NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention tamped down a push from the right at its largest meeting in decades on Tuesday, electing a new president who has worked to bridge racial divides in the church and defeating an effort to make an issue of critical race theory.
Ed Litton, a pastor from Alabama, won 52% of the vote in a runoff against Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor backed by a new group called the Conservative Baptist Network that has sought to move the already-conservative denomination further right.
Litton, who is white, was nominated by Fred Luter, the only Black pastor to serve as president of the United States' largest Protest denomination. Luter praised Litton's commitment to racial reconciliation and said he has dealt compassionately with the issue of sexual abuse within SBC churches, another hot-button subject at the gathering of more than 15,000 church representatives.
Stone had campaigned aggressively, including speaking at churches across the country. And the Conservative Baptist Network had encouraged supporters to come to the meeting as voting delegates.
But in the end, the message that seemed to resonate with voters was that Stone — who supported a motion to repudiate critical race theory, an academic construct for framing systemic racism that has been a target of religious and political conservatives — was a divisive choice.
"We're a family, and at times it seems like an incredibly dysfunctional family." Litton said after the results were announced. "But we love each other."
Delegates rejected a proposal that would have explicitly denounced critical race theory. Instead they approved a consensus measure that does not mention it by name but rejects any view that sees racism as rooted in "anything other than sin."
The measure also affirmed a 1995 resolution apologizing for the history of racism in a denomination that was founded in 1845 in support of slavery and for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."
One white delegate urged the convention to denounce critical race theory by name, saying it held him "guilty because of the melanin content of my skin." But another argued that the convention shouldn't be swayed by a political movement that has already seen some state legislatures ban teaching of the theory.
"If some people in this room were as passionate about the gospel as they are about critical race theory, we would win this world to Christ," said James Merritt, chairman of the resolutions committee and a former convention president.
Several Black pastors have voiced frustration over critical race theory debates playing out in the SBC instead of the denomination confronting systemic racism itself.
The two-day meeting concludes Wednesday when delegates will consider proposals for a sweeping review of the SBC's response to abuse in its churches, an issue that recently erupted with secret recordings and leaked letters purportedly showing that some leaders tried to slow-walk efforts to hold churches accountable and to intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue. Stone was among those specifically called out.
On Tuesday, Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines, speaking with a survivor at his side, proposed a task force that would oversee a review of the denomination's actions — a broader investigation than the one announced last week by the SBC's Executive Committee.
"I stand with SBC church abuse survivors," Gaines said.
The convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring that "any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor."
Opponents had argued that it precludes the possibility of an abuser repenting and transforming, but proponents from the resolution committee emphasized a scriptural injunction that pastors be "above reproach."
Voters gave final approvals to constitutional amendments excluding churches that affirm ethnic discrimination or act against the convention's "beliefs regarding sexual abuse." Still to be debated was how those standards on abuse apply in practice.
In an enthusiastically applauded address, outgoing president J.D. Greear, himself a target of criticism, lamented "the slander, the distortion, the character assassination and baseless accusations" some SBC leaders have endured. While denouncing liberalism, he also criticized what he saw as power-seeking and divisiveness over secondary issues.
The SBC cannot be a "cultural affinity group" or "voting bloc," Greear said, but must focus on its spiritual mission.
On critical race theory, he said it arises from "a worldview at odds with the gospel," but he heeded "leaders of color who tell us that our denunciations of justice movements fall on deaf ears when we remain silent on the suffering of our neighbors."
Pastor Bryan Kent of Compass Church in Mason, Mich., commended Greear's remarks, saying that if critical race theory "has an echo of truth among our brothers and sisters of color … we should not be in such a rush to condemn."
Several Black pastors have already departed the SBC over what they said was racial insensitivity from overwhelmingly white leadership.
Dwight McKissic, a prominent Black pastor from Texas who had planned to join that exodus if Stone won, tweeted in response to Litton's election: "God has a plan for the SBC & I want to be a part of it. Truly, racism was rejected 2day!"
Jennifer Lyell, one of several survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches who has been advocating for convention reforms, also applauded the result: "I know that no SBC President alone can resolve the systemic problems with abuse of power & unrepentant sin in SBC leadership," she tweeted. "I am immensely thankful that a shepherd who listens was elected."
Some Stone supporters saw promise in his vote totals.
"Tough beat," SBC Executive Committee member Rod D. Martin tweeted. "But it's the work of a single year. We fought the entire denominational machine, plus all their MSM friends. We didn't win. But this result shows we can."
Stone received 36% of the votes in the first ballot, followed by Litton at 32%. That eliminated two other candidates including longtime Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, who got 26%.
"My prayers and congratulations are with Pastor Ed Litton as Southern Baptists continue to serve our churches and communities," Stone said in a statement after the final result was announced.
Delegates also approved a strategic plan seeking to increase churches, missionaries, giving and teen ministry, the latest in a series of efforts to reverse steady declines in membership and baptisms over the past 15 years. Membership is now 14 million.
It was standing room only in the 18,000-seat hall where, with Nashville's COVID-19 precautions lifted, attendees were packed closely without facemasks. One small section was reserved for those wearing masks.
Last year's annual meeting was canceled due to the pandemic.