Commentary: The Southern Baptists are having a come-to-Jesus moment

Randall Balmer, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

When Jesus became exasperated with the religious leaders of his day, he called them “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” In the wake of the recent searing public revelations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, that description applies to the leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

In the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, two dates stand out. The first is 1845, when the denomination was formed. Southerners resented the push from Baptists in the North to end the scourge of slavery, so they seceded to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Hardly an auspicious beginning.

The second pivotal date was 1979, when conservatives mobilized to wrest control of the denominational apparatus from those they considered too liberal. I contend that the label “liberal Southern Baptist” has always been an oxymoron, but several powerful interests, led by two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, thought otherwise.

In an origin story oft-repeated in SBC circles, Pressler, a judge in Texas, and Patterson, president of Criswell College who became an influential president of two Southern Baptist seminaries and president of the SBC, plotted their takeover at Café du Monde in New Orleans back in 1977. Recognizing that the SBC president had broad appointive powers that could sway the denomination as a whole, they mobilized members to elect a succession of conservative (some call them fundamentalist) presidents, beginning in 1979.

The ripple effects were huge. Politically, the new leadership steered the denomination hard to the right. According to Jimmy Carter, when a delegation of SBC officials visited him at the White House shortly after the takeover, Bailey Smith, a pastor from Oklahoma, informed the Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher: “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.” (When Carter recounted the meeting to his wife, Rosalynn, that evening, he asked: “What is a secular humanist?” She didn’t know either.)

The effects of the Patterson-Pressler putsch took hold over time. As a string of SBC presidents systematically appointed fellow conservatives to seminary boards and denominational agencies, a vicious purge of “liberals” ensued.


Theologically, the new regime insisted on biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is completely without error or contradiction. The Genesis accounts of creation, for example, had to be taken literally. But their real fervor was directed against women in leadership positions.

The purge was devastating. Careers were ruined, nearly 2,000 congregations left the denomination, and dozens if not hundreds of talented women were denied access to the pulpit. More recently, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have trained their sights on the dreaded critical race theory.

For the leadership cabal, it seems there is no shortage of gnats.

The size of the camels they were willing to gulp at the same time they were conducting search-and-destroy missions against liberals came to light with the 288-page report on the culture of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.


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