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

Only about four in ten Americans overall, and only about one-third of American young adults under the age of 30, agree with either of these statements.

More troublingly, there is solid evidence that attending white evangelical churches actually reinforces racist views. As I show in “White Too Long,” the relationship between holding more racist views and identifying as a white evangelical Protestant is actually stronger among those who attend church more frequently.

Given these disconnects with their fellow Americans, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of white evangelical Protestants — including Southern Baptists — has been declining. Since 2008, the number of white evangelical Protestants has declined significantly as a proportion of the population, from 21% to 14.5%.

In McKissic’s and Moore’s Texas, the percentage of those identifying as white evangelical has dropped from 22.6% in 2008 to 14.2% today, according to Pew and PRRI surveys.

Beth Moore and Dwight McKissic, the very archetypes of the godly woman and model Black minister, were once the much-touted proof of the SBC’s progress. They, along with Russell Moore, represent the voices that have the potential to help the SBC choose a road leading forward rather than one looping endlessly back on its past.

Each of these leaders sees the fights for gender and racial equality as connected and integral to the future of the denomination. In a letter to the SBC Executive Committee written more than a year before his recent departure, Russell Moore identified two primary areas of conflict: the SBC’s unwillingness to take sexual abuse issues seriously and racist attitudes among some in denominational leadership that undermined racial reconciliation efforts.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in late May 2020, Beth Moore  lamented that “the witness of the white church is marred by failing moral courage” and issued a clarion, urgent call for her fellow white evangelicals to speak up: “Why not now?”

In a recent interview with me, McKissic noted that “the same spirit that devalued women is exactly the source of spirit that devalued African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. … ” He identified this spirit bluntly as “a white male supremacy mindset.”

Moore’s departure will force some difficult decisions among Southern Baptist women. In a recent interview with  Religion News Service, Beth Allison Barr, author of “ The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” noted that Moore’s exodus has likely created a shockwave that has yet to be fully felt: “If she walks away, she’s going to carry a lot of these women with her.”

The fallout from the critical race theory debate has already caused a number of other prominent African American pastors to head for the exits.  Ralph D. West, pastor of a Houston megachurch, announced he was severing ties with the SBC. W. Seth Martin, a Black pastor whose Minneapolis church sits just two blocks from where Floyd was killed, also angrily announced he was quitting the SBC. Ditto for Charlie Dates, pastor of a large African American Baptist Church in Chicago that had built an alliance with the SBC.

In an op-ed published at Religion News Service,  Dates  asked incredulously, “When did the theological architects of American slavery develop the moral character to tell the church how it should discuss and discern racism?”  West  expressed similar sentiments in The Baptist Standard: “In this time, these men chose to castigate a framework that points out a truth that cannot be denied. American history has been tainted with racism. America codified it. And more, our public and private institutions propagated it.”

McKissic is clear about the stakes at the upcoming SBC meeting:

“You’re seeing it in real time, the last fight over these matters. … And you’re seeing the pushback from those of us who say women and minorities have been misjudged and undervalued and underappreciated in SBC life. And what we’re fighting for is a seat at the table that is usually categorically denied us. … A lot of our future is riding on the upcoming SBC convention in June.”

The evidence suggests that many women, African Americans and young people are growing weary of the fight. The all-white, all-male SBC leadership can continue to proclaim their own persecuted righteousness. But if they do, many who have struggled to work within the denomination may simply respond with the two-word verdict Dates offered, quoting Harriet Tubman: “We out.”

(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). He is the author of” White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity ” and ” The End of White Christian America,” which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.)

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Religion News Service (RNS) is an independent, nonprofit and award-winning source of global news on religion, spirituality, culture and ethics, reported by a staff of professional journalists. Founded in 1934, RNS seeks to inform readers with objective reporting and insightful commentary, and is relied upon by secular and faith-based news organizations in a number of countries. RNS is affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.