On Religion
The Fight for the Heart of the Southern Baptist Convention
How the Convention’s battle over race reveals an emerging evangelical schism.
By Eliza Griswold
June 10, 2021
Dwight McKissic is one of a growing number of Southern Baptist pastors of color who may leave the denomination, owing to allegations that the group won’t acknowledge the realities of systemic racism.Photographs by Zerb Mellish for The New Yorker
On a recent Friday afternoon, Dwight McKissic sat at a folding table in his three-car garage, on a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Texas, discussing the role that race plays in a growing divide among American evangelicals. McKissic is sixty-four, with a trim white goatee and an imposing stature. For the past thirty-eight years, he has served as the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church, which he grew from a few dozen people to roughly four thousand congregants. In the process, he has become a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention, which, with more than fourteen million members, is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. But McKissic is also one of a growing number of pastors of color who may leave the S.B.C. next week, amid allegations that the organization won’t collectively acknowledge the realities of systemic racism. “I’m hanging on by a thread,” he told me. “Dozens of other pastors have already called me to ask what I’m going to do.”
Across the driveway, beyond a stack of ruined mattresses, sat McKissic’s house, ringed with pink roses. During the storms that struck Texas this past winter, his pipes had frozen and burst, flooding the building. For the past three months, McKissic and his wife had been living at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the denomination’s six major academic institutions. He had served as a trustee of the seminary and had recently donated twenty-four thousand dollars, which included funds to pay tuition for students in need. A few days before I visited, McKissic and his wife had returned to live in an apartment attached to his garage. A pair of Southern Baptist volunteers hovered around the garage, unpacking a case of bottled water for him. McKissic was grateful for the hospitality of the seminary. Nevertheless, he was increasingly uncomfortable remaining among the Southern Baptists.
McKissic thought that it would be hard for an outsider to understand why he’d joined the S.B.C., which has a long and painful history around race. But he’d also seen the organization do a lot of good. He was raised in a Black Baptist church, and, when he started Cornerstone, in 1983, the S.B.C. had helped out with funding. “The Lord told me to start my church in a garage,” he said. “Hardly anybody will lend you three hundred and thirty thousand dollars to start a church in your garage. We were birthed through the mission heart of the S.B.C.” Over the years, McKissic benefitted from the organization’s strategic advice, and attended its fishing outings and trips to Bible schools. The S.B.C. also provided a kind of moral support that was more difficult to quantify. “They were rooting for us,” he told me.
Until recently, much of the racism that he’d encountered in the S.B.C. was “passive,” McKissic said. But after the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, he felt that the racist rhetoric became more overt. McKissic was also unsettled by what he saw as a growing antipathy toward allowing women to serve in leadership roles in the church. The tensions came to a head over the teachings of critical race theory, a loose set of academic tools used to identify systemic racism. C.R.T. emerged in legal scholarship in the seventies, as a method of examining how the law perpetuates racial injustice. Recently, though, it has become a kind of bogeyman for the right: last year, Trump tweeted that critical race theory was “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!” His Administration also issued a memo ordering federal anti-racism training programs to stop using the theory.
For the past few years, prominent members of the S.B.C., including Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s oldest academic institution, have demonized C.R.T., calling it, among other things, Marxist and anti-Biblical. Critics have frightened S.B.C. members with the prospect that the theory could soon be used in public schools to indoctrinate children against conservative values. During the organization’s yearly conference in 2019, the resolutions committee attempted to address the tensions over C.R.T., putting forth a statement that acknowledged incompatibilities between Biblical teachings and the academic theory, yet upheld the reality of structural racism.
Within a week, hard-line conservatives within the S.B.C. seized upon the resolution and cast it as a threat from the left. Throughout 2020, state chapters passed resolutions rejecting critical race theory. Then, last November, on the heels of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the presidents of S.B.C.’s six seminaries issued an incendiary statement calling C.R.T. “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” This outraged many pastors of color; none had suggested applying the teachings of C.R.T to the church, but they felt that its blanket rejection was being used by white leaders to dismiss the realities of racism. “Y’all are arguing over a theory that is just trying to accurately describe the reality I live in,” John Onwuchekwa, a Nigerian-American pastor in Atlanta who left the S.B.C. last July, told me. “It’s like someone is bleeding out on the floor and these guys are fighting over how many pints of blood a person can lose.”
In Texas, McKissic read the statement with dismay. “It’s putting lipstick on racism,” he told me. As he saw it, the fight over C.R.T. was also the fight for the future of the S.B.C. A cabal of reactionary, aging white men was trying to maintain control of the organization, and, in order to hold on to power, those men were stoking people’s fears of creeping liberalism. (A spokesperson for the S.B.C. said that it was a sprawling organization whose members held a wide range of viewpoints.) In January, 2021, McKissic wrote an article titled “We Are Getting Off The Bus,” denouncing the rejection of C.R.T. in the November statement and explaining that he was leaving a Texas chapter of the S.B.C. “I am not willing to allow them to dictate what the belief systems, definitions and authoritative binding, academic and ecclesiastical decisions [are] regarding how race is to be communicated in the local church,” he wrote.
McKissic’s decision took place alongside a larger campaign called #LeaveLOUD, which is led by the Witness, a Black Christian collective urging Christians of color to abandon white churches that continue to condone systemic racism. For decades, people of color have been quietly leaving conservative, majority-white churches and faith-based communities; the Witness hopes to prompt change by encouraging people to make more noise. No denomination is immune to the scourge of racism, but congregants of color say that the problem is particularly visible in the S.B.C. “I have had endless meetings, one-on-one conversations, meetings with the elders, letters to the church, pleading for the barest minimum of dignity and respect when it came to church practices,” Jemar Tisby, the author of “The Color of Compromise” and a leader of the #LeaveLOUD campaign, told me. “And I have been met with gaslighting, denial, minimization, ostracization.”
On Twitter, the backlash to McKissic’s announcement was severe. Several days after he spoke out, he received a letter in the mail from a former S.B.C. member named John Rutledge, saying that Black people had “invaded the church” and that the issues were “beyond the Negroes’ intellectual capacities.” The letter said, of Black people, “Like two-year-olds, they know only how to whine and throw tantrums. The SBC should bid them goodbye and good riddance!” (S.B.C. leaders condemned the letter. Rutledge could not be reached for comment.) McKissic told me that, when he read it, “I was shocked”; he posted it on Facebook “as an example of a real live racist.” Still, McKissic found the letter instructive. “What I appreciated about Mr. Rutledge is that he had the nerve to stick his name to what a small group of people feels in the S.B.C.,” McKissic told me. “To a certain extent, that’s what the anti-C.R.T. crowd reflects, and it’s on those grounds I can’t stay.”
Dwight McKissic holding a Bible. For McKissic and many pastors of color, the Southern Baptist Convention’s future rests on what happens next week in Nashville.
For now, McKissic has remained a member of the national Southern Baptist Convention. Next week, at the group’s 2021 conference, in Nashville, its members will vote on the Convention’s next president. The choice likely lies between the three most viable candidates. One candidate is Mohler, the seminary president who was the face of the charge against C.R.T. He told me recently that C.R.T. goes against “both Christianity and modern political, classical liberty.” Another contender is Mike Stone, a pastor from South Georgia who is even more conservative than Mohler; when we spoke, he called C.R.T. a “weapon of division.” The third is Ed Litton, a soft-spoken pastor who has been involved in racial-reconciliation efforts in Mobile, Alabama, and who believes that the fight over C.R.T. has become a way to avoid talking about the need for structural change in the Southern Baptist Convention. “We have to exercise the muscle of Biblical truth, and also extend compassion to those who have suffered injustice,” Litton told me. If either of the two hard-liners wins, McKissic will leave the S.B.C. “The trajectory of the S.B.C. will have proved to be anti-woman, and hostile to race in a way that can’t be justified by the Bible,” he said. “I just can’t, in good conscience, remain a part of a fellowship like that.”
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded, in 1845, to safeguard the institution of slavery. Northern Baptists had recently ruled that men who owned slaves were no longer permitted to serve as missionaries, and slaveholding Baptists decided to form their own group in protest. Founders of the new organization claimed that, according to the Bible, slavery was “an institution of heaven.” They pushed the idea that Black people were descended from the Biblical figure Ham, Noah’s cursed son, and that their subjugation was therefore divinely ordained. “They were one bad marketing meeting away from calling themselves the ‘Confederate Baptist Convention,’ ” Onwuchekwa, the pastor in Atlanta, told me. In 1863, the Southern Baptists pledged to support the Confederacy in the Civil War. According to a 2018 report put out by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the role that slavery played within the organization, one early leader believed that “slavery was no mere necessary evil, but rather a God-ordained institution to be perpetuated.”
In the twentieth century, the S.B.C. went through a period of relative opening, allowing for wide-ranging readings of scripture and letting its academic institutions flourish. In the twenties, for example, at the time of the Scopes trial and the attendant controversy over the teaching of evolution in schools, the organization left room for its members to accept the conclusions of science. In 1971, the S.B.C. went so far as to say that women should be allowed some measure of choice regarding abortion. But, in the late seventies, there was a backlash within the organization that came to be known as the conservative resurgence. Hard-liners took over the S.B.C., and, in the name of returning it to the teachings of the Bible, pushed back on several social issues. They fought efforts to diversify the leadership and pressed for stricter scriptural interpretations, arguing, for example, that women must submit to the will of men. Before the conservative resurgence, some women were ordained as pastors in the S.B.C.; afterward, that practice largely ended, and hard-liners argued that women also shouldn’t teach Sunday-school classes or even work outside the home.
In a letter from 2012, Paige Patterson, an influential Southern Baptist leader who helped orchestrate the resurgence, argued that the election of Fred Luter, the Convention’s first Black president, would lead the S.B.C. to “slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating.” (A lawyer for Patterson said that “color had nothing to do” with his statement.) Patterson sometimes sexualized young girls in his sermons, saying of one “young co-ed,” that “she wasn’t more than about sixteen but mmmmph . . . she was nice.” (The lawyer denied that the statement was demeaning, and noted, “Sometimes Dr. Patterson’s humor is misunderstood.”) According to Religion News Service, Russell Moore, the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the S.B.C., claimed, in a recently leaked letter, that, at one point, Patterson questioned his decision to hire Trillia Newbell, a woman of color, calling her “that black girl.” (The lawyer declined to comment on this incident, but added, “I do know without a doubt that Dr. Patterson is not racist. . . . He has many very close friends of color.”)
After Trump’s election, these divisions intensified. Some Convention members were shocked at what they saw as Trump’s openly xenophobic, racist, and sexist rhetoric, but those who criticized him faced swift backlash. Mohler, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, initially spoke out against Trump. He came under significant pressure as a result, and, last year, he embraced Trump. In recent years, a few hard-line leaders have also been embroiled in scandals. Patterson was accused of mishandling a rape case and an assault case at two seminaries, and was fired from a leadership position in the S.B.C., in 2018. (Patterson insisted, through the lawyer, that he had handled the cases correctly and that this was not the basis of his termination.) Paul Pressler, a former Texas judge and fellow hard-liner, stands accused of sexually abusing a young man for years. (Pressler denies the allegations.)
Taken together, these events have sparked a renewed resistance within the Convention. A group of theological conservatives have increasingly argued that, though they agree that the Bible is infallible, they don’t believe that scripture should be used to justify all aspects of cultural conservatism. Some prominent Southern Baptists have returned to tenets that were held before the hard-liners took over, in the seventies and eighties. Last month, Saddleback, a megachurch in California co-founded by Rick Warren, ordained three women. This spring, Beth Moore, a hugely popular speaker and author, stepped away from the S.B.C. because of what she saw as its continued racism and sexism, telling Religion News Service that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” Russell Moore also recently left the organization. Other Southern Baptists have stayed, hoping to effect change from within. “We’re trying to figure out what the future is,” Keith Whitfield, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me. “We’ve understood since 1995 that we have to open the doors for other people to come in if we’re going to remain viable for the future—if not, the effectiveness of our gospel witness will be compromised.”
Whitfield told me that he believes the roiling of the S.B.C. is a sign of a broader crisis within American Christianity. “The S.B.C. is a mirror for what’s happening in American evangelicalism, and the culture writ large,” he said. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist and the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, told me that churches have become increasingly politicized. “What’s happened is that people are now sorting themselves into churches that align more with their political ideology than their theology,” he said. “They want the sermons they hear on Sundays to align with what they hear on cable news all week.” Some evangelicals are pushing back against the rightward political tilt of their churches. Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me, “These tensions reflect an emerging schism in what it means to be an evangelical. Theological conservatives are reclaiming the moral authority of following Jesus without blindly following the old battle lines of the culture wars.” Stetzer has called the moment an “evangelical reckoning.”
For many pastors of color, the Southern Baptist Convention’s future rests on what happens during the election in Nashville. Some have already begun to leave. Onwuchekwa, the pastor in Atlanta, was among the first to go. Soon after the death of George Floyd, he gathered about two hundred members of his congregation on Zoom to vote on abandoning the S.B.C. Onwuchekwa listed the costs and benefits of departure: the Southern Baptists had given the church around twenty thousand dollars to get started, and, by remaining, he and his congregants had access to relationships and to funding that could help them continue to feed hungry people in their neighborhood. But leaving was a principled decision: How could they represent an entity that was increasingly hostile to the needs they were addressing on the street? “The S.B.C. is going backwards,” he said. Voting by Zoom poll, ninety-seven per cent of his congregation decided that the church should leave the Convention. “It was an overwhelming affirmation to go,” Onwuchekwa said. Soon after leaving, he tweeted, “Frankly, we should’ve done it sooner.”
In December, several more prominent pastors of color followed suit, including Charlie Dates, of Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church, and Ralph West, who leads the Church Without Walls, a church with nine thousand members in Houston, Texas. West, like others, grew troubled by the aggressive tone that the S.B.C. adopted while Trump was in office. “With their invective and rhetoric, they were providing theological cover for the extreme right,” he said. Still, he was disturbed by the November statement decrying C.R.T. “As I read it, I lost my equilibrium,” he told me. “There were murders on TV and protest after protest, and I couldn’t believe that six grown men could sit down and write this without any compassion.” He knew immediately that it was time to depart. “I said to myself, Ralph West, you carry too much gravitas to stay.” West penned an op-ed and told his church that he was leaving. “The only response I got from them was gratitude: ‘Thank you for standing up and saying what you did.’ ”
For smaller churches, with fewer resources, leaving the network is more difficult. Still, West has received calls from dozens of pastors considering departure, whatever the cost. “All of them are waiting to see what happens in Nashville,” he said. Seth Martin, the pastor of a small church with about a hundred members, located an eight-minute walk from the site where George Floyd was murdered, left in December. After Floyd was killed, Martin had tried to mobilize white Southern Baptist pastors to join the protests, hosting several at his home, but they resisted taking up the cause. “To lose the whiteness of their religion and pick up what it really means to be a follower of Jesus was too hard for them,” he told me. Disheartened, Martin tried to muddle forward. Then came the November statement, in which leaders in the Convention drew “a line in the sand.” Martin was waiting to see what would happen in Nashville. “People are going to be forced to make a decision,” he told me.
Dwight McKissic, the pastor in Arlington, Texas, is going to make the decision about whether to leave the S.B.C. from his garage. If Litton, the pastor from Alabama, is elected, “it would be a wonderful blessing,” McKissic said. If not, he quoted a Biblical proverb: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” For decades now, McKissic said, there had been folly within the S.B.C.—and, if the group were to elect Mohler or Stone, “the Southern Baptist Convention would be returning to its own vomit.” Still, he had hope that the organization would turn around. During the S.B.C. conference in 2017, with Trump recently in office, McKissic put forward a resolution condemning alt-right white supremacy. Two rounds of votes failed. “I almost left then,” he told me. But then a group of supporters, including Ed Stetzer, the Wheaton professor, rallied around him to pass it. “There were all these young people who’d adopted interracial children,” he told me. “Fearing for their own kids had made them see racism in a new way.” This year, race is certain to be a source of debate at the conference: already, various groups have put forth duelling proposals on the issue. McKissic still has hope for the Convention. “I do believe that God is behind all of this disruption,” McKissic said. “Breaking us down in order to recast us in a wonderful future.”
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Eliza Griswold, a contributing writer covering religion, politics, and the environment, has been writing for The New Yorker since 2003. She won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” in 2019.
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