Brent Leatherwood, New ERLC President, Says He Won’t Tell Christians How to Vote

By Bob Smietana
brent leatherwood erlc
Brent Leatherwood speaks in defense of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim, California, on June 15, 2022. (RNS photo by Justin L. Stewart)

The new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention hopes his fellow Southern Baptists will vote in the upcoming mid-term elections in ways “that protect life, that protect religious liberty, that protect marriage.”

But in the end, he said, it’s up to each person to vote the way they see best.

“I will say it’s not my role to bind anyone’s conscience in terms of how to vote,” said Brent Leatherwood, newly elected president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a video press conference Thursday.

Leatherwood, who was named interim president of the ERLC last fall, succeeds Russell Moore, who resigned in 2021 to join the staff of Christianity Today magazine. A former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, Leatherwood, 41, first began working at the ERLC in 2017.

His remarks about voting contrasted with those of a fellow SBC leader, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who suggested people who vote the wrong way are not good Christians. Speaking at this week’s Pray, Vote, Stand Summit, a conservative Christian event in Atlanta, Mohler said Christians needed to understand the importance of voting as a sign of faithfulness to God.

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“They need to understand that insofar as they do not vote or they vote wrongly, they are unfaithful,” said Mohler in a video clip shared widely on social media. Along with serving as a seminary president, Mohler is editor of World Opinions, a conservative Christian political opinion site.

Leatherwood — who declined to address Mohler’s remarks — specifically steps into a role that has long been a lightning rod. Moore’s tenure in office, from 2013–2021, was riven with controversy, especially due to his long criticism of Donald Trump and his advocacy for racial justice and care for victims of sexual abuse. Richard Land, who led the ERLC from 1988–2013, retired after scandals involving plagiarism and insensitive remarks made about the death of Trayvon Martin.

Yet Southern Baptists remain supportive of the ERLC. An attempt to dismantle the ERLC failed at the SBC’s annual meeting in June by an overwhelming majority. A vote to defund the agency failed in 2018 as well.

Headquartered in Nashville, the ERLC also maintains an office in the nation’s capital that works on public policy.

Leatherwood plans to spend the first few months meeting with SBC pastors and leaders, listening to their concerns and connecting with them. He said his role is to come alongside churches — and then to speak into the public square.

He stressed the need to have a close tie to churches and acknowledged that the role has been controversial in the past.

“I have a vision for what I think the ERLC needs to look like,” he said. “But I need to step back and realize this is not a commission that I own. I’ve been given stewardship over it.”  

Author and speaker Dan Darling, a former colleague of the new ERLC chief, called Leatherwood a natural leader, with both the political knowledge and personal skills to do the job well. Darling also said that Leatherwood brings a layperson’s perspective to the job — rather than a pastor’s.

“People love working with him,” he said. “I really think the ERLC is in a good position to succeed.”

Leatherwood, an outspoken opponent of abortion, has clashed in the past with so-called abolitionists who seek to pass legislation ending abortion with no exceptions and who seek criminal penalties, including murder charges, against women who have abortions. That movement has found support among Southern Baptists in Oklahoma and among leaders like Mohler who has said he would support criminal charges for women who have abortions.

A group of Christian groups that oppose abortion wrote to state legislators earlier this year opposing such penalties, drawing the ire of abolitionists.

“We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to including such penalties in legislation,” the letter read.

That led abolitionists like Florida pastor and failed SBC presidential candidate Tom Ascol and Oklahoma pastor Dusty Deevers to criticize the ERLC and Leatherwood’s leadership.

In 2021, Southern Baptists passed a resolution calling for the complete abolition of abortion, over the objections of the resolutions committee. But a proposed resolution that included calls for criminal penalties failed to reach the floor of the annual meeting in 2022.

“We simply want abortion abolished by establishing equal protection both for all our preborn neighbors from conception, and for women who are tragically coerced into abortion so they will not be viewed the same as those who willfully murder their preborn children,” said Deevers, an Oklahoma Baptist pastor and outspoken abolitionist. 

In an online press conference Thursday (Sept. 15), Leatherwood also said that the ERLC would continue plans for a denomination-wide assessment of the SBC on the issue of sexual abuse. He said that the agency would work alongside a newly appointed SBC task force charged with implementing abuse reform passed at the 2022 annual meeting.

Both Moore and Land praised Leatherwood’s election, with Moore calling him “brilliant, godly, brave, and Christlike.” Other leaders, like the Rev. Frank Williams, head of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship, also offered compliments.

“His commitment to Gospel-centered public policy is seasoned by his sensitivity to the nuanced lived experiences of our diverse Southern Baptist (SBC) family,” said Williams in a statement.

Leatherwood said that Southern Baptists are known for their strong opinions and disagreement, which is not a bad thing. And while each SBC church is autonomous, he added, they also often cooperate.

“It is a Baptist strength that we are cooperative in our work,” he said. “We’re not just independent. We are actually interdependent. And when we come together and realize we rely on one another, it helps us to project a voice into the public square that is needed now as much as ever.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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7 thoughts on “Brent Leatherwood, New ERLC President, Says He Won’t Tell Christians How to Vote”

  1. Your elected representatives are just that your representative in our government. If you vote for those advocating positions such as abortion and the LGBTQ agenda then you are advocating those positions through these elected representatives. Should the pulpit be telling you how to vote? If the pulpit preaches about the evil of abortion and the LGBTQ lifestyle are they telling you how to vote? I would not want the pulpit to ignore issues of morality simply because they offend the politics of certain parishioners.

  2. If the pastor teaches and the people understand the bible as it is written, there is no need to tell someone how to vote. The Word of God is sufficient to guide.

  3. “We won’t tell you how to vote, but black Democrat Baptist ministers like John Lewis and Elijah Cummings will never be allowed to speak.” (wink, wink)

  4. The churches public support of Trump who is clearly an immoral man has hurt them and turned many away. In my opinion the church should return to Billy Grahams example!

  5. Yes it is, if you are given truth by those who are candidates
    However, if one side of the main stream media constantly puts forth a lie regarding their own intents, and about the other candidate, and people believe those lies, they may very well vote “incorrectly”, believing to be voting for the candidate who is most in line with scripture.
    When we are kept from speaking about these issues in our churches (as has happened to me a lot…something about separation of church and state…), or people refuse to listen to another’s viewpoint because of their skin color/ethnicity, we are in trouble. I, an American with European ancestors, who lived in Africa and South America most of my life, have had my viewpoint dismissed regarding ethnic and sexual issues many times because of what I look like and the accent with which I speak. I haven’t liked either main candidate for president for some election cycles now, but it was very obvious who was standing more for death, and who was standing more for life. I don’t understand how someone who is a believer can think it is the right thing to vote for the candidate who stands for death of our most innocent (unborn) citizens, granting lawbreaking immigrants (who are skipping the rigors of proper procedure to become citizens) the full blessings of citizenship, and “freedom” for a person to do what feels right to him/her with complete disregard for our laws.

    1. Elizabeth –
      I encourage you to go have conversations with believers who voted in a way you don’t understand. I think you will find they have a similar list of “I can’t believe anyone voted for…” positions as well – positions that are also rooted in scripture (e.g., how to treat immigrants and the poor)
      You’ll also see that some of the language that both sides are using is both inflammatory and full of oversimplifications (e.g., saying that being pro-choice means one stands for death is as inflammatory as saying being pro-Trump means one stands for racism). This just breeds division, sterotyping, and “other-ing” those who do not agree with you. And I think we are learning that gets us nowhere.

  6. Christians will keep bossing people about politics and people keep running away from Christianity. The great commission is now “Go ye into all the world and make Republicans of all men! Baptising them in the name of the The Donald, Fox News and the Holy Q. Teaching them to obey whatsoever the Christian right has commanded. And lo I will be with you even unto the utter most parts of the Southern border.”

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