Why Southern Baptists’ runoff election represents a ‘watershed moment’ for Evangelicals

PBS NewsHour [Arlington VA]

June 16, 2021

By Judy Woodruff Interviewing Ed Stetzer,

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical group in the U.S. elected a new president Tuesday — Ed Litton. Litton, who has championed racial reconciliation, narrowly defeated Mike Stone, the favored far-right candidate. Judy Woodruff discusses the runoff vote with Ed Stetzer, a part of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.

Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Church denomination in the U.S., met this week to elect a new president.

But it was more than just selecting a new leader. The future direction of the denomination itself is at stake. In recent years, and especially the past several months, the convention has been divided by contentious debates over race, politics, gender, and the handling of past sexual abuse cases.

In a run-off election yesterday, Ed Litton, who has championed racial reconciliation, narrowly defeated Mike Stone, the favored candidate of a far right faction of the group.

To assess what this all means, we’re joined now by Ed Stetzer. He is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he’s executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Ed Stetzer, welcome very much to you to the “NewsHour.”

Tell us, what does this election result say about the Southern Baptist Convention?

Ed Stetzer, Wheaton College Billy Graham Center: I think the election was a fork in the road.

It was a decision that — time that had to be made. We had one candidate — you mentioned Ed Litton — who prevailed in the presidency, who was calling for racial reconciliation, who was encouraging people to just listen to the lived experiences of African American leaders.

The other candidate, who came in second, was actually concerned about the influence of critical race theory and intersectionality and more. And I think Southern Baptist messengers came together, 10,000-plus, 70,000, and they had to make a decision.

And they chose to continue to move forward in a path of racial reconciliation and continue to hold the values that such conservative evangelical denominations have, but to do so in a way that I think echoed a new awareness of race.

Judy Woodruff: Well, what does that mean exactly? What is going to change under the new leadership of Ed Litton?

Ed Stetzer: Well, I think it’s more of a continuation of the leadership of the prior president, J.D. Greear.

But the prior president, who had been engaged, for example, in protests after the murder of George Floyd and others, had become a controversial figure, and he became a controversial figure because people are watching cable news many, many hours a week, and they’re being discipled by their cable news.

And for many evangelicals, they tend to be more conservative, and they would like to see what they see on their cable news every night of the week maybe be reflected in their church and their denomination.

And I think the expectation for many was is that would prevail at this annual meeting, but another voice emerged and other voices emerged around him. And Fred Luter, who’s the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, nominated Ed Litton, who’s now the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and basically said, we need to continue this path forward about how we might continue to show and share the love of Jesus.

Evangelicals are always concerned about the sharing of the good news of the Gospel, what Christ has done on the cross and more, but then also to say part of that is, how do we learn to love our communities, particularly learn to love people who are different than us, people of other races, backgrounds and ethnicities?

So I think it’s a continuation of the leadership, but there was a growing backlash that was evident. And there’s still division, I think, at the denomination. The annual meeting just ended 20, 30 minutes ago. But there’s still division. And I think that division is still going to take some work for the denominational leaders.

Judy Woodruff: And, as you pointed out, the opponents, the losing candidate in all of this, one of his arguments was that it Mr. Litton, who won, was somebody who is a radical supporter of so-called critical race theory.

Number one, is he? And what does that mean, whether he is or he isn’t? What does it mean it to the denomination?

Ed Stetzer: Well, where I serve at Wheaton College, I teach in my field, my Ph.D. I don’t — I’m not an expert in critical race theory.

I would say that Ed Litton certainly wouldn’t be in this space. I think, after Ferguson, Ed began to meet with some African American pastors there in Alabama and began to learn some of the history and the civil rights history that sometimes white evangelicals have been separated from.

So he brought forth an elevated awareness that maybe the lived experience of African American leaders, pastors, and more is different than those of us who are Anglo and from an Anglo tradition.

So I don’t think Ed or really any other leader in the Southern Baptist Convention would have a full-throated embrace of critical race theory. It was a bit of a — a bit of a — kind of the catch-all term.

What I think it boiled down to is, there are a significant number of people who think we have had enough conversations about race, systemic racism. We saw this pushback even in the last four years of the Trump administration that systemic racism was denied and more.

There’s a significant number of us — I’m a Southern Baptist — a significant number of us who do believe that systemic racism and structural issues still exist, that the past has projected into the present. There’s still more work to be done.

So I think, ultimately, CRT, like it has across state legislatures and more across — in schools across the (AUDIO GAP) has become a catch-all term. But you have to nuance this more. And Southern Baptists, in motions and resolutions, affirmed their belief that systemic racism is still real, there’s still work to be done, that leaders have to be aware of the work to be done and engage in the hard work together.

There’s still racial injustice. And, as followers of Jesus, we believe that Jesus said, he’s the way, the truth and the life. We want to speak the truth. It was a false report that critical race theory had become this huge issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. People rejected that.

I think that’s an encouraging sign for the future of the SBC.

Judy Woodruff: Well, on what you said about Mr. Litton, the new leader of the church, and what you believe, having the view that there is systemic racism in this country, you still have — this was a very divided election.

Almost half, literally, of the vote went the other way. I mean, what does that say about the Southern Baptist Convention? And is it going to hold together?

Ed Stetzer: It’s a good question.

I think the answer is yes. I think that part of the reason is, is, I was there, and to see the future of the SBC was there, as long — as well as the president of the SBC. And the future of the SBC was, for example, new churches. The insider lingo is church plants.

Sixty percent of the church plants in the Southern Baptist Convention by the Send Network and the North America Mission Board are non-Anglo. The future was there. The next generation was there. The future was there.

What’s surprising to a lot of people is that, among Southern Baptists, there’s actually a quarter of the churches are predominantly non-Anglo. The future was there.

So I think, at the same time, there was a very significant kind of get-out-the-vote campaign for people who were concerned that maybe talking about these things or other things indicated some sort of liberal drift. That’s the language that was used, some sort of liberal drift.

And I know, to our viewers, Southern Baptists having liberal labeled at anybody in the convention probably seems a bit odd, but it’s — it was a charge that was made.

And so I think what happened is, this was an all-out get-out-the-vote moment. And I think, ultimately, the future is going to continue to move forward, the convention is going to continue to be more diverse, a surprising level of diversity to people on the outside.

And so, no, I do think this was a watershed moment. I’m going to mix metaphors. There’s a fork in the road, and that fork has been taken. And it doesn’t mean — we’re all living in a new level of constant argument. Social media has become weaponized.

I think, Southern Baptists are going to get — get used to a significant number of people who are upset about these issues. It’s all of us. I serve at a local church. There’s — this is always going to be the case now moving forward.

And the reality is, we have to do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.

Judy Woodruff: I hear you.

I hear what you’re saying about we’re living in a — at a time of constant argument. But I also hear you saying you think the Baptist Convention is going to hold together, despite this disagreement in this vote?

Ed Stetzer: Yes, I do.

I think Southern Baptists have had close votes before. I think, having been in the room, hearing — I will give you an example.

Every time sexual abuse was mentioned, every single time, the message…

Judy Woodruff: And I wanted to ask you about that, yes.

Ed Stetzer: Yes. Yes.

The message — this is the largest deliberative assembly in the world, by the way. When this gathers together, they’re debating motions that no one does with 17,000 people. But every time the messengers had an opportunity to strengthen, clearly address, whether it was a motion, a resolution or an amendment, they strengthened the response to sexual abuse. They sought to create a more independent investigation to see when charges were leveled. At every occasion, they did.

I left encouraged. I actually had the privilege of sitting next to a survivor, Megan Lively. I have her permission to share her name. I sat next to her as a reminder that this is an important moment.

So, again, watershed moment on multiple issues, and I left encouraged. And I think many people did leave encouraged.

Judy Woodruff: But just very quickly, on this question of sexual abuse, now there’s an active investigation under way.

Are you confident they’re going to get to the bottom of what happened?

Ed Stetzer: Yes, just a little context.

So, there was an investigation. The investigation was going to be handled by — hired by a firm by the Executive Committee. And the Executive Committee chose to handle that firm. Well, the messengers actually overruled the Executive Committee. And now a new task force that’s independent will be what they’re reporting to.

And so, yes, I think it will address things appropriately. And I’m encouraged to moving forward.

Judy Woodruff: Ed Stetzer, who is, as you can tell, very active in the Southern Baptist Convention, he’s with the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

Thank you very much.

Ed Stetzer: Thank you, Judy.