Washington (CNN)There’s a political fight brewing inside the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as the Southern Baptist Convention gathers in Nashville this week for its annual meeting.
On one side is a hardcore vanguard of conservatives seeking to beat back what’s viewed as a move toward “wokeness.” On the other is the SBC establishment that’s adopted a more conciliatory approach on progressive social issues such as Black Lives Matter, critical race theory and ordaining female ministers — all in an attempt to attract a broader group of adherents.
The battle, which culminates in a vote for a new president on Tuesday, is similar to the current cultural debate raging across the country over questions of race, gender and equality. It also comes as the SBC, like most Christian denominations in the US, faces shrinking membership and an increasingly secular America.
That has given rise to an internal conflict with a particularly Trumpian tone to it, pitting a populist group of self-identifying “real” Southern Baptists against those they say would transform the church into something unrecognizable to many traditionalists.
Tensions within the SBC have been on the rise for years but regularly bubble over at the annual meeting, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic. The one-year delay has only raised the stakes for the selection of a president to succeed J.D. Greear, a pastor from North Carolina first elected in 2018.
That same year the SBC annual gathering hosted Vice President Mike Pence as a guest speaker. Greear has sought to balance the competing interests of the church’s different factions — declaring that “black lives matter” in a 2020 video message while siding with conservatives on critical race theory the previous year.
Rather than bring reconciliation, however, Greear’s moves have only deepened the divide, and in his last few months as president he has spoken out more starkly against the growing right-wing revolt.
Moderates maintain they have no serious differences with the conservatives on theology. But leaders on this side say the church is at risk of elevating partisan concerns at the expense of its mission to evangelize and bring more people into the faith.
“We are not, at our core, a political activism group,” Greear said in an address to the SBC’s Executive Committee in February. “Do we want to be a gospel people, or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name — Southern or Baptist?”
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