Op-Ed: Southern Baptists are having a come-to-Jesus moment

When Jesus became exasperated with the religious leaders of his day, he called them “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” In the wake of this week’s searing public revelations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, that description applies to the leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

In the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, two dates stand out. The first is 1845, when the denomination was formed. Southerners resented the push from Baptists in the North to end the scourge of slavery, so they seceded to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Hardly an auspicious beginning.

The second pivotal date was 1979, when conservatives mobilized to wrest control of the denominational apparatus from those they considered too liberal. I contend that the label “liberal Southern Baptist” has always been an oxymoron, but several powerful interests, led by two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, thought otherwise.

In an origin story oft-repeated in SBC circles, Pressler, a judge in Texas, and Patterson, president of Criswell College who became an influential president of two Southern Baptist seminaries and president of the SBC, plotted their takeover at Café du Monde in New Orleans back in 1977. Recognizing that the SBC president had broad appointive powers that could sway the denomination as a whole, they mobilized members to elect a succession of conservative (some call them fundamentalist) presidents, beginning in 1979.

The ripple effects were huge. Politically, the new leadership steered the denomination hard to the right. According to Jimmy Carter, when a delegation of SBC officials visited him at the White House shortly after the takeover, Bailey Smith, a pastor from Oklahoma, informed the Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher: “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.” (When Carter recounted the meeting to his wife, Rosalynn, that evening, he asked: “What is a secular humanist?” She didn’t know either.)

The effects of the Patterson-Pressler putsch took hold over time. As a string of SBC presidents systematically appointed fellow conservatives to seminary boards and denominational agencies, a vicious purge of “liberals” ensued.

Theologically, the new regime insisted on biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is completely without error or contradiction. The Genesis accounts of creation, for example, had to be taken literally. But their real fervor was directed against women in leadership positions.

The purge was devastating. Careers were ruined, nearly 2,000 congregations left the denomination, and dozens if not hundreds of talented women were denied access to the pulpit. More recently, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have trained their sights on the dreaded critical race theory.

For the leadership cabal, it seems there is no shortage of gnats.

The size of the camels they were willing to gulp at the same time they were conducting search-and-destroy missions against liberals came to light with this week’s 288-page report on the culture of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The report, compiled by an outside group, Guidepost Solutions, found that the denomination’s executive committee kept a list of more than 700 pastors accused of being predators. Rather than discipline ministers or prevent them from attacking others, the leadership on the advice of attorneys kept quiet, going so far as to vilify those who filed complaints. On Thursday evening, the leaders released a list of alleged offenders.

“Behind the curtain,” the report found, “the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits.”

The report contains revelations about the executive committee itself.

One member, famed SBC pastor Johnny Hunt, a former president of the convention, is alleged to have sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife. The investigators cited her husband and four others as “credible” corroborators. Hunt, who denies the claim, resigned a week before the report was made public.

D. August Boto, general counsel for the executive committee and an interim president of the committee, reportedly characterized survivors’ attempts to get the SBC to respond to their allegations as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Among many stories of abuse that were serially ignored, the report documents the claims of one woman who says she was repeatedly victimized by the pastor at her church beginning when she was 14. She became pregnant and was forced to apologize publicly and forbidden to name the father, who went on to serve another Southern Baptist congregation.

Turns out the Roman Catholic Church has nothing on the Southern Baptists when it comes to covering up sexual misconduct.

Other accounts are equally harrowing, but lest anyone misunderstand, the real peril facing the Southern Baptist Convention is critical race theory and women preachers. Gnats and camels.

Both Pressler and Patterson have been disgraced. Pressler, the judge, is enmeshed in civil proceedings over allegations that he raped a young man. Patterson was fired from his seminary presidency in 2018 by the SBC executive committee, which cited his mishandling of a student rape accusation. That same year, he was denounced in an open letter signed by thousands of SBC members for comments in recorded sermons about women’s looks and for counseling wives physically abused by their husbands to remain silent.

Doctrinal purity, I suppose, has its place. But it also runs the risk of misplaced priorities. As the Southern Baptist Convention comes to terms with its sexual abuse crisis, they would do well to consider a question Jesus posed to his followers: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.”