Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews is a professor of religious studies at the University of Mary Washington. She is most recently the author of Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars. Her current work focuses on Black Baptist seminaries and white benefactors in the early twentieth century.
Like an aircraft carrier, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest single Protestant denomination, does not turn on a dime. When the winds of social and political change buffet it, the SBC often barely registers their presence. In the few occasions when it does, American commentators breathlessly await some announcement akin to a papal conclave, where white or dark smoke will signal the choice of a new pontiff. But the SBC represents its collective Southern Baptist congregations only when the convention itself gathers in its annual meeting. Individual congregations need not adhere to the denomination’s every doctrine, and the denomination itself has come to symbolize white American evangelicalism, with all its promises and faults. Recent controversies, while exciting news for religion reporters, do not portend a real sea change in the SBC’s stances on race and systemic racism, nor do they signal a shift among white American evangelicals in other churches.
Recent controversies, while exciting news for religion reporters, do not portend a real sea change in the SBC’s stances on race and systemic racism.
Instead, the SBC is a mirror for white American Christianity. Founded in an antebellum schism over whether Baptists should condone the enslavement of Black people, the SBC has represented white American culture in its 150-plus-year history in so many ways. At its birth, the SBC represented a denominational endorsement of slavery. It sought to reinforce the social order around it, not challenge it. If Jesus never said “Free your slaves,” the newly created Southern Baptists could indeed traffic in and claim possession of human bodies.
Following the Civil War and Emancipation, SBC pastors and churches participated in the disenfranchisement of African Americans. While some pastors spoke out against the lynching of Black Americans, they did not support federal anti-lynching legislation, preferring to reserve any such decisions to the very state governments that had marginalized and sanctioned the terrorization of Black people. Southern Baptists helped shut down public schools rather than integrate them in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
If Jesus never said 'Free your slaves,' the newly created Southern Baptists could indeed traffic in and claim possession of human bodies.
In short, the long record of the SBC on matters of race and rights largely aligns white Southern Baptists with the prevailing status quo. They did not rush to overturn the money changers’ tables at the Temple; they formed a protective barrier around them. Not all SBC members are staunchly opposed to social change, but the vast majority would rather keep liberal politics out of church conversations. Despite a growing presence of “progressive” voices in the SBC, especially following the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the denomination has not embraced a progressive social agenda.
As the United States moved away from the Civil Rights era, a new understanding of race and racism emerged among conservatives. Darren Dochuk has argued that conservative white Americans moved toward an understanding that the civil rights laws of the 1960s effectively eliminated racial bias and thus the only real racist is the one who “sees color.” This stance refuses to see systemic racism present in America today, explaining away the continued segregation of American communities, inequities in public schools, and police violence.
Now, in the wake of a Trump presidency, the SBC once again reflects the divisions within the white American middle class. The last four years were an ethical stress test of white religious beliefs, and for some, the test forced them to take a good hard look at their church. So many of the controversial Trump policies centered on race—from the “Muslim Ban” in immigration, to the family separation policy that gave us images of migrant children in cages, to the “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Even the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection, with its throngs of violent rioters, was tied to race, as Trump lied to his followers that voting in largely Black areas had resulted in a “steal” that had to be stopped.
The last four years were an ethical stress test of white religious beliefs, and for some, the test forced them to take a good hard look at their church.
This consistent and very public focus on blaming people of color for various problems, real or imagined, did finally manage to puncture the “I don’t see color” argument for some white Baptists, but that has not ensured an organization-wide change. Rather than focus on the exceptions, look at the rule. The vast majority of white SBC members are not renouncing their memberships. Individuals like Beth Moore, who recently announced she could no longer consider herself a Southern Baptist after the denomination’s inability to speak out over Trump’s sexism and misogyny, are not common. A Beth Moore garners the most attention because she makes the break. Black SBC members find it increasingly hard to stay, as Pastor John Onwuchekwa did in 2020, departing over the denomination’s inability to contend with race.
Rather than focus on those who leave, however, focus on those who stay, those who do not see an issue with restrictive and racially biased immigration laws, those who believe that in telling themselves they “don’t see color” that they have solved the issue of racism for good. Take, for example, the SBC’s inability to condemn white supremacy in 2017 or Richard Land’s more recent column on Black Lives Matter. In 2017, the Reverend Dwight McKissic, a Black SBC pastor, attempted to secure a vote during that year’s annual meeting on a resolution that condemned white supremacy and the growing alt-right movement. The SBC decided against allowing a vote on the measure, calling its language “incendiary.”
Until more white Americans understand racism as inherently present in the very fabric of their society, white evangelicals, including the SBC, will continue to resist social change.
More recently, SBC pastor and Southern Evangelical Seminary professor Richard Land took pains to laud the notion of the statement “Black lives matter” but distanced the idea from the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that the latter “espouses an anti-biblical definition of love, freedom, and justice” and arguing that evangelicals who chanted “Black lives matter” risked associating themselves with a “godless agenda.” A few months later, several SBC seminary presidents issued a statement that declared critical race theory and intersectionality incompatible with Baptist theology. As Judith Weisenfeld noted in her recent Berkley Forum piece, that position “represents a rejection of Black people’s claims—religious or not—to the authority to analyze, challenge, and transform social structures of discrimination that shape their lives.”
Weisenfeld is correct, and the SBC will continue its opposition to approaches to race that rely on critical race theory and that see racism as systemic, not individual. Expect to see more performative theological perfectionism—a contention that because a theory has roots in Marxism it must therefore be shot through with Marxism—to continue. It allows the SBC to avoid the systemic changes BLM demands—their methods fail to perfectly align with those of more conservative (and in this case, white) Americans, therefore their movement is suspect. Until more white Americans understand racism as inherently present in the very fabric of their society, white evangelicals, including the SBC, will continue to resist social change.