The Changing Evangelical Identity of Southern Baptists

By: Steven R. Harmon

April 26, 2021

Responding to: The Future of U.S. Evangelical Christianity

The Changing Evangelical Identity of Southern Baptists

I write from the perspective of a complicated relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

I used to be a Southern Baptist, and a deeply connected one: I was raised by my parents in Southern Baptist churches, educated in Southern Baptist institutions, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, and served as pastor of Southern Baptist congregations. 

I no longer identify as a Southern Baptist, having found an ecclesial home in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), founded in the early 1990s by other “Baptists Previously Known as Southern” in the aftermath of a solidified turn of the SBC in a more conservative direction. I am a professor in a school of divinity that is a CBF partner institution and previously served on the faculty of another CBF partner institution. 

And yet, because I am a member of a church with dual CBF and SBC affiliations (Baptist congregational ecclesiology makes possible multiple denominational affiliations beyond the local congregation), and because the local church that ordained me was and continues to be affiliated with the SBC, I technically remain not only a Southern Baptist but an ordained Southern Baptist minister. All this means that while I no longer identify denominationally as a Southern Baptist, I’m nonetheless writing about my own people.

While I no longer identify denominationally as a Southern Baptist, I’m nonetheless writing about my own people.

My relationship with the U.S. evangelical community, to which the SBC belongs as the largest denomination of American evangelicals, is similarly complicated.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak on the program of an ecumenical consultation in the role of offering an “evangelical” perspective on a proposed ecumenical initiative. This presented me with a bit of a quandary, for “evangelical” had already lost much usefulness as a descriptor for a particular group of Christians in light of the wide range of definitions offered for it, and neither I nor my CBF communion have been particularly invested in claiming an evangelical identity, especially in light of some of the baggage now associated with the label in the United States. With appropriate disclaimers, I sought to speak from the vantage point of a participant in expressions of American Christianity that could be broadly characterized as evangelical. But in 2021, I might find a more generous articulation of evangelical identity even more difficult.

“Evangelical” has functioned historically as a synonym for “Protestant” and still has that connotation today in Europe (in Germany, for example, Protestants belong to Evangelisch churches). Yet Catholic theologian William Portier of the University of Dayton has argued that there are “evangelical Catholics” among contemporary American Catholics. Since the nineteenth century, some American Protestants have considered themselves evangelicals in the sense of being theologically distinct from the “liberal” Protestants who had accommodated themselves to various aspects of “modernism.” Thus, evangelicalism in the United States has come to name a pattern of ideological commitments that might include individual members of a wide variety of denominational expressions of Christianity.

Evangelicalism in the United States has come to name a pattern of ideological commitments that might include individual members of a wide variety of denominational expressions of Christianity.

The narrowing of evangelical identity to ideological opposition to the accommodation of Christianity to modernity—some would now focus this concern on “postmodernity”—has made for easy associations by non-evangelicals of evangelicalism with fundamentalism (a much narrower expression of Christian identity that a broader evangelicalism nevertheless includes) and, most recently, with the white Christians who supported the candidacy, presidency, and policies of Donald Trump and with some who participated in the January 6 Capitol insurrection with Jesus signs in hand and Christian prayers on their lips.

Not all Southern Baptists are comfortable with such associations. Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is a notable exception to the linkage with ideological Trump supporters, and there are many others like him. But the current iteration of the SBC can claim to be an “evangelical” denomination in the sense of these broader anti-liberal/anti-progressive ideological commitments, and therefore is rightly identified as the largest denominational expression of evangelicalism in the United States.

The current iteration of the SBC can claim to be an 'evangelical' denomination in the sense of these broader anti-liberal/anti-progressive ideological commitments.

For many Southern Baptists, their commitment to an evangelical identity in the sense of ideological opposition to liberal/progressive compromises with modernity and postmodernity now includes opposition to the movement for gender equality, to the recognition of the compatibility of LGBTQ identities with Christian faithfulness, and to the examination of systemic patterns of racism through the lenses of critical race theory.

Popular devotional speaker Beth Moore’s announcement that she no longer considers herself a Southern Baptist and debate over the statement of the presidents of the six official seminaries of the SBC that “affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message,” the doctrinal confessional statement of the SBC, are evidence that the ideological framing of the Southern Baptist expression of evangelical identity is at an inflection point with an uncertain subsequent trajectory.

Will the SBC double down on its ideological resistance to societal reconsiderations of gender, sexuality, and race? Or will it engage in its own reconsideration of traditional perspectives on these matters in conversation with the cultural context of its churches? Such conversation would arguably strengthen rather than weaken its proclamation of the “evangel,” the good news of God’s renewal of the world through Jesus Christ and the way he taught.

Will the SBC double down on its ideological resistance to societal reconsiderations of gender, sexuality, and race? Or will it engage in its own reconsideration of traditional perspectives on these matters?

If Southern Baptists were to engage such a conversation, they would be reconnecting with earlier expressions of evangelical identity that predate its ideological transformation. Baptist historian of Christianity Bill Leonard recently recalled the abolitionist and pro-women’s suffrage “Oberlin evangelicalism” that characterized the early years of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), founded in 1833, which in 1835 became the first U.S. college to admit African Americans and in 1837 the first U.S. college still in existence to admit women.

Leonard described the commitments of “Oberlin evangelicalism” in this manner: “Religious experience of God’s grace in Jesus means something, not simply for the next life, but in the life we have right now. New life in Christ is no mere salvific transaction, mental assent or what some 19th century folks called ‘corpse cold creedalism.’ It is opening the eyes of the heart to our need of personal redemption and our calling to work for justice in individuals and communities alike.”

That sort of evangelical identity was embraced by Southern Baptists themselves not too many decades ago. In a November 1976 cover story, Newsweek proclaimed that year “The Year of the Evangelical” after self-identified “born-again” evangelical Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, was elected president with substantial support from self-identified evangelical voters. While Carter’s perspectives on gender, sexuality, and race would place him outside the boundaries of evangelical identity as currently drawn by Southern Baptists, the SBC in the 1970s included many other liberal/progressive Southern Baptists like Carter within a more generous conception of evangelical identity along with much more conservative Southern Baptists. Some of the latter would soon undertake a successful effort to draw the boundaries more narrowly.

I have not given up my hope that Southern Baptists might yet be transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that is still present in their midst.

Like Carter, I now find myself outside those boundaries. But there is a further complication of my relation to these developments in the SBC. My specialization as a Baptist theologian is ecumenical theology, which is the effort to envision theological pathways beyond the long-entrenched and current divisions of the one church of Jesus Christ.

As a Baptist ecumenical theologian, I know that the way beyond these divisions is not through forging a common set of ideological commitments in relation to a changing culture, but by recognizing across our divisions the “religious experience of God’s grace in Jesus,” as Leonard described Oberlin evangelicalism, that transforms both persons and the societies to which they belong so that they embody more fully God’s justice.

The transformative “religious experience of God’s grace in Jesus” belongs not only to Oberlin evangelicals, but to contemporary evangelicals, along with non-evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians. It belongs to contemporary Southern Baptists, too, as fellow Christians from whom I am divided but with whom I am obligated to pursue the unity of the one church of Jesus Christ. I have not given up my hope that Southern Baptists might yet be transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that is still present in their midst.

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