1995, the SBC acknowledged and apologized for its role in slavery and opposition to the civil rights movement. Today about 20 percent of Southern Baptist churches identify themselves as “non-Anglo.”)

The history of Ronnie Floyd’s own church hints at some of the SBC’s ongoing struggles: in 2010, it changed its name from First Baptist Church of Springdale to the more generic Cross Church. Churches across the country have been dropping “Baptist” from their names in recent years, even as they keep their formal affiliation with the denomination. In an attempt to spread beyond its Southern roots, a denominational task force recommended in 2012 that churches be allowed to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” instead of Southern Baptists if they wish.

The denomination’s presidency carries a term limit of two years, which gives Floyd little time to wield long-term influence. The presidency of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is a more influential position: the ERLC’s last president, Richard Land, served for 25 years. Russell Moore, who had been dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, became the commission’s eighth president last year, and his lively leadership is one reason for the denomination to feel encouraged despite its decline.

At the meeting in Baltimore on Thursday, Moore presented an award to the owners of Hobby Lobby, who have become the public face of the argument that business-owners should not have to pay for insurance coverage that includes contraceptive coverage they object to on religious grounds. Moore called Steve and Jackie Green “heroes of religious liberty” in his presentation, and praised their “steadfast commitment to the sanctity of all human life.” Intriguingly, Moore also referred to the Greens’ objection to “insurance coverage for what they believe to be abortion-inducing drugs” [emphasis added], an apparent nod to the hotly contested claims about what, exactly, the emergency contraceptives at issue actually do. (He also presented an award in absentia to Saeed Abedini, a pastor in prison in Iran whose case has attracted significant attention from American evangelicals.)

Moore is famously amiable and social-media savvy, and he takes a gentler and more sophisticated tone than his predecessor. Earlier this month, for example, Land took to a Family Research Council radio show to compare a Christian baker being forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding to a black baker being forced to bake for a “KKK induction ceremony.” Moore, by contrast, enraged Christian talk radio hosts in April when he said, “if all that I knew of Christianity was what I heard on Christian talk radio, I’d hate it, too.”

A cynical read on this would be that Moore has merely learned the language of the moment, and is using it to make the same old-fashioned arguments. A more generous take is that Southern Baptists are evolving in meaningful ways, even if they will never change their core conviction that sex and marriage are for heterosexual couples only. That subtle evolution will understandably be insufficient to many gay Christians and their allies—not to mention the culture at large—but it can nonetheless be seen as a real shift in tone. If the denomination had felt it necessary to denounce the transgender movement even a decade ago, it’s hard to imagine them including that anti-bullying clause. The resolution exhibits an ongoing inability to account for up-to-date scientific information about sexual identity, or to give true weight to the experience of transgender individuals. But it at least shows a desire to shift the rhetoric away from sin and condemnation.

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As for the rest of the meeting last week, it was a grab-bag of potential culture-war battles, some big and some small. One delegate’s request that the best-seller Heaven Is For Real be removed from Southern Baptist bookstores did not make it to a vote, for example, although delegates did formally criticize “books and movies [that] have sought to describe heaven from a subjective, experiential source, mainly via personal testimonies that cannot be corroborated.” Delegates voted down a resolution to condemn the Washington Redskins team name as racially offensive.

Delegates also declined to address the matter of a California SBC church whose pastor recently announced he no longer sees homosexuality as a sin. The move was seen as somewhat surprising since Mohler recently wrote a blog post strongly denouncing the pastor and predicting that “the Southern Baptist Convention will act in accordance with its own convictions, confession of faith, and constitution when messengers to the Convention gather next week in Baltimore.” For now, they’ve kicked that can down the road. But no one can accuse the Southern Baptist Convention of backing away from a fight. In October, it will host a conference in Nashville on “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage.”