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Southern Baptists Head for Annual Meeting at a Crossroads on Race and Gender

annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention
Image used with licensing through Religion News Service.

(RNS) — The upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention promises to be a reckoning for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.  Data released in May shows it has lost 2.3 million members since 2006. Despite efforts to beef up evangelism, a  drop in membership of 2% in 2018-2019 represents the largest single-year decline in more than a century.

This year’s meeting, the first in the post-Trump era, will also be the first since some headline-making departures from the denomination. Last month, its chief ethicist, Russell Moore, resigned. In March, bestselling author and speaker Beth Moore made waves by denouncing her membership and cutting her ties with the SBC’s publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources. The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent Texas pastor, seems to be standing on the threshold.

In her March 5 interview with  Religion News Service, Beth Moore was blunt: “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists.”

Moore is no liberal renegade. She has described herself as “pro-life from conception to grave.” And she has operated within the SBC’s restrictions on women serving in the role of pastors, despite being one of its most sought-after speakers.

But in 2016, after the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed then-candidate Donald Trump’s comments about his sexual exploits with women, Moore took to Twitter to call on SBC leaders to stand in solidarity with women against such behavior: “Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement & power,” she tweeted. “Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.”

Southern Baptists, who saw her questioning of Trump as a kind of tribal betrayal, answered with a deluge of angry criticism. Moore was further shaken by the tepid response among SBC leaders to sexual abuse in the church in the wake of a 2019  Houston Chronicle  story that documented more than 700 cases of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches over a 20-year period.

The denomination’s fealty to Trump, its refusal to deal with sexual abuse and its unwillingness to face squarely its legacy of systemic racism pushed Moore to the conclusion that the denomination no longer represented who she was.

“I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past,” she said.

In January, the Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of the 1,600-member Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, severed ties with his state convention over its defensive repudiation of critical race theory, a body of scholarship that seeks to identify the institutional and systemic forms of racism in society.

The precipitating event was the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s adoption of a statement flatly condemning critical race theory as “incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message,” the SBC’s statement of faith. McKissic has announced that he would also break with the national convention if a similar resolution is adopted this month.