Eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift famously wrote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
A modern-day addendum might be: “When the last redoubt of Christian cultural influence is revealed in America, you may know it by this sign — that the media are all in a confederacy to demolish it.”
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., representing some 48,000 churches and 14 million members. But more importantly, to borrow a phrase from the great William F. Buckley, the SBC is one of the last American church bodies to stand athwart the country’s swift and steady slide toward LGBT obeisance, feminism, and critical race theory, yelling, “Stop!”
In contrast to other large Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), it does not permit women pastors, does not affirm gay or transgender lifestyles, and has been resistant to replacing biblical justice with social justice.
In fact, last November, six SBC seminary presidents were so alarmed at CRT’s influence on church culture, they released a statement making it clear that while their institutions condemn racism, any affirmation of CRT or Intersectionality is incompatible with Southern Baptists’ statement of faith.
In the last few years, though, influences from within and without have begun to weaken the SBC’s resolve to conform to Scripture rather than public opinion.
Rogue churches began hiring female preachers. Individual SBC professors and leaders promoted conferences that introduced compromising language on LGBT ethics. And the 2019 Resolutions Committee transformed a local pastor’s anti-CRT proposal into a declaration that explicitly endorses it as a “useful analytical tool” for understanding “systemic” racism.
That’s to say nothing of the former head of the SBC lobbying arm routinely politicizing the organization by excoriating Trump voters before leaving last month in a storm of leaks and intrigue that would make the writers of “House of Cards” blush.
This struggle, that so mirrors our national divisions, has come to a head this week in Nashville. At the SBC’s 2021 convention, the denomination is holding an election that will help decide which direction it will take — whether it will remain doctrinally conservative or move toward more progressive theology.
What is in no doubt is that the country’s largest, most influential media outlets have picked a side. And their coverage makes it plain they plan to do everything in their power to see the denomination transformed in their likeness.
In the last week alone, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and the left-wing Religious News Service, have all run extensive stories on the convention casting the conservative side as bigots and extremists.
Even Apple got in on the act, making the SBC convention the top story on its daily news podcast Monday and labeling middle-way presidential candidate, Dr. Albert Mohler, “ultra conservative” (I guess that would make the candidate to Mohler’s right, ultra-ultra-conservative).
Nor are these reports simply back-page, below-the-fold special interest coverage. Understanding the cultural importance of what happens in the SBC, the media is pulling out all the stops with front-page placement designed to apply maximum pressure on skittish, small-town convention voters unused to having the glaring light of the world’s biggest media outlets pointed in their direction.
CNN’s story, for instance, calls those who want to prevent CRT from influencing church teaching a “right-wing revolt” from a “hardcore vanguard of conservatives.” NPR gave their coverage the sneering headline, “America’s Top Evangelical Group Is Deciding If They’re Further Right Than Trump.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes unnamed observers (always unnamed) saying the vote will “test the direction of White evangelicalism.”
But perhaps no outlet made its intentions as clear as MSNBC. Until cooler heads evidently amended their headline to, “Southern Baptist Convention 2021 offers a Trump and critical race theory litmus test,” it read, “The racist hypocrisy propping up the Southern Baptist war on critical race theory.”
The message telegraphed to SBC rank and file through all of this is unmistakable — vote the way we want you to or we will make sure the world sees you as racists.
Perhaps in an effort to offset some of this onslaught, Allen Nelson IV, an Arkansas pastor from one of the conservative groups introducing an anti-CRT resolution, agreed to an interview with The New York Times. While the larger facts of the story were correct, the descriptive details suggested he and those like him are the radical aggressors in a culture war. He was startled to see himself described as part of an “ultraconservative populist uprising.”
“My issue with the NYT saying the conservative movement at this year’s SBC is ‘ultra conservative’ is it makes it sound as though the conservative spectrum is very broad,” he told me. “In reality, it’s not as broad as some want to make it. Those in our convention promoting women preaching to men and the ideologies of CRT/I want to claim they are still theological conservatives. But that’s simply not true. They are progressives. They are the ones who have pushed to the left and we are the ones who have remained true to Baptist conservativism. Baptist = conservative. It’s who we are. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”
As the convention began on Tuesday, the media pressure didn’t let up.
Live-tweeting during one vote, The Washington Post’s religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey noted archly, “The executive committee just struggled to elect a prominent Black pastor to a chair position.”
Yet Bailey did not see fit to comment when voters overwhelmingly chose a white man over a black candidate for president of the Pastors Conference. Why not? Perhaps because in this case, the black candidate was known to be more theologically conservative than the white pastor who won the position.
Tom Ascol, pastor and president of the Founders Ministry, a group that has been organizing the conservatives, told me the attention big media is giving to the convention is indicative of at least two things. “One,” he says, “they recognize the significance of the awakening of renewed conservatism in the convention for American religion and culture. Second, they understand that if they can impact the perception of the SBC to their readers that they might be able to offset some of that impact by slanting their reporting of events toward their usual leftist agendas.”
Or as Pastor Gabriel Hughes of Lindale, Texas, put it, “What you’re seeing is a worldly desire to burn this organization down.”
At the time of this writing, big media appears to be winning.
Last-minute shenanigans akin to October surprises abounded in the final days leading up to the convention. Unknown parties leaked secret recordings to numerous legacy outlets, and the day before the vote, a Washington Post contributor on the ground claimed the most-conservative presidential candidate harangued an abuse victim and left her in tears. By the time several witnesses disputed his account, his version of events had traveled throughout the event. The more progressive candidate won in a runoff vote by a razor-thin margin and the Resolutions Committee ended Tuesday night having blocked numerous proposals that would have explicitly denounced CRT.
The New York Times immediately ran the headline, “Southern Baptists Head Off Takeover by Conservative Insurgents.” (Later, perhaps realizing the celebratory tone was a little more transparent than it should be, the paper amended that to a more mild, “Southern Baptist Convention Elects Ed Litton as New President.”)
Allen, Ascol, Hughes, and the rest of the theological conservatives have no megaphones other than their small ministry broadcasts. They are, to use a biblical analogy, a band of Davids facing a behemoth media Goliath that knows if the SBC falls to the secular religion of social justice, no institution in America will be able to withstand them.