The incumbent president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bart Barber, was handily re-elected at the denomination's big Annual Meeting this past weekend. In past years, his faction has barely squeaked by in these elections. But this year, they won handily.
For a while already, the hardliners who opposed him have been fantasizing about the persecution they think they're experiencing. This striking loss is not going to slow their roll, not even in the face of a few small victories this weekend.
The 2023 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is now receding into the rearview mirror. It enjoyed some huge crowds and copious drama, as usual. And one of the biggest bits of drama to occur there involved their election of a new president for the denomination. Their incumbent president, Bart Barber, coasted to an easy re-election past his faction’s enemy, Mike Stone. In fact, it was the easiest victory Barber’s faction has had in years.
Slowly but surely, Southern Baptists are rejecting their very worst extremists. Alas, that doesn’t mean that their leaders ready to do real good by their members. In this denomination, the few good guys have almost no power—and its two main factions are clearly more interested in keeping their massive, creaking money-making machine lurching along.
Captain Cassidy’s SBC Faction Warfare Guide
In the SBC, two factions have been fighting for years for domination. These factions grew out of two sources:
- The Conservative Resurgence: Starting in the 1970s, a few SBC leaders schemed to hijack the denomination and turn it ultraconservative. Mainly, they wanted to keep women out of pastor positions. They won, but they’re now outraged that some churches seem to be going soft on women pastors again.
- A humongous sex abuse crisis pervading the entire denomination: Journalists called this crisis “Abuse of Faith.” It involved large numbers of SBC ministers sexually preying on their flocks for decades. The denomination’s leaders knew it was happening and allegedly shielded some of these predators for many years. The scandal blew open in 2019.
Since about 2018 and particularly in the wake of “Abuse of Faith,” two distinct factions emerged to fight over how the SBC would deal with these two crises.
The Old Guard are the stalwart guardians of the ideals of the Conservative Resurgence. They are dedicated to trampling women out of pastoral roles and refusing to take any accountability or responsibility whatsoever for “Abuse of Faith.” Their solution to any and all denominational problems is to order everyone to just Jesus harder. These days, the faction is headed by the extremist leaders of the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN).
The Pretend Progressives only really have one main point of difference from the Old Guard: They make lots of pretty mouth-noises about dealing with “Abuse of Faith.” As far as women pastors go, they’re sympathetic but noncommittal—at least, until recently. They are not progressive in any sense of the word; in fact, they hold almost all the same opinions as their enemies.
(Neither faction has a formal name for itself, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain. The Old Guard sometimes call themselves “traditionalists,” but that’s about it. It’s not helpful because literally everyone in SBC leadership is a traditionalist.)
The 2023 Annual Meeting: Our factions were in it to win it
For a while now, I’ve been looking forward to the fallout from the SBC’s 2023 Annual Meeting. I’ve been tracking the activities of the denomination’s two major factions, and all signs pointed to something big happening with its presidential election.
This election matters enormously. The Conservative Resurgence succeeded primarily because someone realized something major and important: If a dedicated group successfully held the SBC presidency for about ten years, then they’d be unstoppable.
See, the SBC president only holds office for a year before the next election rolls around. But while he’s there, he appoints a whole lot of people to a whole lot of committees and roles. It’s a bit like how Presidents of the United States generally hold office for 4 years, but they appoint Supreme Court judges to serve for life. In the SBC’s case, that same process just happens a lot faster.
Instead of plugging that alarming loophole, that person decided to take ruthless advantage of it.
I suspect that the lesson of that schism has not been lost on SBC leaders. This year, the Old Guard threw everything they had at this election. Everything. Their favorite bloggers, vloggers, and websites were filled with vicious slurs, insults, and accusations against the Pretend Progressives.
Despite that ferocious opposition, though, the Pretend Progressives have won the last five years’ worth of elections. (J.D. Greear reigned as King of Baptist County from 2018-2021; Ed Litton ruled the roost from 2021-2022. Last year, Bart Barber won the crown.) So yeah, I’m sure the Old Guard was feeling some heat as they headed for this year’s meeting.
How previous elections went down
2018: J.D. Greear ran against incumbent Steve Gaines (who held office from 2016-2018). Greear won 68% of the votes.
2019: J.D. Greear won a second term in an uncontested race.
(No election or meeting was held in 2020 due to the pandemic. Greear stayed president.)
2021: Ed Litton ran against Mike Stone and Al Mohler, both Old Guard, and dark horse Randy Adams, whose platform mostly consisted of abolishing the SCB’s North American Mission Board (NAMB). Al Mohler probably thought he was the Old Guard faction’s leader up until that election, but he and Adams both wiped out in the first round. In the runoff, Litton won with 52% of the votes.
2022: A four-way race, but mostly between Bart Barber and Tom Ascol, a major Old Guard leader. In the first round, Ascol won 34% of the votes to Barber’s 48%, while the other two contenders were eliminated. In the runoff running head to head, Barber won with 61% of the votes. Of interest, Willy Rice had initially thrown his hat into the ring for the Pretend Progressives for this race. Tom Buck, a lackey of Stone’s and Ascol’s in the CBN, appears to have tried to blackmail Rice into quitting. Either way, Rice dropped out and Barber entered the race.
If you’re noticing that these elections get more acrimonious-sounding every year, then good, because they definitely do. As well, they’ve been pretty close. Even last year, when Barber won the runoff by a decent margin, the whole shebang’s outcome was anybody’s guess going into it.
Mike Stone enters the ring for the Old Guard
Over 11,000 people attended the 2023 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Mike Stone ran for the presidency against the incumbent, Bart Barber.
Stone’s entire platform consisted of screeching about his “woke” enemies in the Pretend Progressives. He wanted to drill down super-extra-hard on the idea of women pastors, making their ascension to the role impossible forever.
As for sex abuse, that was not the denomination’s problem—even if its leaders, apparently including him, had demonstrated knowledge of the abuse for years without lifting a finger to stop any of it. No, he’d trample the denomination’s halting baby-steps of reform and return the SBC to its previous strategy of silencing victims and shielding predators.
WWJD? Well, Jesus doesn’t help abuse victims either. He knows about it and sees it happen, but he doesn’t ever get involved or hinder abusers in any way. So why should the SBC’s top leaders do anything differently? As well, I’m sure the fact that Mike Stone is named specifically as one of those silencers and abuser-shielders in the SBC’s official abuse report doesn’t influence his stance at all.
A surprising nomination at the 2023 Annual Meeting
The big surprise about Mike Stone’s candidacy?
Willy Rice nominated him for this role.
In the SBC, someone has to nominate a candidate for president. Candidates can’t just announce they’re running. It’s nothing but a formality, obviously, but there’s symbolic importance in who does the nominating. When Ed Litton ran, Fred Luter—the denomination’s first and so far only Black president (2012-2014)—nominated him.
Christian Post notes Rice’s previous sentiments:
Florida Pastor Willy Rice, who has been critical of the Conservative Baptist Network, to which Stone serves on the steering council, and supported Ed Litton for SBC president over Stone in 2021, has endorsed Stone. [. . .]
Rice explained that when Stone ran for president in 2021, he “disagreed with him on several issues and especially felt concern over the Conservative Baptist Network” because he found “some of their voices to be overly divisive and unnecessarily caustic.”Christian Post, June 5, 2023
In a statement Rice issued, he pins his change of heart on a dislike of where the sex abuse investigation was going. One can see why, considering why he’d dropped out of his own race last year (one of his deacons turned out to have a seriously skeevy past; Tom Buck had been that deacon’s previous pastor at the time of said skeeviness, which is how he knew the secret).
Whatever his reasons were, I’m sure the Old Guard rejoiced at Rice’s defection from the enemy faction—and hoped he’d inspire many others in his old faction to do the same.
Yes, they seriously misread the room.
But then, the Pretend Progressives ripped the rug right out from under the Old Guard
This was hilarious. Laugh-out-loud, slap-your-thigh-silly hilarious.
Did anybody think it was some kind of weird accident that the Pretend Progressive-dominated SBC leadership decided to crack down on women pastors this year? That they just coincidentally tossed out five churches—including the big, powerful, influential Saddleback Church—for being friendly to the idea of women pastors? Or that the denomination’s biggest names supported amending the SBC’s entire statement of faith to specifically exclude women from those roles?
No. None of that was accidental or coincidental. It was very obviously engineered to placate SBC members who leaned toward Old Guard policies but still wanted to do something about sex abuse.
And there are likely a lot of such folks. Most white conservatives don’t understand how a whites-only power structure opens the door to mistreatment of other races, and similarly, male conservatives don’t understand how a men-only power structure opens the door to mistreatment of women. Closing the door of power to specific groups makes them less-than in the eyes of the groups allowed access to power. It also leads the power-holding group to tribalize: they close ranks and see protecting each other, their group, and their own personal power as more important than doing their jobs. “Separate but equal” doesn’t work.
The result: Sex abuse tears at Southern Baptists’ hearts, but they can’t understand how a patriarchal system leads directly, inevitably, and inexorably to sex abuse.
So they want to have things both ways: sex abuse dealt with, yes, while also keeping institutionalized sexism in place.
When the Pretend Progressives came out in favor of barring women from pastoral roles, that tore the rug right out from under the Old Guard. Now all they had to differentiate themselves from their enemies was a rabid opposition to sex abuse reform.
Alas for them, the SBC’s voters overwhelmingly support sex abuse reform. They have from the very start of “Abuse of Faith.”
The 2023 Annual Meeting presidential tally
Once the 11k+ votes were counted, Barber won with 68% of the votes to Stone’s 31%.
At the 2023 Annual Meeting, the SBC also elected some new Executive Committee (EC) officers. This is their top-ranked group. They make all of the denomination’s day-to-day decisions, as well as setting budgets for denominational projects like seminaries and missionary activities. Of the seven officers, three are white men (including their new chairman). Two officers are women, and three are Black. That’s decent diversity, by SBC standards at least.
I notice that the EC chairman votes were super-close, as in each of the two candidates got 35 votes. According to SBC bylaws, a candidate requires 42 votes to win (a majority of the 83 total EC members). The other candidate withdrew, though, which left Philip Robertson the winner. Of course, they still don’t have an EC president almost two years after their last one, Conservative Resurgence schemer Ronnie Floyd, quit. That means that Robertson will hold quite a lot of power until they figure one out.
How the Old Guard is responding to this latest dramatic loss at the 2023 Annual Meeting
It’s been a couple of days since Barber won his re-election, so I wondered how the Old Guard’s handling their latest smackdown.
As I write this, CBN’s webpage hasn’t updated at all since they posted about their exceedingly grim-looking Prayer Breakfast. In fact, they still have a signup sheet there to allow Southern Baptists to let them know how many sympathetic voters would be attending the 2023 Annual Meeting.
Tom Ascol’s Twitter hasn’t really talked about the election at all. He did vaguepost this, though:
As for Mike Stone, he did tweet a seemingly gracious concession:
Of course, someone immediately asked if he planned to sue anybody over the results. After all, that was his power move last time he ran and lost. The New Testament forbids Christians from suing each other, especially over church-related disputes, but that didn’t stop Mike Stone.
Over at the Old Guard fanboy sites, reactions are mixed. Capstone Report is silent regarding the election results. Evangelical Dark Web did discuss the election at length, and they did a decent job overall I think by pointing out that Mike Stone “ran a horrendous campaign on the wrong issues” and turned out to be quite unlikeable as a candidate. (True. Put a tuxedo and a full face of stage makeup on Stone, and he’d be Joel Grey’s creepy MC from Cabaret.)
(Of interest, they supported that financial accountability measure. An Old Guard wingnut told me a couple weeks ago on Twitter that only liberals could possibly ever support such an ungodly requirement. These folks need to synchronize their wingnuttery somehow.)
On Mike Stone’s personal website, I haven’t seen any posts about his loss. However, he did post a very pissy-sounding complaint on May 25th about a brand-new essay on SBC Voices that painted his character and candidacy in less-than-glowing terms. He responded to the essay with a hamfisted attempt to cow his enemies through emotional manipulation:
It is sinful and shameful that a fellow pastor would rather take to his computer and slander a brother on the internet instead of picking up the phone to make a call. It is equally ungodly that fellow pastors would quickly retweet the story. In that regard, SBC Voices has failed yet again and it is a case study not to be repeated.Mike Stone’s post on his personal website, posted 5/25/2023
Once again, it seems, Matthew 18 gets used by bad-faith actors to browbeat others into silence. But it ain’t slander if it’s printed; it’s libel. And it ain’t libel if it’s true, though I suppose Stone could always launch another “sinful and shameful” lawsuit against another fellow Christian to establish that. Clearly, it’s okay to be “sinful and shameful” if he’s the one being that way.
Rules for thee, never for me: It’s the evangelical way.
And now, the wild speculation part of the program:
I absolutely do not buy the notion that Willy Rice turned tail on his entire faction due to a change of heart. If someone had done that in the Old Guard, everyone there would have torn that traitor apart. The Pretend Progressives are no different. Loyalty is everything in the evangelical crony system.
No, I think Rice pushed all the right buttons in Mike Stone’s cold, blackened, three-sizes-too-small heart. That flattery persuaded him to run despite having lost back in 2021. Stone’s decision to run froze out any stronger candidates who might have run—and won. If we discover Rice sittin’ pretty in a sinecure position in the next year or two, we’ll know exactly how he got it. On the other hand, if Rice’s fortunes fall, then that’s a good sign that he’s telling the truth about why he nominated Stone.
As for Stone himself, his entire candidacy was a drastic mistake. And he’s gotten a painfully pointed, clear message from the SBC’s voters. That’s obvious. So I’m not at all surprised to learn that he and his pals have been pretty quiet since losing that election. Not only is his faction likely in full damage-control mode right now, but they’re likely looking for a scapegoat. As an authoritarian leader who’s lost a big fight, Mike Stone may well be the best one coming to their minds.
A crony network only works as long as the member needing help is worth that help. In other words, Mike Stone’s cronies need to be sure he’ll be able to help them in some significant way somewhere down the line. If they decide he can’t do that anymore, they will abandon him. Similar networks abandoned Josh McDowell and James MacDonald in exactly that way.
Me, I just wanna see the endorsements for whatever book Stone publishes next. The endorsements on Mark Driscoll’s books looked dramatically different before and after he lost Mars Hill back in the 2010s. I suspect Stone’s might take a similar turn.
What the 2023 Annual Meeting tells the entire world
For all the simpering prayers and Droopy-Dawg-eyebrows hiked up to ceilings that Southern Baptists display with their performative piety…
For all the Jesusy declarations, Christianese, and Bible verses that Southern Baptists brandish whenever they drill down on the control and subjugation of others…
And for all the power-grabs, pointless drama, infighting, hypocrisy, and treachery they display when they think their ambitions are within reach…
… It’s beyond obvious that no gods at all inhabit Southern Baptists’ religion or their persons, nor inform their thinking and behavior, nor influence their decision-making.
Every Southern Baptist news story represents yet another piece of evidence to support that conclusion. So far, not a thing they’ve ever done has spoken to their religious claims being true in the least.
But that’s not why the SBC is in free-fall decline
That said, Christians’ claims have never been true.
More to the point, they have always acted exactly like we see them acting nowadays. When they were at their zenith of power some 20 years ago, nothing was different there, either.
Don’t make a mistake by thinking that Southern Baptists’ entitled, control-lusting, aggressive antics are the cause of their religion’s—or their denomination’s—decline. Their loss of coercive cultural power is. Its loss allowed people to discover and engage with Christian hypocrisy and the many false claims in the religion, that’s all. And then, its loss allowed unhappy members to leave—or prospects to reject recruiters’ sales pitches—without fearing retaliation in the form of Christian love.
To use some very meaty, earthy Christianese, everything about the SBC is man-made. Thus, the SBC operates exactly as we’d expect a similarly-corrupt and power-obsessed secular organization to operate. It was not Jesus who helped Bart Barber win so handily. It was just a series of cascading mistakes made by his faction’s enemies.
Whoever wins, though, not much is going to change about the SBC any time soon. The real prize isn’t so much control of the denomination as control of its money-making potential. For that prize, no low is too low.