Sleazy Sex Games and Dirty Politics in the Southern Baptist Convention

Ross Douthat published a column late last May with the imperious title "The Baptist Apocalypse."  Rather than prophetic piece, this seems to have served as a guidebook.  Following Douthat's column, a new coterie swept into power in the Southern Baptist Convention during its annual meeting in Dallas (June 12-13).

The apocalypse Douthat predicted did not lead to the coming of a lord and savior.  What the Baptists got was a changing of the guard.  The old guard was white, male, conservative, Southern, and charming.  The new guard is white, male, conservative, Southern, and cold.  I have interacted with both groups.  The main difference between them is that I trusted the old guard on issues like LGBT challenges to religious liberty, and the old guard returned my calls.  I can say no such thing about the new guard.

Therein lies quite a tale.  Sit back and enjoy.

What went into the Douthat column?

A lot of scandals, firings, social media wars, and social-justice campaigning prompted Douthat's article.  He tells New York Times readers that these public controversies formed a righteous storm of reform pointing to the promise of change.  This prefaced public statements by J.D. Greear, the North Carolina pastor who campaigned to become the next SBC president by claiming he would bring reform to the SBC.  He was elected by nearly 70% of the messengers' votes.

Like so many people in Douthat's circle of intellectuals, the name of Russell Moore pops up as a harbinger of hope – well, at least, according to the Douthat wing of American politics. Here is a quote from Douthat's article:

[The old guard] represent[s] – again, to generalize – the more pro-Trump old guard in the Baptist world, with a strong inclination toward various forms of chauvinism and Christian nationalism.  It is not a coincidence that Russell Moore, perhaps the most prominent anti-Trump Baptist, provided early support to [SBC former president Paige] Patterson's critics – while Robert Jeffress, whose Dallas church sets "Make America Great Again" to music, labeled the calls for Patterson's resignation a "witch hunt."

As a non-Baptist with a fellow Christian's interest in evangelical battles, I'd like to tell a simple story that describes the Patterson scandal as an inflection point – after which Moore's kind of Baptist will inevitably increase while Jeffress's kind diminishes, as the "judgment" that [Albert] Mohler describes leads to a general reckoning with the pull of sexism and racism within conservative-leaning churches.

I am not a "non-Baptist" like Ross Douthat.  I am a Southern Baptist.  I know the people involved in this controversy.  Douthat misses the mark by a mile.

In retrospect, Douthat's piece reads like a press release from one group of Baptists with a longstanding gripe against another group.  Whatever true basis existed in the charges against Paige Patterson, the people who led the charge against Patterson have many of their own problems with insider corruption and covering up abuses.

For instance, Thomas Littleton, a Southern Baptist reporter, was forced by Dallas Police to leave the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting after posing an uncomfortable question to Russell Moore about LGBT issues.  Until we can investigate this matter more closely, we have enough evidence to infer that someone in Moore's circle might have lied to police to get Littleton thrown out and might have lied to the Christian Post to cover up this abusive act.  Once Littleton was forcibly removed from the building, Moore came to the platform to deliver a public report on his ERLC.  He gave a less than completely accurate answer to the messengers when someone else, tipped by Littleton, asked him the same question about Karen Swallow Prior and the Revoice conference (more on that in a little bit).

News about this obvious abuse of power broke quickly on controversial sites such as Pulpit and Pen and Janet Mefferd's radio show.  But new president J.D. Greear has yet to make any statement on what happened.  ERLC officials have responded on Twitter with shocking smugness, mockery, and indifference.

What did we get from Douthat's "apocalypse"?  It appears we have a new president, J.D. Greear, who has yet to signal that he will hold his friends accountable.  The people in control of the SBC are ruder and more abusive than ever.  Why should we believe they can deal responsibly with accusations about sexual abuse if their friends are involved?

Some Are Missing the Old Guard Already

Paige Patterson may indeed have done some things wrong in his many decades serving in the SBC.  As someone who has known him for about three years, I cannot conclude anything about old accusations.  I can say he represented an optimistic, loving form of pastoral ministry that I do not see in the younger generation that rallied against him.  The "new guard" to which Douthat refers consists of many people who have appeared to me aloof and uncharitable toward those who disagree with them.  They seem self-involved and generally disinterested in common people.

Russell Moore oversees the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  He has never communicated with me about the many struggles I had with religious liberty, including my being blacklisted by the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Russell Moore met with the Human Rights Campaign in October 2014 at the same time that the HRC ran stories and a video tagging me as an "exporter of hate" for advocating for the right of every child to a mother and father.  During that time, Russell Moore would not engage with me about my case, although I was a Southern Baptist who had written for many of his friends, including Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and the editors of First Things.

During this time in 2014, Russell Moore hired Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor of English, as a research fellow.  Since she and I went to the same graduate school, I reached out to Dr. Prior in 2017.  The context was tense in the spring of 2017.  Dr. Moore was under attack for what many viewed as his arrogant mismanagement of the ERLC.  Dr. Moore saved his job but only after a great deal of political conflict within the convention.

On the radio, Janet Mefferd had asked me what happened while Moore was meeting with people attacking me for defending Christian principles.  I told Dr. Prior that I would like to have a chance to discuss things with Dr. Moore rather than have these problems aired in the public.  What happened next proved to presage, to me, the deeper problems within the SBC.

Dr. Prior connected me not with Dr. Moore, but with Andrew Walker, someone else in the ERLC.  This befuddled me, but I was willing to go along.  Working with Dr. Prior, I tried to set up a phone meeting with Dr. Walker.

Then, suddenly, Dr. Prior sent an email early in the morning on March 31, the day after the Southern Poverty Law Center ran a story attacking me. D r. Prior stated that she felt that my friend Thomas Littleton had engaged in "harassment" by asking her, via email, if she and the ERLC would support me against the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Dr. Prior then stated point-blank that she had withdrawn her request for Dr. Walker to communicate with me.

While she did not say this directly, she implied that I would have to face the threats of backlash from the Southern Poverty Law Center with no backing from my own denomination.  This was apparently retaliation for the fact that Thomas Littleton had asked ERLC staffers to help grassroots Baptists in ongoing efforts against LGBT sex education in public schools.  The whole experience repeated the same disappointment I had had with this group of people regarding the Human Rights Campaign in 2014.

I replied to Dr. Prior's email rebuking her for what I considered a snide betrayal at a time when I faced serious danger defending Christian sexuality.  April 1 was the day we planned to hold a citizen's action meeting in Austin.  I had to speak at that event, but the Austin police refused to provide security, leaving us defenseless if the Southern Poverty Law Center incited a repeat of the 2012 attack on the Family Research Council.

A few hours following, Andrew Walker sent me a private email saying the Southern Poverty Law Center was bad, but the ERLC would not do anything, so I should ask the Texas ERLC for help.  Later, when my colleagues in Texas organized a conference for November 2017 about how to tell teens the truth about LGBT issues, Andrew Walker did not respond to emails.  At this point, I decided not to reach out to ERLC anymore, and I avoid entangling myself with them.

The next I heard of these people was when Karen Swallow Prior suddenly appeared in the media in May 2018.  She led a massive petition drive to force the Southwestern Baptist Seminary trustees to fire Paige Patterson over comments he made about domestic abuse and a teenage boy describing a teenage girl as "built."  Her effort succeeded, and Paige Patterson was fired.  Dr. Moore did not refrain from jumping into the fray, tweeting statements attacking Patterson and supporting his removal.

All this coincided, then, with the fateful meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2018.  I considered myself a friend of Paige Patterson and veteran of the LGBT wars.  I struggled to think charitable thoughts about the "new guard" anchored in the ERLC.  In light of so much to depress me, I hoped to avoid conflict at the SBC.  I wanted to be a professor again.  I viewed people like Dr. Prior and Dr. Moore with grave caution.  Their social media fans counted among the most vicious people on Twitter.  So I planned to keep a low profile.

Events Forced My Hand

Events forced my hand, and I had to come out of hiding.  The law against ex-gay therapy in California had ramped up and alarmed most people in the Christian world.  It was the most totalitarian "stay gay" bill to come forward yet and had no religious exemption.  After about eight weeks of looking for someone to submit a resolution on this to the Southern Baptist Convention, I submitted "On Ministry and Counseling to Lead People from Homosexuality to Heterosexuality" under my own name.

It turns out mine was the only resolution submitted to the SBC addressing the rash of bans against ex-gay therapy.  Partly the SBC owed its silence to Russell Moore and the ERLC.  Coming out of talks with the HRC in October 2014, Dr. Moore had denounced reparative therapy.  The Nashville Statement, which came out in 2017, had avoided discussing sexual orientation change or reparative therapy.  So the bans on ex-gay therapy could proliferate while SBC leaders lulled and placated Baptists by the constant claims that they supported marriage – an issue already moot because of Obergefell in 2015.  In context, the gay movement's aims faced no obstacle in Baptist support for marriage.

The real need lay in clarifying the denomination's stance on sexual orientation change.  By 2018, the ERLC's position aligned with the pro-LGBT people forcing California's law down the pipeline.  I had written about the complex ways that conservatives contributed to the bans at the Stream.

On June 12, the SBC announced that my resolution was declined in committee and would not be brought to the floor.  Sixteen resolutions went to the floor, mostly with left-wing inflections.  These included statements on the immigration crisis, gun violence, rights for women, diversity, racism, thanking the Rockefeller family, and celebrating the memory of Billy Graham.  The same day, the judiciary committee of the California state Senate was moving to approve the California law banning any ex-gay counseling.  The Southern Baptist Convention was deciding, it seemed, to give up on helping anyone in its churches leave homosexuality for heterosexuality.  These people would choose not only indifference, but rather supportive dialogue with gay groups that seek to punish people for trying to make such changes.  (See Revoice.)

Michael Hamblin, my friend, attended the SBC as a messenger.  He pushed to call from the floor to reconsider "On Ministry and Counseling."  The proceedings fell behind schedule with belabored discussions over whether to disinvite Michael Pence or fire the trustees of Southwestern over the Paige Patterson controversy.  Time to discuss resolutions came late and got compressed to only a few minutes.  Mr. Hamblin got to the microphone in the evening on June 12.  As he stood there, the moderator called time and closed all discussion.  The resolution was dead.

Meanwhile, Karen Swallow Prior has expressed her enthusiastic support for Revoice, a conference that purports to push for new forms of flourishing for "LGBT Christians in the Church."  Revoice's organizers have behaved like autocrats, kicking out attendees who paid their registration fees based on what they have written on the internet about sexual orientation change.  For an ERLC fellow to support such a disturbing event worried me, and I reached out to Dr. Prior one last time.

She showed respect, but her answers are far from comforting.  Here is the interview she gave and my response.  The Revoice conference heralds a disastrous turn for the SBC.  We have no reason to believe that Russell Moore will prompt Dr. Prior to recant her support for them.  Nor have we any reason to believe that J.D. Greear will check abuses by people whom he has befriended against people whom he sees as unimportant.  It is nearly a week since Thomas Littleton was thrown out of the convention center for asking Dr. Moore a question about Dr. Prior, and J.D. Greear has said nothing.

Underneath the talk of racial reconciliation, sexual minorities, and empowerment of women, the people who have gained power in the SBC are nonetheless white, conservative men whose connection to these minority groups is strictly theoretical (and possibly strategic).  If I am to pick a white, Southern, male patriarchy to govern my church, I would like to serve under one that will defend the power of the gospel in matters of love and sexuality.  But I did not get to pick.  Ross Douthat and the mass of media powers tied to him made the choice for me.  I will get over it, but I will be angry for a while.  Lord have mercy on all of us.

Follow Robert Oscar Lopez at English Manif.

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