cat on a hot tin dumpster
Reading Time: 7 minutes (Sean Bernstein.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! For a little while now, I’ve been alluding to two factions that are coming together in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to fight for dominance over the troubled denomination. Today, let me show you what these two factions are, the major players involved, and the group they’ve both chosen as their focus. 

cat on a hot tin dumpster
(Sean Bernstein.) We are the cat.

(Note: In this post, I make note of the faction leaders’ Arminian or Calvinist inclinations. Lately, it’s turning into a serious fight of its own. In a future post, we’ll go into more detail. For now, I’m just setting it out. For those who need it: to put it as briefly as possible, Arminians believe that people choose to be Christian and can lose their ticket to Heaven by falling out of belief or being too disobedient. On the other side, Calvinists believe that their god has already chosen all the people who will ever go to Heaven, and if you’re not on the list then nothing you do will change your fate. The names refer to the people who popularized/invented each viewpoint: Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Neither viewpoint is a denomination; it’s more like an add-on module to whatever the believer already buys into. Sometimes Calvinists say they’re Reformed. I call Christians who hold some combination of the two beliefs “blended.”)

The Faction Fight Forming Up in the SBC.

In recent weeks, I’ve alluded to two factions squaring up in the SBC right now.

These factions are forming around a serious question facing the SBC:

How will they address the very serious accusations facing their denomination? 

The “Abuse of Faith” sex abuse scandal came out just over two years ago. Since then, nothing has really changed in the SBC on that front. After offering sex-abuse victims a lot of crocodile tears and consolation words that seem to center more on themselves than the women victimized by Southern Baptist leaders, the flocks got the usual exhortation to Jesus harder with CaringWell. It’s very likely that the SBC’s poor response to this scandal led to Beth Moore’s defection from the SBC.

Accusations of systemic racism are also coming to a serious head in the denomination. This one’s more recent. All by itself, it’s sparked some very serious defections from the tribe. However, I haven’t seen any strategies come out of the SBC’s top leaders for meaningfully addressing these accusations. Heck, they haven’t even offered any that don’t.

To answer these two serious challenges, meet our factions:

The Pretend Progressives and the Old Guard.

In This Corner: The Pretend Progressive Faction.

The Pretend Progressives seek to persuade the flocks to stay in the denomination by pretending to make meaningful moves toward systemic reform.

That’s a time-honored tactic for the SBC. When faced with a catastrophic PR situation, they’ll kick into gear with endless committees to choose the committees who will vote on the committees to start studying the question of how to begin studying the problem. They’ll generate endless reports about how to totally fix whatever the problems are. This stuff takes the denomination’s leaders literally years to drag through. By the time anything absolutely must get done, the flocks will have voted a new set of leaders into office — or will have moved on to newer concerns. Their actual recommendations will generally center on just Jesus harder, everyone anyway. When their problems don’t magically fix themselves after this sage advice, then those using this tactic can blame the flocks for disobeying.

I see the gears turning on this strategy now for a significant number of high-level leaders in the SBC.

SBC flocks who feel uncomfortable with outright sexism and racism can gather under this banner and feel like they’re on the right side of history.

Nothing important will actually change, of course. None of these leaders are proposing any big systemic alterations to the status quo. At most, they are really only acknowledging that the accusations have some merit. But without those big systemic changes in how power is assigned, held, and checked, nothing they say will matter.

Top names to know here:

As their pick in the presidential election, this faction has chosen Ed Litton, an older white pastor from Mobile, Alabama.

In the Other Corner: The Old Guard Faction(s).

The Old Guard actually shakes out into two sub-factions. Basically, both want the same thing: a firm clamping down on all this progressive, woke, social justice-y stuff.

Through invocations of the Good Old Days, the Old Guard seeks to hang onto its dominance of the SBC. They’re rolling back as much progress as they possibly can, clamping down on white male privilege as hard as they can, and insisting that anybody wanting real systemic change is demonic and evil.

Al Mohler is trying very hard to be this faction’s overall leader. However, he really only leads one of those two sub-factions. The other sub-faction is just a more hardcore version of the first one. Seriously. Adherents of the Super-Hardcore Old Guard think Al Mohler is just too soft on these progressive notions. I’m not kidding.

This faction seems to contain a lot of Arminians, who refer to themselves as “Traditionalists.” If you’re familiar with SBC history, you’ll recognize a lot of names here from the Conservative Resurgence.

Top names to know here: 

  • Richard Land (mostly Arminian, disgraced former leader of the ERLC and now a conservative gadfly)
  • Ronnie Floyd (sorta/mostly Arminian, president of the Executive Committee)
  • Al Mohler (Calvinist, president of the SBC’s flagship seminary)
  • John MacArthur (hardcore Calvinist, not actually SBC at all but he meddles a lot)
  • Tom Ascol, sorta (Calvinist, editor of The Founders Journal and way into Mike Stone; I wasn’t super-familiar with him but he seems to be a go-to name for the ultraconservative side)

I strongly suspect Al Mohler will throw his hat into this summer’s election race. However, at the moment the Super-Hardcore guys want Mike Stone. He’s a nobody white Arminian pastor from Georgia. And y’all, he really wants to clamp down hard on all this progressivism and scary human rights stuff that scares the pants off of older white male evangelicals just like him.

And Watching from the Sidelines:

Actual Progressives.

Unfortunately, actual progressives don’t really add up to enough people to be a formal faction in this dogfight.

However, they function as the enemy focus of both major factions. They want real, systemic changes to the SBC and meaningful action to address the denomination’s scandals and shortcomings. Worse, progressives tend to recognize that the culture wars, racism and white nationalism, and extreme politicization have destroyed the SBC’s credibility. Some of them struggle hard with maintaining in-group posturing like the culture wars, knowing how it’s impacted evangelicals’ entire future.

In particular, Black Southern Baptists have some distinct and concrete ways in mind to help the SBC leave behind its tarnished history of racism. To start with, they want Critical Race Theory embraced and taught in SBC seminaries. You can guess how the Old Guard took that suggestion.

Top names to know here:

  • Beth Moore (Calvinist in the style of J.D. Greear, megastar female influencer)
  • Dwight McKissic (probably Arminian Black pastor)
  • Fred Luter (I’m tentatively guessing Arminian, though even that guess was shockingly and pleasingly difficult to make, and he’s also the first and only Black man ever to serve as the president of the SBC)
  • Christa Brown (no idea if she’s SBC, but she started the Stop Baptist Predators website and is now one of the directors of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and she’s spoken and written volumes about the SBC’s sex-abuse scandal)

For now at least, Dwight McKissic and Fred Luter have both thrown their support to Ed Litton. Ed Litton himself may be way more progressive than the Pretend Progressives really want. Luckily for those folks, the SBC itself will handle that problem by neutering the guy should he actually ascend to the office and think it’s time to actually change anything.

How the Factions Treat Real Progressives.

The Pretend Progressives seek to mollify progressives without actually giving them what they want: systemic change.

Recently, J.D. Greear gave us a taste of this strategy when he commented on Twitter about Beth Moore’s defection. Y’all, he was grieved! GRIEVED, I tells ya! (In Christianese, grieved indicates Jesus-flavored sadness. When they deploy this word, Christians want listeners to imagine that Jesus’ sadness seeps up through their pores.)

However, his Jesus-flavored sadness did not extend to fixing the problems that led to her departure.

Meanwhile, the Old Guard just attacks progressives outright.

On that note, you’ll see plenty of those folks on that link above with Greear’s Twitter comment! Indeed, if real progressives get too loud about wanting real progress, then the Old Guard will apply “Christian love” to drive them out just like they did Beth Moore. When they drive out each clamorous voice, too, they  pat themselves on the back (as Greear’s feed demonstrates) for having successfully purged another dissenter from their ranks.

In Broken Systems, Power Protects Its Own.

At its heart, the SBC is a monstrously-huge, lumbering behemoth of a business. Its masters do not seek to further this business’ explicitly-stated goals at all. Instead, they spend their time chasing power and money — establishing their own dynasties, setting up their own courts and fiefdoms, and fighting their enemy dukes for more pieces of an ever-shrinking pie.

I find Christians’ infighting just fascinating. In every single way, Christian infighting absolutely stomps all over their claims about their god and even about their social rules and structures. Their constant petty squabbles and obvious power-grabs tell the whole wide world that this organization does not have and has never had any gods at its center.

Out of all of Christendom, none of those fights are quite as public or quite as dramatic as the ones we see in the SBC over the past decade. Every year, the SBC publishes Annual Reports. Though it’s often phrased in obfuscated ways and between the lines, these reports speak to us of a denomination lurching through a decline that has lasted for more than fifty years now. As a result of that decline, the SBC’s overlords are fighting amongst themselves harder than ever.

And then Donald Trump came along, out-played the dukes at their own game, scooped up very nearly the entire squawking, clucking mess of Southern Baptist flocks, and then he left with them under his wing.

That theft gave the dukes’ infighting a new flavor of sheer white-knuckle desperation. And it should have.

The Saga Has Begun.

I will be very interested in seeing which of these factions ends up taking the crown at this summer’s election. I seriously think it’ll be one of the Old Guard factions, because the denomination skews older still as a whole.

However, the attendees of the Annual Meeting are starting to skew younger. Annual Meeting attendees are the folks allowed to vote for the next president. And younger Southern Baptists tend to be Calvinist, too. And they may well decide they want to pretend that the SBC is indeed addressing its scandals head-on.

Whoever wins, though, the SBC loses. That’s a foregone conclusion. I’ve seen no indication whatsoever that any of the candidates named will have any effect at all on the SBC’s decline.

All the winner will do is establish exactly what archway of failure the SBC will lurch through next.

NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides! See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...