Southern Baptist Convention in turmoil
His departure had the effect, across the Atlantic, of a thunderclap. In early March, famous American evangelical writer Beth Moore decided to slam the door of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with the Southern Baptists (…), to certain things of our heritage which have not remained in the past ”, then justified this teacher in biblical studies who had embodied, for nearly thirty years, the model of the “modern” American believer for millions of faithful of her Protestant denomination.
His defection sparked a wave of amazement. Far from being an epiphenomenon, it is a “Waterloo for Protestant white fundamentalism”, notes the historian Sébastien Fath, a specialist in evangelical Protestantism. “Until recently, the theological doctrine on the role of women which dominated almost unanimously within the SBC was complementarism”, a fundamentalist reading of the Bible which confines women to a role of accompaniment in the Churches and reserves the responsibilities to men. “Beth Moore was one of the great figures in this line. “ Solicited by The cross, the latter did not wish to comment on his departure. But, in early April, she said she regretted having ardently defended this doctrine. This episode is only one facet of the multiple crises that rock the Southern Baptist Convention.
At the end of February, two other cases of a completely different order had also hit the headlines and led to the eviction of four churches affiliated to the SBC. Two of them had been excluded for acts of sexual abuse of minors committed by their pastors in the 1990s. A sanction which was intended to be exemplary, in the wake of the promise of the president of the SBC, James David Grear, to make the fight against sexual abuse one of the priorities of its mandate. In recent years, several investigations had indeed shone the spotlight on the coverage of hundreds of cases of violence within affiliated parishes. “Since then, many resources have been made available to churches for them to scrutinize when hiring staff, to protect them from the moral failings of those in ministry,” is argued within the SBC.
The other two churches excluded in February had been tried “Too inclusive”, towards LGBT minorities, in the eyes of the Southern Baptist Convention, which considers homosexuality a sin. “I’ve been in the SBC my whole life, and I’ve seen it lean more and more to the right over the past 30 years. “Moderate” leaders have gradually been replaced by conservatives ”, regretted, shortly after his expulsion, Jim Conrad, pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, interviewed by The cross, while maintaining its desire to welcome homosexual faithful.
“During the 1980s, the Convention reoriented itself towards a more fundamentalist line, in reaction to the liberalization of society”, abounds Sébastien Fath. Political disagreements over support for Donald Trump, the January invasion of Capitol Hill, or the Black Lives Matter movement… In recent years, communities have been shaken by deep partisan divides.
“They remain predominantly republican, but there is political pluralism”, continues the historian, before reporting a recent widening of the ethnic gap between his black and white communities: “It increased under Trump, with the departure of a lot of African American churches. While it has since made amends, the SBC has a loaded history on this issue, linked to its defense of slavery during the Civil War era. “
A former faithful of a SBC affiliated church in Tennessee, Nora, 32, also decided to leave the denomination in 2018. “I no longer felt at all in phase with the discourse of my community, disconnected from the realities on many subjects, such as racism or relations between men and women”, explains Nora, who now lives near Washington, where she attends the parish of her Episcopalian husband.
For Sébastien Fath, the Convention will still have to meet several challenges under the mandate of Joe Biden. “She will have to clarify her order of priorities, between the Gospel announcement and the political agenda, while there has been some gender confusion under Trump,” he believes. But it will also have to rethink its objective, choose between Christianizing the United States from above and pose as a prophetic alternative in a plural and secularized society. “