Op-Ed: Southern Baptists are experiencing a moment of coming closer to Jesus
When Jesus got mad at the religious leaders of his time, he called them “Blind guides” who “take out a gnat but swallow a camel”. In the wake of this week’s burning public revelations about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, that description applies to the leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
In the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, two dates stand out. The first is 1845, the year in which the denomination was formed. The southerners resented the push of the Northern Baptists to end the scourge of slavery, so they separated to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Certainly not an auspicious start.
The second crucial date was 1979, when conservatives mobilized to wrest control of the confessional apparatus from those they considered too liberals. I argue that the “Southern Baptist liberal” label has always been an oxymoron, but several powerful interests, led by two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, thought otherwise.
In an origin story often repeated in SBC circlesPressler, a judge in Texas, and Patterson, president of Criswell College who became an influential president of two Southern Baptist seminaries and president of the SBC, plotted their acquisition at Café du Monde in New Orleans in 1977. Recognizing that the president of the SBC they had extensive naming powers that could influence the denomination as a whole, mobilized members to elect a succession of conservative (some call them fundamentalist) presidents, starting in 1979.
The ripple effects were enormous. Politically, the new leadership drove the denomination strongly to the right. According to Jimmy Carter, when a delegation of SBC officials visited him at the White House shortly after the takeover, Bailey Smith, an Oklahoma pastor, informed the Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher: “We pray, Mr. President, that you abandon humanism. secular as his religion. “(When Carter related the meeting to his wife, Rosalynn, that evening, he asked,” What is a secular humanist? “She didn’t know either.)
The effects of the Patterson-Pressler putsch have taken hold over time. When a series of SBC presidents appointed conservative comrades to seminary councils and sectarian agencies, a ferocious purge of “liberals” ensued.
Theologically, the new regime insisted on biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is completely free of errors or contradictions. The creation accounts of Genesis, for example, had to be taken literally. But their real fervor was directed against women in leadership positions.
The purge was devastating. Careers have been ruined, nearly 2,000 congregations have left the denomination, and dozens if not hundreds of talented women have been denied access to the pulpit. More recently, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention they trained their eyes on the dreaded critical theory of race.
For the leadership of the cabal, it seems that the midges are not lacking.
The size of the camels they were willing to swallow while conducting search and destruction missions against the liberals came up with this week’s analysis. 288 page report on the culture of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The report, compiled by an outside group, Guidepost Solutions, found that the denomination’s executive committee kept a list of more than 700 pastors accused of being predators. Rather than disciplining ministers or preventing them from attacking others, the leadership on the advice of lawyers remained silent, going so far as to vilify those who filed complaints. Thursday evening the leaders published a list of alleged offenders.
“Behind the scenes,” the report found, “lawyers advised not to say anything and do nothing, even when callers were identifying predators still on the SBC pulpits.”
The report contains revelations about the executive committee itself.
One member, famous SBC pastor Johnny Hunt, a former convention chairman, allegedly sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife. Investigators cited her husband and four others of her as “credible” corroborators. Hunt, who denies the complaint, resigned a week before the report was made public.
Reportedly, D. August Boto, general counsel of the executive committee and interim chair of the committee, described the survivors’ attempts to get the SBC to respond to their allegations as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
Among the many stories of abuse that have been ignored in series, the report documents the claims of a woman who claims she was repeatedly victimized by the pastor in her church starting at the age of 14. She became pregnant and was forced to publicly apologize and was forbidden from naming her father, who went on to serve another Southern Baptist congregation.
It turns out that the Roman Catholic Church has nothing on Southern Baptists when it comes to covering up sexual misconduct.
Other accounts are equally heartbreaking, but lest anyone misunderstand, the real danger facing the Southern Baptist Convention is critical race theory and preaching women. Midges and camels.
Both Pressler and Patterson have fallen out of favor. Pressler, the judge, is embroiled in civil proceedings on charges of raping a young man. Patterson was fired from his seminary presidency in 2018 by the SBC executive committee, which cited his mishandling of a student’s rape charge. That same year it was reported in an open letter signed by thousands of SBC members for comments in recorded sermons on the appearance of women and for advising wives physically abused by their husbands to remain silent.
Doctrinal purity, I suppose, has its place. But it also runs the risk of misplaced priorities. When the Southern Baptist Convention comes to terms with its sexual abuse crisis, it would do well to consider a question Jesus asked his followers: “Why do you look the bacon of sawdust in your brother’s eyes and not pay attention to the plank in your own eyes? “
Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right”.