It’s trading season for athletes. In the NBA, teams are beefing up for the playoffs; and NFL teams are retooling lineups in hopes of making a run to the Super Bowl this fall.
Southern Baptists are also in a trading frenzy. For good reason: they are in a decades-long slump in membership and money, cresting in 2019 when the they registered the largest one-year decline in their history.
That’s not all. Things are not good in the clubhouse.
Popular SBC theologian Russell Moore is on shaky ground with the players. He leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His advocacy on certain issues of public policy has not been well received in the dugout. A recent report blamed him for significant decline in revenue.
Then there is the organization known as the Network. They are calling out what they see as liberalism in the SBC organization. They are promoting one of their own as the new manager (or president) of the SBC. They are threatening worse: an outright takeover of the whole team.
Calvinism is still at play. Just below the surface of civility is a long-festering resentment about the creeping dominance of Calvinistic ideology.
Perhaps the most consequential dynamic causing unrest in the Southern Baptist Convention is the threatened rebellion of their franchise teams, what they call the new state conventions, in places like California, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. The Mission Board adopted a policy of by-passing these state organizations when funneling SBC mission money to projects in their regions. The minor league players are not happy, to put it mildly.
So, these Baptists, looking to trade up, as they say in the business, rolled the dice. They swapped two long-time superstars for one questionable performer.
Beth Moore is one of those superstars. For decades, she has been the most influential female in the fanbase. She also is the most lucrative author published by their in-house printer, now called Lifeway (that same Lifeway that in recent years closed all their stores and sold their headquarters building).
But Ms. Moore, of Houston, has been increasingly vocal in her displeasure with her church team. They were not, it seems, taking seriously the concerns of their largest fan base, the women. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the women called for more transparency and more action on behalf of sexual abuse victims. She said, and I paraphrase, “I can’t play with this team any longer.”
Another superstar on the trading block also hails from Houston. He is the famous and influential pastor of the megachurch known as Church Without Walls, Dr. Ralph West.
When SBC team leaders announced last fall that Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory are contrary to the Bible and team doctrine, he voiced his discontent. “Trade me,” he said simply.
The discontent of Moore and West are the public responses of influential players to the failure of the SBC managers to address concerns of race and gender. But heeding their calls was a losing strategy, the coaches surmised. Better to focus on politics: more people, more money, more potential to make a big splash.
To no one’s surprise, they traded loyal players Moore and West for a rising star: Donald J. Trump.
Trump has perfected an old and established talent, one deeply rooted in southern religious culture. It predates the Civil War; it formed the ideological foundation for slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and current efforts to restrict access to the ballot. It is the core ideology of White Supremacy. It is no surprise that fans across the South turned their backs on two long-time stars and clamored for the new sensation, Donald J. Trump.
It is a gamble, as everyone sees. Whether it will pay off will take years to assess. But Southern Baptists had a problem, and trading two restless stars from Houston for a popular slugger from Palm Beach just might produce what they need: more butts in the seats and more dollars in the till.
Regardless, it will go down in history as the biggest trade in recent religious history. Whether it slows the decline of the once-proud organization remains to be seen.
I’ll keep you posted.
(If you didn’t like that, read through this earlier version of this commentary.)