racial tensions
Dwight McKissic preaches on June 6 at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

Racial Tensions Simmer as Southern Baptists Hold Key Meeting

By Associated Press

Not only is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) being rocked by allegations that key leaders opposed reform concerning sexual abuse, racial tensions are also high heading into the SBC’s national meeting next week. The election of a new president and debate over the concept of systemic racism may prove pivotal for some Black pastors as they decide whether to stay in the denomination or leave.

It could be a watershed moment for America’s largest Protestant denomination. The SBC was founded before the Civil War as a defender of slavery, and only in 1995 did it formally apologize for that legacy — yet since 2000 its Black membership has been increasing while white membership declines.

Over the past year, however, several Black pastors have exited the SBC in frustration over what they see as racial insensitivity within its overwhelmingly white leadership.

Depending on the outcome at the meeting in Nashville, the exodus could swell — or subside. Many Black pastors are comfortable with the SBC’s conservative theology and grateful for financial support, but do not want it to wade into conservative national politics or distance itself from the quest for racial justice.

The Rev. Nate Bishop of Forest Baptist Church near Louisville, Kentucky, said some members of his Black congregation want to leave the SBC while others want to stay, and he intends to assess the “tenor and tone” of deliberations in Nashville to guide his decisions.

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“There’s a bigger question going on — will there even be an SBC in the next five, 10, 15 years?” Bishop said. “There’s going to be a move away from this national organization. The only way forward is going to be if we reject the fear-mongering that’s being projected day after day.”

One of the SBC’s most prominent Black pastors, Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said his church will quit the SBC if either of two leading conservative candidates wins the presidency: Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, or Mike Stone, a pastor from Blackshear, Georgia, whose core supporters view Mohler as insufficiently conservative. (Stone is also under fire for allegedly stonewalling attempts to root out sexual abuse in the SBC.)

Both “have made statements that Black Baptists would find anathema, regarding racial matters and politics,” McKissic said via email. “I could not proudly call myself a Southern Baptist if either of them wins.”

He also criticized them for supporting tight restrictions on women’s roles in the church, saying he and many other Black pastors favor letting women serve as assistant pastors or in other meaningful roles.

McKissic is endorsing a third candidate, white pastor Ed Litton of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama. Litton will be nominated by Fred Luter, a New Orleans-based pastor who in 2012 became the SBC’s first and so far only Black president.

A crucial dividing line in the presidential election and for the SBC overall is the issue of critical race theory, a term used to describe critiques of systemic racism.

Last year Mohler and the five other SBC seminary presidents, all of them white, declared that critical race theory is “incompatible with” the SBC’s Scripture-based theology.

The statement created friction far beyond SBC academia, particularly due to lack of Black involvement in its drafting. But Mohler hasn’t budged from his repudiation of critical race theory, and Stone has harshly condemned the concept.

A resolution endorsed by Stone and many of his key allies, to be proposed at the meeting, denounces critical race theory as “rooted in Neo-Marxist and postmodern worldviews.” Stone’s allies also will seek to rescind a 2019 resolution suggesting that critical race theory could be useful as an analytical tool.

McKissic said approval of any such measures might be another trigger for his exit.

Last December he, Litton and Luter were among the co-signers of a statement by a multiethnic group of Southern Baptists asserting that systemic racial injustice is a reality.

“Some recent events have left many brothers and sisters of color feeling betrayed and wondering if the SBC is committed to racial reconciliation,” the statement said.

Relatively few of the SBC’s remaining Black pastors have echoed McKissic’s explicit threats to leave.

Luter, as part of a recent video series titled “Why I Stay,” said the sometimes-hostile environment within the SBC made it all the more important for Black pastors to stay and seek improvements. The Rev. Marshal Ausberry, who heads the SBC’s association of Black churches, has urged respectful dialogue to resolve race-related differences.

Charles Jones, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Clute, Texas, has chosen to keep his small Black congregation in the SBC fold in part because of financial support that enables it to conduct missionary outreach.

Other churches have benefited from SBC ties for things like funding to construct a new building or the convention’s ministry certification programs.

Jones considers the debate over critical race theory a distraction that lets people avoid serious discussions of social inequalities.

“They don’t want to talk about schools, about why ghettos are ghettos,” Jones said. “We debate theory after theory, and nothing gets done.”

The debate flared last year just as the SBC was releasing statistics showing that African Americans have been a primary source of growth within the denomination since 2000, even as white membership steadily declined.

As of 2018 the SBC had about 907,000 African American members out of a total membership of 14.8 million, and roughly 3,900 predominantly Black congregations out of about 51,500.

Asian American and Hispanic participation also increased, prompting Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, to hail America’s diversity as “an amazing opportunity” for future growth.

The statistical report didn’t say how many African American congregations are dually aligned with historically Black Baptist denominations. As self-governing entities, Baptist churches can choose which groups to affiliate with and decide how much or how little to participate and donate.

The Rev. Joel Bowman Sr., senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, said his African American church maintains ties to Southern Baptists at the state and local level, but plans to sever its nominal ties with the national convention.

“The SBC to me is not currently a safe place for African Americans and other people of color,” he said. “There are probably a number of churches and pastors who would leave the SBC, but because they’re so financially tied to the denomination, they’re probably slower to leave.”

Another Louisville pastor, Deryk Hayes of St. Paul Baptist Church @ Shively Heights, withdrew from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary this year. He cited a lack of respect for the Black church, including a decision to retain the names of its slaveholding founders on some seminary buildings.

“From my perspective, these men aren’t heroic,” Hayes said. “They were practicing heresy.”

Hayes said many Black pastors share the theological conservativism of their white counterparts, but not their politics.

“The conservative resurgence is fine if it’s really about biblical inerrancy,” he said. “I think it’s about male white privilege and male white power.”

John Onwuchekwa, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, was a rising star in the SBC before breaking with it last year. Among his reasons: He didn’t want to be held out as an example for other Black ministers to prove the SBC would be a good place for them.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there are good people in the SBC,” Onwuchekwa said. But when opportunities arose to make major improvements in race relations, “instead they take moderate baby steps to not offend the base.”


Travis Loller reported from Nashville; David Crary from Carbondale, Colorado; and Peter Smith from Pittsburgh.



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16 thoughts on “Racial Tensions Simmer as Southern Baptists Hold Key Meeting”

  1. I think Dr. Mohler damaged his credibility when he sternly criticized Trump in 2016, then completely backtracked in 2020 even though all the reasons he originally rejected Trump were still in play.

  2. We are all one in Christ. We just don’t live it out. Galatians 3. CRT is founded in secular and humanist origins. Using it as a transcendental theological framework is heretical and will divide the church as we know it. How our Father must be grieved to see some in the church insisting that this is scriptural, and how His children are being hurt and wounded by the enemy’s designs.

    1. I haven’t seen anyone using CRT as a “transcendental theological framework”, Jeff. Can you give a clear example of this?

      I HAVE seen people use CRT as a way to point at that the systems of man are set up by sinful people and can therefore be based around sinful ideas and patterns of behavior.

  3. You know the SBC is threatening to go off the rails into extreme white fundamentalism when people are describing Al Mohler as “insufficiently conservative.”

  4. Frances Christenson

    I am all for dissolving the SBC. Can’t find where in the Bible this organization got it’s start. I am all for going local in structure.

    1. If you want to know what this is all about, just consider the salary Ronnie Floyd has been getting. It was once reported that it exceeded $500K. This is an obscene amount of money. If you want to know what is wrong with the SBC, just follow the money. These guys running for the head spot are not doing it as a service but for the huge payout. Their examples slaps Jesus in the face who said quite plainly that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.

  5. It would be nice to see black pastors step up to pastor all races by denouncing critical race theories.

    1. It’d be even better if white SBC leadership acknowledged their own blind spots and consulted black theologians and pastors before determining exactly what tools are inappropriate to use when studying the lived experiences of African Americans.

      The SBC seems bent on being just another group of old white men telling black people you’re studying/kneeling/protesting/preaching/voting/believing wrong.

      1. Jeremiah Ames

        Is it possible that is what religion has been designed to do?
        Doesn’t religion impose the ideas of a few, generally old white men who crave power and wealth, on the rest of us?
        Perhaps those who exit religion altogether are those truly seeking to follow the Lord.

  6. it makes no difference what the ethnicity of the men is who said that CRT does not go along with the Word of God. That is a ridiculous and anti-intellectual thing to say. It either is compatible with the Word of God or it is not. These journalists need lessons on how to avoid logical fallacies when writing their editorials (versus “how to be a 21st Century muckracker). There are plenty of African American pastors who strongly stand against CRT as they truly study what CT is and have for years. More importantly, they honor the Word of God. Why would Julie Roys post an article by The Associated Press? This is one reason I can not donate to this work.

  7. It’d be even better if white SBC leadership acknowledged their own blind spots and consulted black theologians and pastors before determining exactly what tools are inappropriate to use when studying the lived experiences of African Americans.

    The SBC seems bent on being just another group of old white men telling black people you’re studying/kneeling/protesting/preaching/voting/believing wrong.

  8. Those who embrace Critical Race Theory are in favor Black racism. SBC should welcome their departure. CRT literature is crystal clear about this. Whites and also Asians, in their view, need to be purposely discriminated against by law and practice on the basis of skin color. Critical Theory supports seven other identity groups they think should also be given preference; its also a war on hetereosexuality and men. It’s taken the SBC 150 years to shake off its Southern slavery legacy past, to welcome and include Black churches and pastors, why in the world would they want to embrace a new form of racism as policy. And why would Black pastors support CRT? To oppose CRT is not to support racism. In CRT anti-racism theory, Martin Luther King is a stinking assimilationist, a puppet of White Supremacy not a beloved martyr to civil rights! More official reverse-racism will not solve lingering prejudices. Free speech and free association are much better tools.

    In the U.S., where 1 in 6 marriages is interracial, the whole CRT discussion seems very strange and misguided. I’d challenge any country in the world to match that. I walk through my community all the time. And it looks a lot like those statistics. There are so many White-Black, Asian-White, Hispanic-White families where I live. That 1 in 6 stands up quite well. I get holiday cards from friends. So many have interracial grandkids.

    Why are millions and millions of people of color dying to get into this racist hellhole? Maybe its not as racist as the radical activists would have us believe. I sometimes think that CRT is the last gasp of the Racial Industrial Complex to stay in business.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      “Those who embrace Critical Race Theory are in favor Black racism” <–this is untrue. I actually have yet to hear a CONSISTENT definition of CRT from those who make such statements.
      My understanding of CRT is that it looks at the past and present thru the lens of race – more specifically, the role race has played in defining where we are socially, economically, and politically today.
      When I hear those who denounce CRT, I hear people denying that race played any part in the shaping the laws and traditions of our society. So I'll be VERY interested in hearing them explain the following: what was slavery about? What was Jim Crow about? What were Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education about? Who was Jackie Robinson? Who was MLK? Why was the 14th amendment needed? What was the 3/5ths clause about? Why did we even need a civil rights movement or civil rights legislation (voting rights act, fair housing act, etc)? What is redlining? What are "race covenants" and why were they ever written?
      I can go on and on with my questions for those who think racism has NOT been a systemic problem since day one. (Heck, racism is found in SCRIPTURE, so I don't know why we think the US has escaped it). The TRUTHFUL answers to the questions above are NOT comfortable ones. But teaching truth is not about making listeners comfortable. We should know that as spreaders of the gospel.
      But hey, I remember a Texas textbook being recently rewritten to say Black people were "laborers who migrated here." I guess that's what CRT deniers are going to go with. Just know that I'll be standing by to correct my children with the TRUTH.

  9. Marien Heiskell: Respectfully, you are factually wrong. There’s no question that the U.S. has a history of slavery and racist policies and practices, like the whole rest of the world, that needed to be changed. One can oppose racism in whatever form it takes and still reject the poison of CRT’s new regime of racism.

    From the article below: The most frequently cited critical race theorist, Ibram X. Kendi, makes this explicit. As he puts it, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

    I could provide you with an endless supply of quotes by CRT proponents to the same end. It is no secret and no figure of speech. They mean it.

    I invite you to read about what “equal protection” under the law means in U.S. jurisprudence. It is incompatible with CRT and critical theory in general. It is the polar opposite.


    1. Marin Heiskell

      I have actually heard Kendi speak multiple times (at events hosted by my alma mater and my employer), and this is SUCH an oversimplification of his point. (I actually think both sides of the CRT argument are being oversimplified and thrown around as labels).
      What Kendi is saying is that when exploring the breadth and depth of the impacts of discrimination, the way to “course correct” (heal hurts, alleviate impacts, etc) likely involves making up for that discrimination in a way that (unfortunately) discriminates against others. Examples can include utilizing more resources on an impacted community (e.g. scholarship programs specifically for Black/Brown youth), or developing and delivering messaging that overemphasizes its values or strengths (e.g., “Black Girls Rock”). While we may know the intent of such ‘course corrections’, it’s easy to also see them as discriminatory (e.g., white students not allowed to apply for that same scholarship, or questioning “don’t we rock, too?’). So that raises the question of “does that mean these course corrections should not exist AT ALL?” He says they should still exist. Some disagree.
      I think the answer is very nuanced and lies somewhere in the middle. I liken it to nursing a torn ACL: until my knee is healed, I have to pay more attention to it. In physical therapy I am “over emphasizing” my knee – sending all my focus and resources available to me on that knee. While doing that, I am spending minimal focus and resources, on the other parts of my body. If the other parts of my body could speak, they could say “what about me? why are you focusing so much on your knee?” But my attitude has to be “if my knee gets strong again, look at how much easier it will be for the rest of my body!”
      I use an analogy of a body, because we are the body of Christ. When part of our body is hurting or trying to recover, we should do what we can to support it. We are likely to disagree on what that support looks like, but let’s at least acknowledge it needs support. But what I see happening is that everyone is in their “what about me?” camp, fearful that any support given to an obviously hurting part of the body. They will even acknowledge the body is hurting, but will spend more time on how it DESERVES to hurt than on admitting it needs ANYTHING to heal.
      Overall, I think if we put down our “what about me” shields, we’ll realize that communities of all different races want the same thing (good schools, safe neighborhoods, equal access to opportunities, etc). Wanting to hurt another community is usually not even in the equation. We are just fearful that there is only a limited supply of what we want, so we go into “I want to make sure me and MINE are taken care of” rather than discussing how we can expand or eliminate limitations. And there are multiple nuances and paths to doing this. But let’s at least come to the table and talk without all the oversimplifications, weaponizing, and labels.

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