Just weeks after the Southern Baptist Convention was rocked by a report documenting sweeping mishandling of sexual abuse, the nation's largest Protestant denomination is gathering in Southern California for its annual meeting, where delegates known as "messengers" will elect a new SBC president. What happens in the SBC, with its deep connections to the Republican Party and the anti-abortion movement, inevitably affects U.S. politics more broadly. But this year, the reverse is true as well: The fight for the SBC presidency doesn't just track the nation's wider political divides but seems largely driven by them.
As Michelle Boorstein reports at the Washington Post, this year's meeting began Sunday with a pugilistic tone, at an opening event hosted by the Conservative Baptist Network, part of the denomination's most right-wing faction. At the event, neo-Calivinist megachurch pastor John MacArthur inveighed against progressive positions on race and women's roles in the church by declaring, "You don't advance the kingdom of God by lining up with the kingdom of Satan" — the latter apparently exemplified by the threat of "women preachers, social justice, then racism, then CRT, then victimization."
The SBC is no stranger to intense internal politics. In the late 1970s and '80s, the denomination underwent a conservative revolution — or, in SBC parlance, a "conservative resurgence" — led by right-wing leaders like Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler who sought to transform the previously moderate church into one oriented around staunchly conservative positions on both theology and social issues. (Although the SBC was originally founded to defend slavery, the first Southern Baptist to become president, after all, was Jimmy Carter.) Conservatives were appointed throughout SBC leadership positions and seminaries amid a purge of liberals and moderates, and the new leadership went on to institute a more literal approach to theology, which in turn helped cement conservative positions on social issues like gender roles. One of the most consequential changes was a new article added to the Southern Baptist statement of faith, affirming the idea of complementary gender roles, under which wives must graciously submit to the authority of their husbands. In response, Carter left the denomination, along with nearly 2,000 SBC churches.
As historian of Christianity Diana Butler Bass wrote recently at Religion Dispatches, what was long cast as an SBC "myth about saving their church from liberalism" was in fact "always about exerting control — especially about controlling women." And as Mark Wingfield wrote at Baptist News Global this March, "After running off all the left wing and most of the moderate wing of the SBC, the convention was left with a national body that sits even further right on the American political and theological spectrum than it did before."
Nonetheless, this year's election revolves around the charge that the SBC has become too liberal and is at risk of being overrun by "wokeism" and critical race theory (CRT). That charge has been lobbed with particular vehemence by conservative Florida SBC pastor Tom Ascol, the leading right-wing candidate for the convention's presidency. In an explanation of his candidacy earlier this year, Ascol declared that the SBC is "in danger of being derailed by the subtle infiltration of secularism and godless ideologies into our ranks."
The substance of these charges dates back two years, to a complicated 2019 debate about the question of CRT — a debate which, notably, predated the broader Republican panic about the academic theory by more than a year. As Thiel College religious studies professor Daniel Eppley explains at Political Research Associates, in 2019 an SBC pastor in California proposed a resolution for that year's denominational gathering to condemn CRT. The pastor said he was motivated by concerns that too many SBC parents were sending their children off to college — even to Bible college — only to have them return talking about "white privilege." After lengthy debate, including intense pushback from some Black pastors concerned about racism in the denomination, the original resolution was revised into a compromise that pleased hardly anyone: CRT could be an acceptable tool for Christian scholars, the new text maintained, while warning that it could also be misused.
In 2020, as CRT became a national right-wing focus, the presidents of all six SBC seminaries released a statement condemning it as incompatible with the faith and warning seminary faculty not to teach it. Some Black pastors left the denomination in response, Eppley notes, and others threatened to do the same if the SBC passed a resolution condemning CRT. One pastor, Joel Bowman of Louisville, Kentucky, told the Washington Post at the time, "I can't sit by and continue to support or even loosely affiliate with an entity that is pitching its tent with white supremacy."
The resolution that ultimately emerged in June 2021, "On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation," again attempted to hedge its position against the complaints of both sides, and once again made no one happy. As Boorstein notes, conservatives were also disgruntled about perceived trends in the convention regarding the role of women and calls for more robust responses to sex abuse. (Messengers at the 2021 meeting also voted to launch an investigation into how the denomination had handled sex abuse allegations, leading to the explosive report that made national headlines in May. On Tuesday night, Kate Shullnutt reports at Christianity Today, the messengers followed up by voting to overhaul the SBC's response to abuse, including by creating a public database of abusers.)
Now the issue has returned one more time with the candidacy of Ascol, who has called the 2019 resolution a "disaster" and argued that "Critical race theory and intersectionality are godless ideologies that are indebted to radical feminism and postmodernism and neo-Marxism."
If that sounds exactly like the rhetoric of the secular right-wing, that's because Ascol's nomination has been deeply enmeshed with it. Many of Ascol's supporters, reported Religion News Service's Bob Smietana last week, hail from a coalition of three right-wing groups — the Conservative Baptist Network (which hosted Sunday night's event); Founders Ministries, which Ascol himself leads; and a Christian nationalist group called Sovereign Nations — which argues the convention "has drifted away from the Bible towards liberalism."
This faction of the denomination is so closely tied to conservative politics that, as Baptist News Global reported in March, when its members nominated Ascol and fellow right-winger Voddie Baucham — an icon in fundamentalist homeschooling circles who has denounced racial justice movements — they broke with longstanding tradition, making the announcement through the right-wing publication Daily Wire, rather than the SBC's official news service.
In a statement nominating the two men published on Founders Ministries, 11 SBC leaders outlined their reasoning in terminology that merged conservative theology and conservative politics: "While baptisms and evangelism continue their freefall, a small group of leaders steers our institutions ever closer to the culture, from radical feminism marked as 'soft complementarianism' to the false gospel of Critical Theory and Intersectionality. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, we are all made one in him. But this 'Race Marxism' divides everyone by their most superficial features, in a never-ending cycle of recrimination and hate."
A month earlier, in February, the term "Race Marxism" had swept across social media with the publication of a book by the same name by James Lindsay, a right-wing activist who has been credited by Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo as "the theory expert" behind conservatives' anti-CRT crusade. The SBC's use of the term is no accident. Although Lindsay first made his name in the militant New Atheist movement, over the last year or so he's become deeply involved in the SBC's internal debates, with the help of leaders like Ascol.
As Smietana reported in 2021, Ascol's Founders Ministries featured Lindsay in a documentary inveighing against the supposed "liberal infiltration of the SBC" by ideas like CRT. In a promotional clip shared on Twitter, which intersperses footage of moderate SBC leaders with shots of burning buildings and street protests, Lindsay warns that the best way to "end Christianity" would be to "make 'em woke." This January, Lindsay went a step further, calling for the SBC to eject leaders who don't denounce CRT forcefully enough, saying on his podcast, "we really don't want to see our large religious institutions taken over by a totalitarian ideology that's trying to infect and command everything. We want to have something that can stand up against it."
In his 2021 report, Smietana also noted that the website where Lindsay publishes his work is owned by a leader of Sovereign Nations, part of the SBC triad that is backing Ascol, and which has claimed that liberal philanthropist George Soros "purchased the support" of many insufficiently conservative Christian churches. This week Sovereign Nations released a new video, "The Only Way Forward," in which Ascol addresses its "Great Awokening" conference, noting in the text, "The challenge to remove the stain of Marxism from the SBC is not a struggle that Christians can opt to 'sit out.'"
In the lead-up to this week's convention meeting, noted Revs. Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood at the religion news Substack A Public Witness, Ascol has continued this secular-flavored hard-right strategy, scoring appearances on numerous right-wing media outlets associated with the Trump/MAGA movement. For instance, he was featured by David Brody, a longtime analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network and author of a "spiritual biography" of Trump, who now hosts a political talk show on far-right TV network Real America's Voice. Brody introduced Ascol by saying, "If we're going to make America great again, we're going to have to make the church great again" by electing "better leaders." Ascol in turn told Brody, "you better bet your bottom dollar that leftists are trying to take [the SBC] over for their own purposes."
Ascol has also recently appeared on One America News Network, Glenn Beck's BlazeTV, Sirius XM's right-wing Patriot Channel and on shows hosted by author and activist Eric Metaxas — emcee of the Jericho March that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. Ascol has been praised by non-Southern Baptists on these shows, Kaylor and Underwood note, for seeking to right the ship of "one of the most culturally influential enterprises we had in the country" and for "blasting SBC leaders for abandoning biblical truth and embracing radical feminism and race Marxism."
This Monday, Kaylor noted in another piece, Ascol appeared on the podcast of Jenna Ellis, one of the lawyers who helped Trump craft his baseless argument that the 2020 election was stolen. In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Kaylor observed, Ascol wrote sympathetically about "stolen election" claims on Twitter, shared tweets from Trump's "Stop the Steal" attorneys and suggested on his podcast that election fraud had occurred. After the Biden inauguration, Kaylor added, Ascol called Vice President Kamala Harris a "Jezebel" who was "going to hell."
Right-wing candidate Tom Ascol, who claims "leftists" are trying to take over the SBC, has retweeted "Stop the Steal" messages and called Kamala Harris a "Jezebel" who is "going to hell."
And on Tuesday morning, reported the Houston Chronicle's Robert Downen, when the Conservative Baptist Network held a breakfast meeting at the SBC event, Kirk of Turning Point USA showed up to a hero's welcome, warning attendees that many pastors were "complicit" in destroying Christianity.
As Kaylor and Underwood write, the prominence of the Conservative Baptist Network and its allies "reflects an intensification of two important trends in the SBC": "a strengthening fundamentalism that allows no dissent" and "leads to a constant purging of the ranks" and "the rising influence of an unapologetic and partisan Christian Nationalism" that envisions the SBC as "a denomination intricately intertwined with a particular political vision for America."
Two of the main architects of the original conservative takeover of the SBC have fallen into disgrace — with Paige Patterson accused of mishandling rape allegations at an SBC seminary and Paul Pressler accused of sexually abuse by multiple men — but the movement they launched continues to gain momentum. So at least one Marxist idea may have indeed gotten entrenched within the SBC: The revolution never ends.