Alabama pastor Ed Litton will be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention following a narrow election win Tuesday – a victory for the more moderate establishment against a conservative insurgency in an ongoing fight within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The vote comes as the SBC has been grappling with questions about racial reconciliation, gender roles within the clergy and how to handle sex abuse cases. Litton defeated the favored candidate of conservative Southern Baptists, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, in a runoff, receiving support from 52% of the delegates (called “messengers”) to the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville.
“My prayers and congratulations are with Pastor Ed Litton as Southern Baptists continue to serve our churches and our communities,” said Stone in a statement Tuesday evening.
The outcome was uncertain in the days and even hours before the vote, which took place at one of the largest annual meetings in SBC history. More than 13,000 messengers voted in person Tuesday, a year after the 2020 meeting was canceled due to the Covid pandemic.
Lindsay McDonald, the wife of a pastor from Casey, Illinois, told CNN that she and her husband voted for Litton in part because of his “compassion” and understanding of “different people groups” in communicating the Gospel. But she says she expected the race to be close.
“Coming into the convention, we believed that Mike Stone was going to be a very good contender as president,” said McDonald, who has been attending SBC annual meetings for 14 years. “We were thankful that Ed Litton was the one that did win.”
Despite the talk of unity, Southern Baptists appeared headed for a major split over the sorts of culture-war issues usually reserved for politics, such as race and gender. The internal conflict took on a particularly Trumpian tone, pitting a populist group of self-identifying “real” Southern Baptists against those they say would transform the church into something unrecognizable to many traditionalists.
Beyond the presidential race, the fight over the future of the SBC played out over a series of votes on hot-button issues like the use of critical race theory, which the SBC adopted as acceptable in 2019.
While conservatives had hoped to see language rejecting critical race theory, the SBC’s moderate wing appears to have carried the day here, too, as a resolution was passed to reaffirm the church’s position on racial reconciliation and to condemn racism.
“If some people were as passionate about the Gospel as they were about critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow,” said James Merritt, a pastor and former SBC president who chaired the rules committee, during the floor debate over the resolution on race.
In addition, the convention passed a resolution to permanently disqualify those who commit sexual abuse from holding pastoral positions. Conservatives had sought unsuccessfully to change that language in order to allow for more local control over those decisions.
Conservatives struggle to find wins
The SBC, an evangelical church, is also overwhelmingly White and has become increasingly aligned with political conservatives. Like most Christian denominations in the US, the SBC faces shrinking membership – a frequent topic of discussion during the first day of the meeting, on Tuesday.
But where the church’s moderates have advocated a conciliatory approach on race in an attempt to attract a broader group of adherents, a conservative vanguard has coalesced to beat back what it considers an embrace of “wokeness” by the Southern Baptist establishment.
For months, the organizing energy has been on the side of conservatives. The spirit of revolt against the church’s so-called liberals has been driven largely by the work of the Conservative Baptist Network, which encouraged fellow travelers to register as messengers for Nashville.
Stone, who is closely associated with the Conservative Baptist Network, was these conservatives’ favored candidate. He has criticized the church leadership’s adoption of a nonbinding resolution in 2019 that accepted critical race theory as a useful tool for understanding systemic racism. Stone told a Georgia congregation in March in a pitch for his candidacy that he supported passing a resolution in the upcoming meeting rejecting critical race theory.
“Our Lord isn’t woke,” Stone said in remarks first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
There were plenty in attendance on Stone’s side – but not enough to make a majority on most issues. During the floor debate on Tuesday afternoon, one messenger from Las Vegas rose to argue for amending a resolution condemning racism to also reject the use of critical race theory.
“Two years ago, we approved CRT [critical race theory] as a teaching tool and now we need to address it by its name and this resolution doesn’t do so,” the messenger said. “If we do not have the courage to call a skunk a skunk, let’s not say anything.”
Despite his objection, the resolution passed without that amendment.
Conservatives also objected to the tolerance by the SBC of member churches that ordained female pastors – an exceedingly rare practice in the faith. Chad Tivs, a Louisiana pastor, used the session devoted to resolutions to call out one well-known California church for this break with tradition.
“I move that we, the SBC, would break fellowship with Saddleback Baptist Church as they have ordained three ladies as pastors, and all other churches that would choose to follow this path. At the very least, I am asking that the validity of this matter be looked into and a report given at the 2022 convention,” Tivs said.
Outgoing SBC President J.D. Greear, a moderate who dutifully heard out objections and amendments and points of order from conservatives throughout the day, said Tivs should refer his motion to a separate committee – and quickly moved on.
This story has been updated with background information and more details.
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Angela Baraja Jade Gordon, Hayley Simonson and Abbey Clark contributed to this report.