On Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Bart Barber, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a hell of a get, even for this particular show, considering all the reasons the head of an organization rife with sexual abuse might not want to speak on national television. Add to that the denomination’s anti-abortion, anti-civil rights stances, it’s just not a good time to be a Baptist.
Anderson Cooper even opened the segment saying of Barber, “we weren’t sure he would want to sit down and discuss weighty matters of church and state, but he did.”
If the goal was to present a more compassionate side of the SBC, the interview was a success… at least for a moment. But if it was an attempt to stop the bleeding in terms of people leaving the faith, I doubt this segment did the SBC any favors.
Perhaps the best moment from Barber came when he was asked directly about the sexual abuse crisis.
Remember that reporters found that, over the previous decade, more than 250 staffers or volunteers had been “charged with sex crimes” against more than 700 victims. We also learned in the SBC’s own investigation that a private list of alleged predators (that wasn’t shared with member churches) included “703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated.” It’s so bad that the Department of Justice is now investigating “multiple SBC entities,” but not specific individuals, about their mishandling of sexual abuse cases.
Barber didn’t downplay the seriousness of those charges:
COOPER: When you read that report and to read accounts of people who were brave enough to call in to the Executive Committee, to report abuse, for them to be ignored—
BARBER: That’s not a strong enough word. We didn’t just ignore them. Sometimes we impugned their motives. Sometimes we attacked them. The reason why I’m president of the Southern Baptist Convention is because our churches do not agree with that and have taken action to correct those things.
BARBER: I have strong feelings about this. I’m—it’s not just anger, although I’m angry about it. God called me to be a pastor when I was 11. I believe in this. For people to sully this hurts me. I’m not doing this to try to accomplish some PR objective for us. I’m doing this because I wanna serve God well.
Those are solid answers. Whether or not Barber will do enough for the victims (and to prevent future victims) remains to be seen, but I believe he’s sincere about taking the problem seriously. More seriously than his predecessors, for damn sure. For those reasons, many Southern Baptists, even some who have been very critical of the SBC, praised Barber for his appearance on the program.
Again, that was the highlight for him, only because he showed he cared. None of that takes away from the very real fact that, until now, the SBC has ignored and downplayed and looked the other way as these abuses occurred.
Things broke down, however, when Barber was asked about the SBC’s positions on various “culture war” issues.
For example, Cooper lobbed a predictable question about the church’s extreme anti-abortion stance given that a 10-year-old girl recently had to flee Ohio to obtain the procedure in another state. How could Barber be okay with that?
COOPER: Even in that case, you think she should have the child?
BARBER: I do.
COOPER: She should be forced to have the child?
BARBER: I think, um, I don’t want that to sound like I don’t have tremendous compassion for her and her circumstance. I wish we could put an end to ten-year-olds being raped. I’m—I’m trying to work against child sexual abuse because I think that’s atrocious.
COOPER: But you don’t see forcing a ten-year-old child to go to term with—a baby th—from rape, as abuse of a child.
BARBER: I see it as horrible. I see it as preferable to killing someone else.
He didn’t say it directly, but the bottom line is that he wants to force children to have their rapists’ babies, regardless of circumstance, because he believes the fetus matters more than its mother. It’s a barbaric stance, void of any real compassion. It’s the end result of believing a fetus is a person from the moment of conception, deserving of more rights than the person carrying it. It’s also perfectly in line with how most Southern Baptists feel. Barber wasn’t saying anything that isn’t preached in SBC churches across the country. They don’t care how badly a woman suffers in pregnancy, or even if a fetus is viable or cared for. They’re hell-bent on forced birth and it’s only recently that many of them are realizing how that sounds in the real world.
How could anyone listen to that cruelty and think, “Yep, I wanna be a Baptist”?
It only got worse when Anderson, a gay man with adopted children, asked Barber if same-sex marriage was allowed in the SBC. (This wasn’t in doubt. The answer is no. The question was how Barber would answer it.)
Barber ended up promoting “conversion therapy,” which is both dangerous and ineffective, while saying out loud that someone in a same-sex marriage could not possibly be a “good Christian.” He also denied the existence of trans people for good measure.
BARBER: We’re committed to the idea of gender is a gift from God. We’re committed to the idea that men and women ought to be united with one another in marriage.
COOPER: Do you still believe that gay people can be, should be converted out of being gay?
BARBER: I believe that sinners should be converted out of being sinners, and that applies to all of us.
COOPER: Can somebody be a good Christian, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and be gay or lesbian and married to a person of the same sex?
Again, those responses weren’t surprising. It’s what you’d expect the head of the SBC to say. But for someone in charge of the largest Christian denomination in the country to suggest gay people can turn straight and that people in same-sex marriages are dismissed by the God of Unconditional Love is yet another example of religious cruelty.
The anti-LGBTQ pope once asked, “Who am I to judge?”
Bart Barber, asked if a married gay person can be a good Christian, went with “No.”
Barber was also asked about his personal politics. He said he didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, specifically because of how Trump treated women (i.e. The Access Hollywood tape) and his cruel rhetoric about legal immigration.
In 2020, however, he voted for Trump.
BARBER: Part of what changed is that, um, the President advocated for some legislation on, uh, sentencing reform, uh, somethin’ that really addressed some injustice that affected, uh, minority communities. I was encouraged by the consistent pro-life support that the President gave. I didn’t expect that.
I would have had more respect for that answer if Barber just admitted Trump’s anti-abortion judicial appointments were all that mattered to him. Instead, he gave a bizarre answer about sentencing reform that the Republican Party has gone on to oppose. More to the point, Trump’s treatment of women and his policies toward refugees and immigrants were terrible during his administration. It’s not like they got better from when he campaigned.
Why was Barber willing to overlook all the concerns that mattered to him in 2016 by the time 2020 rolled around? Why did women and immigrants stop mattering to him? After all, Trump’s anti-abortion position was already solidified when he ran for office; he said he was against it, even if he said it inartfully.
We never got that answer. (It’s possible Cooper asked him about all this and the responses were cut for time—these interviews always last a while—but there’s no indication from Barber that he was unfairly portrayed.)
Despite saying the election was legitimate and Joe Biden was president (both non-controversial statements in the real world), Barber backed off when discussing Trump’s recent actions, including his incitement of the January 6 insurrection attempt. At best, he said Trump’s role would make Barber “less likely” to vote for him in the future. (But that means there’s still a chance!) He hid behind the line that he now speaks for his denomination rather than himself, but he could have denounced Trump more forcefully. He chose not to.
He did the same thing with Christian nationalism, saying he opposed the idea of “Christian dominion” knowing full well that his anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ positions are being imposed all over the country because of people who share his faith. He could have been more forceful about the importance of church/state separation, and how his beliefs should only apply to Southern Baptists, and how they shouldn’t dictate public policy. He chose not to.
Barber was given softball questions on so many important hot button issues and, each time, his faith pushed him to take the least ethical road imaginable.
The Southern Baptist Convention has gone from a record high 16.3 million members in 2003 to 14,089,947 today. It’s a steep drop and the numbers show no sign of slowing down. Interviews like these help explain why.
Even in Barber’s finest hour so far, as the most powerful leader in his faith showcasing his religion to the widest TV audience he’ll ever get, he made it clear that Jesus is homophobic, that his God wants to further traumatize child victims of sexual assault, and that the thrice-married racist who paid hush money to porn stars he was having affairs with when his current wife was pregnant with his fifth child and who remains a threat to democracy could still get his vote.
It just goes to show you: If you’re looking for moral decency, you won’t find it in the SBC. Your ethics—and your kids—are safer outside of it.