April 13, 2021

Unheralded Departures

Scott Culpepper

Beth Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention has captured a great deal of attention. Rightly so from one perspective. Moore built a devoted following over the course of forty years teaching the Bible at a level accessible to lay people. Women, in particular, gravitated to a voice that understood their needs and modeled faithful ministry in a denominational setting where opportunities for women to serve were limited. Moore’s willingness to submit to the revamped SBC’s increasingly restrictive standards of the roles of women in ministry enabled her to continue serving in a quasi-pastoral, certainly an authoritative, teaching role even as many women were silenced or pushed out of the denomination at the ground level. Moore always maintained that she was a “teacher,” not a “preacher.” A distinction that many women and men who were pushed out of the denomination for advocating greater autonomy for women in the SBC found thin if not somewhat disingenuous.

The delicate balancing act that Moore maintained was overturned like so many things by the rampaging bull of Trumpism which continues to storm through the china shop of American Christianity. Moore spoke out against Trumpism, Christian Nationalism, and misogyny in American evangelicalism. She related her own experiences with misogyny in Southern Baptist life, revealing that no woman, no matter how accomplished, was insulated from these abusive tendencies in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Beth Moore refused to be silent despite pressure from public figures like John MacArthur and Owen Strachan. MacArthur, who is not a Southern Baptist, went so far as to tell Moore to “Go Home.” She felt that pressure from SBC leaders and many rank and file Southern Baptists as well. And so, on March 9, 2021, Southern Baptists most visible and respected female leader announced that she was still a Baptist, but no longer identified as “Southern Baptist.”

There is no doubt that Moore’s decision was difficult and required a great deal of courage. Unmooring oneself from a faith community that has provided solace and support for decades can never be easy. Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, has published Moore’s materials throughout her teaching ministry; now she will need to find a new publishing outlet, a move that will probably not be difficult given her high profile status and the popularity of her books, a popularity that will probably grow due to her recent departure. She stands to connect with a whole new extended audience of people looking for someone willing to deal honestly with women’s issues in a conservative context.

Another factor that makes her decision difficult is the often-cutthroat nature of Southern Baptist culture itself. While the convention has no official role in pursuing people who have departed, those who leave feel the barbs of persecution through a million little unofficial cuts. Anyone who leaves the Southern Baptist fold with integrity and a good reputation intact presents a clear and present danger to SBC gatekeepers and the sea of enablers who keep them in power. Character assassination is employed to blunt the departing person’s testimony to the problems they have witnessed in Southern Baptist life. Ad hominem attacks are levied as a defensive measure like immune cells attacking a contaminant detected in the human body. In a situation where an autoimmune disease has developed, the immune system wrongly classifies healthy tissue as corrupted and inflicts harm on itself by attacking that tissue or organ. The illustration well captures the sad state of conservative American Christianity at this moment. Beth Moore, a dedicated Bible teacher who has ministered faithfully without a hint of scandal, is identified as a threat to the health of the denominational body, while allegiance to a person of questionable character like Donald Trump becomes the litmus test for denominational loyalty.

While many might be surprised at this state of affairs, there is no reason why anyone should be. Here we get to the other side of the coin. Yes, Beth Moore’s departure merits our attention. But it is worth asking what it says about our fundamental values that Moore’s departure has garnered such attention, finally, when this brain and integrity drain from the Southern Baptist Convention has been going on for decades with little notice from outside circles connected to SBC life. I was reminded of this reality in a discussion with a group of friends on Facebook who, like me, were raised as Southern Baptists and have experienced both the highs and the lows of that world over the last few decades. I and several others in the group have long since moved on while others are still involved in Southern Baptist life. My friend wrote, “Multi-millionaire Beth can take a stand. Even if she ‘loses everything,’ she likely has amassed more money that one can spend in a lifetime. That 45k a year bible college prof. doing something similar could find his family on food stamps.” He has a point. I say that as a college professor who once was making 45 K serving at a Southern Baptist liberal arts institution who determined I could no longer serve there in good conscience. In fact, denominational officials, college and seminary professors, and ministers have been forced to take stands against the accelerating radicalization of the Southern Baptist Convention since the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” (named by the victors) began in 1979. And those stands have cost them. That cost was largely unremarked and unnoted except among a small community of exiles who migrated to other denominations or left Christianity altogether.

The Conservative Resurgence represents a triumph in cynical branding. It has been framed so well within denominational circles as a heroic crusade against “liberalism” and doctrinal decay that the darker side of the moment is obscure to young Southern Baptists only one generation removed from it. It arose at the same time as the founding of the Moral Majority by Jerry Falwell and drew on similar ideological, cultural, and organizational currents. In the name of rooting out liberalism in the denomination, it morphed into a witch hunt in which even the most orthodox of Southern Baptists could be labeled as “liberals” simply for protesting the ill-treatment of the accused. Issues, where a degree of latitude had been allowed because they were difficult to weigh scripturally, were settled not by dogged exegesis of the text but according to the emerging political orthodoxies of the religious right. Careers were ruined. Reputations were savaged. Congregations divided. By the 1990s, conservative elements had wrested control of the denomination from moderates/progressives, and the battle moved to state conventions. It also moved at that time from the six denominational seminaries to state convention supported liberal arts colleges and Bible schools. Professors found that the atmosphere of places they had served for decades was changing seemingly overnight as aggressive Boards of Trustees driven by populist movements in the denomination continued purges already commonplace at the national level.

In other words, none of this is new. It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. The seeds that sprouted support for Trumpism have existed among Southern Baptists for decades, waiting for the rise of a political leader whose brazenness and sociopathic lack of empathy matched the end justifies the means philosophy that has driven the Conservative Resurgence since Houston Judge Paul Pressler proclaimed that conservatives were “going for the jugular” in 1980. Beth Moore is the latest in a long line of people who fought to navigate the tensions of Southern Baptist life until they found that their conscience could no longer permit them to stay within a denomination they no longer recognized. Southern Baptists should pay attention to this trend and particularly to who has been leaving and how the profile of those departing has changed over the last forty years. In classic fundamentalist style, the Conservative Resurgence movement has never really settled into a rebuilding mode. Just when you think they have finished uncovering enemies, a new foe has been identified. From “liberals” and “New Agers” to the “woke” and proponents of critical race theory, there is an element within the SBC that knows it must keep creating new enemies to distract from its own internal problems. That is not to say that many people within the denomination have not tried, often heroically and at great continuing cost, to point the way forward. They have made a difference in certain pockets, but their voices are overwhelmed by the populism that finds so much traction in the SBC’s congregational polity. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a primary architect of the Conservative Resurgence, will likely ascend to the presidency of the SBC at the denomination’s annual meeting in June. Whatever new and fresh currents exist in the SBC will take a back seat for a while longer while the old guard delivers more of the same for at least another two years.

The untold story of the Southern Baptist exodus extends so much farther than the very public departure of Beth Moore. Or the public criticisms directed at Russell Moore (no relation), head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Both Moores have faced mounting attacks for their criticism of Trumpism and Christian Nationalism. Well-intentioned reporters such as Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Emma Green have hurried to chronicle their every comment and point to them as at least mildly progressive voices within a very conservative fold. Equally well-intentioned progressives have cheered Beth Moore on and pointed to her revolt against the SBC establishment as a pivotal moment for women in American religion. And they are correct in those assessments. But we should also be aware that the Moores have come late to the game. Russell Moore speaks with a mildly progressive voice on issues ranging from race relations to immigration, but on other issues he is quick to retreat to the Shibboleths of the SBC establishment. All this is understandable at a human level. We are all operating on an ideological spectrum, and none of us is an absolute ideological purist. One of the banes of our public discourse today is the illusion that any person’s commitments can be easily summed up by a party platform or set of Shibboleths.

The value of a Beth Moore, a Russell Moore, or even a Karen Swallow Pryor asserting their critique of Trumpism and Christian Nationalism is that they are members of the tribe with some cultural clout bringing that influence to bear on issues important to us all. But in appreciating that value, we should not forget the multitude of unheralded departures representing a larger wave that washed up on the beach long before. Some of these departed could well have reached the stature of a Beth Moore or a Russell Moore had they stayed silent. Instead, they spoke earlier and were blocked by the denominational white blood cells from attaining a position where they could “damage” the denomination. The safety nets that caught them were lower and less lucrative if they existed at all. They took financial hits including income reductions and retirement losses. No one wrote articles about them or interviewed them on podcasts. Former colleagues vilified them, and even close friends stood silent in the face of threats to their own place in the tribe should they support such rebels. Some have risen to prominent roles and enjoyed rewarding service despite the difficulties faced in their transition. Others never regained their footing and served as models of grace and perseverance in the face of injustice and suffering. While there is an appreciation for people like Beth Moore among the unheralded departed, there is also that momentary stab of pain and frustration. That realization of being unseen. That question of whether you really made a difference in choosing to give it up for the greater good. The moment passes. They express appreciation that dawn continues to spread, slowly but surely, as leaders like Moore assert the courage of their convictions. And they return to their labors, unheralded but also undaunted.

 

Scott Culpepper


Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt University. He is the author of Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence and currently working on a historical study of Satanic panics, conspiracy theories, and spiritual warfare rhetoric in American history, politics, and popular cultures.

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  • Mary Morgan says:

    Great article and thank you for explaining so well what is going on with SBC. If all Baptists had any knowledge of the first amendment and why the “separation of church and state” was vital for our nation they might have more clarification of what is going on. I am very grateful for Beth Moore and Russel Moore taking stands. I stand with them.

  • I don’t think Russell Moore should be criticized as being “late to the game.” He is 49! He spent his entire life in the throws of the “conservative resurgence” and yet has had the guts to speak out about the problems he sees. This is a far different experience than those who had come before, who were already adults when the “conservative resurgence” started and were able to recognize the shift. It takes time for the fruit from these ideas to develop and be recognized, especially when one has grown up in the culture and is comfortable with it. My husband went to SBTS, but we were not Southern Baptists. Certain things stood out to us right away as problematic (mainly the treatment of women), but other things seemed OK at first even though we were bringing “non-SB” eyes and experiences to it. By the time he was finished with school, we had enough of the SBC and didn’t look back. Thankfully we had nothing to lose by leaving.

    • Heather thank you for your thoughtful reply, In many ways, Russell Moore has been very brave. He has spoken out on issues that many have chosen to stay quiet on. I will say that author is a little younger than Russell Moore and has three degrees from Southern Baptist Institutions and formerly taught at a Southern Baptist college. He is well aware of the comfort that comes with cumming up in that system. Likewise, I grew up in the SBC and taught at an SBC college though I have no degrees from SBC institutions. We both decided to leave that world behind a decade ago because of the deep spiritual dysfunction within it. Part of the point of the essay is that while it is excellent that the Moores are speaking up there have been many before both the old guard who fought against the unhealthy aspects of the conservative resurgence and a younger generation that grew up within the resurgence but saw the potential and in some cases actual abuse.

      The author and I have both moved on to teach at non-SBC Universities. But, that system did real harm, especially in my case. The link below gives a lot of information about the situation I am discussing. Some will argue that the situation in Louisiana was an extreme case. But, the politics of the last 5 years and the embraced authoritarianism both within the SBC and by the SBC in government demonstrate that Louisiana was more a canary in the cole mine than an outlier.

      The Louisiana College Story

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