Soon after Alabama pastor Ed Litton was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in June, videos of his years of plagiarizing sermons surfaced and gained national attention. That not one Southern Baptist leader has called for Litton’s resignation as SBC president stems from a titanic struggle within the largest Protestant denomination in North America — competition between Baptists to determine who shall inherit the $30 billion in assets controlled by SBC elites.
The substance of the Baptist struggle emerges with clarity in the juxtaposition of the elites in pursuit of mega-church Texas pastor Matt Chandler with those Chandler views variously as “fools” and “morons.” Through a decade of repeated platforming, invitations to speak at major conferences and participate in exclusive high-profile panels, SBC elites have been bent upon wooing and grooming Chandler and other celebrity pastors with cache among younger evangelicals settle into the denomination for the long haul. The price of Chandler-wooing includes embrace of a host of non-negotiable political and social positions including being woke on race, down on police, down on patriotism, hating Trump, and sanctifying Christian votes for Democrats.
Litton is a pawn on the SBC chessboard defended by elites fearful of alienating “the Chandlers” upon whom, they believe, the future of the SBC depends. National disgrace notwithstanding, Litton must remain as SBC president. Here’s why. If Litton vacates his office, un-woke black SBC First Vice-President Lee Brand, Jr. would take over as president and make un-woke appointments. A Brand Jr. presidency would shift power in the denomination away from Chandler supporters and toward rank-and-file Southern Baptists who cannot check Chandler’s nonnegotiable social and political boxes and for whom Chandler has so far proven unable to hide his contempt.
A 2018 elite-led gathering of younger Baptists reveals the power Chandler has held within the SBC. Pastor Mark Dever, Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary, and Daniel Akin of Southeastern Seminary listened as Chandler aired complaints and dangled a threat. Thirty- and 40- year-olds, Chandler warned, are starting to “wonder if it’s worth it” to stay in the SBC. “I got four or five texts today saying, ‘hey I’m walking.’” For Chandler, former Vice President Mike Pence’s address to the annual convention displayed Southern Baptists’ ability “to figure out a way to look like morons before the whole world.”
Chandler’s penchant for sweeping insults of conservative Christians is not new. In 2009 interviews with Baptist and evangelical luminary John Piper, Chandler admits that, even as a young minister, others probably heard the “bitterness in his tone” when he spoke of Baptists. Chandler recounts how, in the early 2000s, his “disdain . . . turned from kind of you know, ambiguous church, to really, I don’t know what we want to call them, evangelicals, hyper-fundamentalists, um, morality police.”
Chandler’s characterizations of conservative Christians fell upon conservative Baptist ears as did Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s trashing of them as “deplorables” and “irredeemables” and Biden’s “chumps.” For Chandler, were they, as was Pence, “attached to something [i.e., Donald Trump] that the entire world is saying is immoral?”
Chandler mused upon the departure of hundreds from his Texas congregation who opposed his woke stance on race, including what they deemed a reflexive but unwarranted racist interpretation of police shootings of blacks. “I don’t want to talk about fools today. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to discuss foolishness . . . there wasn’t any lament in our elder room about [their departure] other than the normal lament that you lament concerning a fool.”
Chandler seems to approver of the exclusion of un-woke blacks, such as Lee Brand, Jr., from conversations on race: “I am not asking you to find the black person who agrees with you [white people]” because that “probably has that African-American trying to win approval or position.” Conservatives see Chandler and SBC elites satisfying sensibilities expressed by Cheryl Dorsey who called Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron “skin folk but not kin folk,” when he refused to embrace a racist reading of Breonna Taylor’s death from a policeman’s bullet.
The names of such excluded skin folk but not kin folk include un-woke black Baptist and bestselling authors Voddie Baucham and Carol Swain. Both affirm the doctrinal standards SBC elites insist should provide a sufficient basis for unity within the denomination. But neither can pass the woke social and political litmus tests applied by the Chandler-wooing SBC brass.
Given his views of conservative rank-and-file Southern Baptists, black and white, why does Chandler stay in the denomination? Of younger Baptists threatening to bolt from the SBC, Chandler explains, “they don’t understand that movements come and go, but institutions stay.” Mohler encouraged Chandler and younger Baptists at the 2018 meeting — “there is no question who’s going to own the future. It’s not going to be 80-year-olds, it’s going to be the 28-year-olds.” Conservatives hear Mohler’s encouragement as a plea to those who despise them to just be patient, and before you know it, the Deplorables will be gone, and it will all be yours.
As rank-and-file Southern Baptists continue to learn of the contempt in which they are held by some of their would-be heirs, will they leave their denominational last will and testament as is or begin the process of amending it? Will they withhold funds from certain SBC institutions as some are calling for? Will they rally to vote Litton out at their annual meeting in Anaheim next summer? Time will tell. But make no mistake, the real fight within the largest Protestant denomination in America is not really about the plagiarism of one Alabama pastor. The struggle is over which heirs shall inherit the enormous SBC estate — Baptists who respect the conservatives who built and own it or those who do not.