The bubbas-that-be in the SBC

How Russell Moore fell afoul of them.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, speaks June 12, 2019, during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Alabama. RNS photo by Butch Dill

(RNS) — If you think it’s a coincidence that two accusatory letters from Russell Moore were leaked just before the Southern Baptist Convention convenes in Nashville, Tennessee, next week, I’ve got a big granite mountain east of Atlanta to sell you.

The main business of the annual meeting will be to elect a new SBC president to follow J.D. Greear, who, because the 2020 meeting was canceled due to COVID-19, has served an extra year term.

One of the four candidates for the presidency, Georgia Pastor Mike Stone, is charged by Moore with undermining the denomination’s efforts at sexual abuse reform, a charge Stone protests. If you’ve read either of the two letters, you’ll know that Stone is hardly the only object of Moore’s ire.

But let’s back up a bit.

Eight years ago, Moore became president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the entity responsible for overseeing the denomination’s engagement in national affairs and public policy. He was a professor and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and, at 42, represented a stark contrast to his predecessor Richard Land.

RELATED: Jennifer Lyell wanted to stop her abuser by telling her story. Instead, her life fell apart.

After 25 years heading the ERLC, which he helped to launch, Land was dumped when he accused the Obama administration of using the Trayvon Martin case to stir up racial tension in a radio commentary subsequently found to be lifted almost verbatim from someone else’s newspaper column.

Land’s successor, as theologically conservative as anyone could ask, largely steered clear of culture-war polarization. Playing against type, Moore criticized gay conversion therapy, opposed display of the Confederate flag and supported refugee resettlement. And come the 2016 election, he vigorously and publicly opposed Donald Trump, a stance that elicited calls for his ouster and made him a pariah in the pro-Trump evangelical world. 

Above all, Moore stood for advancing the SBC’s program of racial reconciliation and combating a tendency among major SBC figures to ignore a cascade of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct cases. Foremost among these figures was Paige Patterson, a leader of the conservative takeover of the denomination four decades ago who in 2018 was fired from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for mishandling the investigation of an alleged rape case there.

Moore wrote the first of the two leaked letters in February 2020, shortly after it was reported that Patterson had received a “Defender of the Faith” award from a suburban Dallas church whose pastor had himself been sued for sexual misconduct. In that letter, Moore notes that there were members of the SBC’s Executive Committee who were enraged at SBC President Greear for saying that he thought the award was a bad idea.

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, right, discusses the Southern Baptist Convention's history of addressing sexual abuse with ERLC President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, on Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography 2019

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, right, discusses the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of addressing sexual abuse with Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, on Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography 2019

These were the same folks who had been enraged at Moore for holding a public conversation with Rachael Denhollander in a conference on sexual abuse held as the 2019 annual meeting got underway. Denhollander, the former gymnast who was the first to accuse Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, described “the disparagement and poor treatment of a sexual abuse survivor by Executive Committee staff.”

This behavior was of a piece with the Executive Committee’s decision summarily exonerating SBC churches “in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up,” according to Moore’s letter.

Then there was the issue of Moore’s support for racial reconciliation, which led to “constant threats” against him and his family “from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention,” Moore wrote. Alongside this was “the blatant, gutter-level racism that has been expressed to me behind closed doors along with the reprehensible treatment of my African-American employees and our African-American seminary professors by figures within the Southern Baptist ecosystem.”

Moore’s February 2020 letter, written to the ERLC executive committee, set the stage for his resignation last month as ERLC president (and, it seems, from the SBC itself). The second letter — dated May 31 and addressed to Greear — focused solely on the sexual abuse issue, and unlike the first it names names.

“You and I both know how leadership in the Executive Committee, at the trustee level with Mike Stone and his allies … have stonewalled many attempts at reform for the sake of the sexually abused,” Moore wrote in letter No. 2.

“You and I both know the involvement of Paige and Dorothy Patterson, through their allies, in these tactics of retribution and revenge. Indeed, videos made for the group aligned with Mike Stone and Rod Martin, were geo-tagged to the Pattersons’ home. Websites for their subsidiary groups are demonstrated to have been created by a nativist political group.”

Stone is immediate past president of the SBC Executive Committee and he and Martin are both leaders of the Conservative Baptist Network, which has among other things helped gin up a campaign against a mild 2019 SBC resolution recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools (that) can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences” if employed “subordinate to Scripture — not as transcendent ideological frameworks.”

Long story short, what we’ve got is the old guard of Patterson-ites (wife Dorothy was also dismissed from Southwestern) on the warpath against Moore, Greear and anyone else committed to extricating the SBC from a death match against #metoo, wokeness and Black Lives Matter.

J.D. Greear, from left, Russell Moore, and Amy Whitfield speak with press at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 18, 2019. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

J.D. Greear, from left, Russell Moore and Amy Whitfield speak with press at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 18, 2019. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Truth to tell, Moore was not the politician that his glad-handing predecessor was. Encountering denominational pushback against his joining an interfaith coalition to support the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Land did not stand on principle. He withdrew from the coalition.

No Executive Committee president ever had to ask Land, as Moore said one asked him, “why I did not include ‘the Bubba crowd’ (his words) in my conference programming, since they pay the bills.”

It brings to mind the Larycia Hawkins affair, in which Wheaton College (the evangelical Harvard in Illinois) rid itself of its sole tenured Black political science professor because she dared express solidarity with Muslims. In the face of student and faculty opposition, the college administration kowtowed to powerful bubba-alumni.

RELATED: Southern Baptist pastors demand inquiry into handling of sex abuse cases

Decades ago I was covering a courthouse in the Deep South when an old judge, hearing that I was interested in religion, explained how Southerners used to differentiate Protestant clergy.

“There was this young couple,” he commenced, “and one day the wife comes into the back room where her husband is cleaning his gun and says, ‘Honey, there’s a preacher at the door.’ ‘Well,’ the husband replies, ‘invite him in and ask what denomination he is. If he’s a Presbyterian, lock up the liquor cabinet. If he’s a Methodist, go out and chase the chickens into the woods. And if he’s a Baptist, go sit on your momma’s lap and wait till I get out there.'”

That predatory sexuality is the besetting sin of Southern Baptist preachers is, evidently, not just an old piece of Southern folklore.

Or as Russell Moore put it, “Behind all this is the larger question of sexual abuse within our churches, and the spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors by the Executive Committee itself along with a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”

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