In yet another setback to the most conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, an attempt to disband the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission failed June 15.
This vote was the culmination of a years-long campaign against the ERLC by allies of the Conservative Baptist Network, who believe the SBC has fallen into liberalism and has become “woke.”
Most recently, former ERLC President Russell Moore was hounded out of office by the incessant rallying of critics who accused him of focusing too much on addressing sexual abuse in the SBC, favoring a legal path to citizenship for some immigrants and being too soft in opposing homosexuality.
Although the ERLC has taken a strong stance against abortion, its position has not been hardline enough for some critics.
Even after his departure a year ago, the agency has continued to face criticism from the far right. Although the ERLC has taken a strong stance against abortion, its position has not been hardline enough for some critics. When Acting President Brent Leatherwood recently signed onto a letter published by the National Right to Life Committee saying women who receive abortions should not be prosecuted for capital murder, the far-right critics pounced again.
Although the SBC has taken firm positions against abortion for at least two decades, the denomination in annual session has not addressed the question of whether women who obtain abortions should be prosecuted as murderers. However, such a belief has become an article of faith for the most extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement in America, which overlaps with the SBC’s constituency.
On the opening day of this year’s SBC annual meeting, Joshua Scruggs of North Carolina moved that the ERLC be abolished. The Committee on Order of Business decided to let messengers vote up or down on the question and scheduled a debate for the next afternoon, June 15.
Speaking for his motion, Scruggs cited 1 Corinthians 1:10, which calls for “no divisions” among the body of Christ. Scruggs said dismantling the ERLC would “put an end to some of our divisiveness,” which he called “disgraceful.”
The ERLC, he said, is an entity that “causes needless division among Southern Baptists.” Even its program assignment from the SBC “will inevitably cause division,” he added.
Leatherwood, the acting president, spoke against the motion, saying the ERLC puts the SBC in the public square as a gospel witness. While there may have been “frustration with various personalities and stances over the years,” the mission is too important to abandon, he said.
Especially with the United States on the apparent cusp of overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, “our advocacy will be needed more than ever. We’re going to have to take a state by state approach” to ensure that state laws against abortion are passed and enforced, he explained.
“To turn our back on the public square at a time when it is needed most would be to deny the gospel,” Leatherwood said.
That argument wasn’t convincing to Josh Abbotoy, a member of University Park Baptist Church in Houston and leader of an advocacy group for conservative political causes.
“Abolishing the ERLC is better than continuing to fund a compromised ERLC.”
“Abolishing the ERLC is better than continuing to fund a compromised ERLC,” he declared. He cited a series of what he considers past leadership failures and concluded: “Too often the leadership speaks for D.C. to the pews, not for the pews to D.C.”
He specifically cited the National Right to Life Committee letter and noted that the ERLC’s position contradicted an answer given a few minutes earlier by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
During the seminary report, a messenger asked Mohler if he believed women who get abortions should be charged with murder, and Mohler said yes.
Next, former ERLC President Richard Land came to the microphone. Land led the agency for 25 years and guided its 1997 transition from the Christian Life Commission to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The name change and mission change occurred after conservatives consolidated their control of the denomination.
Land’s credentials as a political and theological conservative are impeccable. In fact, he was accused of wedding the ERLC to the Republican Party during his tenure.
“I cannot imagine a more damaging moment for the Southern Baptist Convention to defund the ERLC,” Land said. “Just the precise moment when after nearly 50 years” of effort the legal right to abortion nationwide is likely to be repealed.
“The ERLC is perfectly primed to be a resource and a help,” he said. “I know the good that is accomplished. I would implore you not to defund the ERLC.”
Time for debate then expired, and the chair called for a vote. Passing the motion would have required a simple majority at two consecutive annual meetings, meaning this would have been the first of two steps.
However, the vote was not close. The chair determined on a show of hands that the motion failed.