Southern Baptists were early to the cultural war over Critical Race Theory, but documents obtained by the Nashville Tennessean show the tightrope denominational leaders have walked trying to placate white ultra-conservatives while not running off Black conservatives.
A Dec. 8 story reported by the Tennessean’s new religion reporter, Liam Adams, is based on documents contained in a binder used by Georgia pastor James Merritt in his role as chairman of the Resolutions Committee at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville in June 2021. The newspaper did not disclose how it obtained the binder but did report that its contents had been authenticated.
Chief among the newspaper’s findings is how sharp the divide remains between denominational leaders who are trying to maintain unity and ideologues on the far right who treasure orthodoxy over unity.
Ascol versus Merritt
Exhibit A in this tug-of-war is Tom Ascol, who leads a subgroup of Southern Baptist Calvinists known as Founders Ministries. Ascol and his brother Bill — along with another group called Conservative Baptist Network — are leading the charge against what they perceive as liberalism within one of the nation’s most decidedly conservative religious bodies.
These conservatives among conservatives are currently engaged in another battle with Merritt, because three days before Thanksgiving Merritt tweeted a word of affirmation for a sermon preached that Sunday in New York City by his son, Jonathan Merritt, who is gay. The Conservative Baptist Network, Ascol and their followers raised an alarm about the perceived heresy of a father commending his gay son for a good sermon.
The battle of wills between Merritt and Ascol was partially on public display at the SBC annual meeting, and a few documents in the binder illustrate what was going on behind the scenes.
Two years of resolutions
The summary of the scene is this: In 2019, the SBC in annual session adopted a resolution on Critical Race Theory — one of the first major public statements on what now has become a conservative calling card — that said it should be used wisely but shouldn’t overstep biblical principles. Ascol and company were upset that the resolution didn’t specifically denounce Critical Race Theory.
Then in 2020 — as Critical Race Theory was becoming an explosive talking point in the 2020 presidential election — presidents of the six SBC seminaries issued a statement denouncing Critical Race Theory and swearing their institutions will have nothing to do with talk of systemic racism.
That sparked a firestorm among Black pastors in SBC churches who threatened to — and in some cases did — leave the denomination if its leaders won’t acknowledge the systemic racism they face every day.
Meanwhile, heading into the June 2021 annual meeting, Ascol led a campaign among a small number of churches to swamp the Resolutions Committee with demands to repeal the 2019 resolution — even though the convention parliamentarian ruled that was not possible. Prior to the convention, several iterations of new draft resolutions denouncing Critical Race Theory were circulated. At least one was copied and sent over and over again to the Committee on Resolutions by a reported 1,300 people from a handful of churches.
Before and during the convention, Merritt and the Resolutions Committee sought to find a way to keep everyone together while addressing Critical Race Theory once more. Culturally, the issue by then had become a major focus of Republican politicians and conservative evangelical parents storming local school board meetings.
In one email exchange (not involving Ascol) found in the binder, then SBC President J.D. Greear affirmed a plan to put forward a “resolution about CRT but not about CRT.”
And indeed that is what happened. The Resolutions Committee wrote a resolution about Critical Race Theory that never uses the name. Instead, it asserts that convention messengers “reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”
Ascol challenged the committee’s language, but convention messengers ultimately adopted the less-offensive language put forward by the committee. Ascol was not happy about that and soon thereafter wrote about the situation on the Founders Ministries website: “There were two types of Southern Baptists in the convention hall: those who wanted open discussion and opportunity to repudiate Critical Race Theory and intersectionality vs. those who wanted to avoid addressing those ideologies by name.”
‘Unity shouldn’t be the goal’
Before the Resolutions Committee published its draft language, Merritt reached out to Ascol via email, according to the Tennessean, which reported that Merritt told Ascol he wanted to “hear all sides,” but communicated that the resolutions committee had a goal of “unifying rather than dividing our convention.”
Ascol’s response, preserved in the binder, was that unity shouldn’t be the goal. “Saying negative things is not always bad,” he told Merritt. “The one thing your committee cannot afford to do is to ignore those encouragements (to denounce Critical Race Theory) in hopes that doing so will promote unity. The simple truth is that Southern Baptists are not unified. The issues that divide us are fundamental.”
This response is typical of the language often used by both Ascol brothers. Also at this summer’s annual meeting, Bill Ascol was the chief advocate for adoption of a stridently worded resolution calling for an absolute end to abortion in America without exception.
The theme for the upcoming Founders Ministries’ 2022 conference is “Militant and Triumphant: The Doctrine of the Church.”
Ascol doesn’t trust ‘mainstream media’
In his Tennessean story, Liam Adams notes that he made multiple attempts to contact Tom Ascol for comment or interpretation before publishing the story but that Ascol never responded.
In a post on the Founders Ministries website slamming the Tennessean for publishing “private” communication, Ascol acknowledged that he intentionally did not return Adams’ calls.
“Liam Adams asked to speak with me several times for the story. For a variety of reasons I never responded to his request (I was beyond cell service part of the time; I don’t trust mainstream media; and I find it somewhat distasteful that a reporter would make private emails public without at least asking permission to do so),” he wrote.
Ascol said he is “not worried about my private words being made public in this way. I just think it is a slimy thing to do.”
Then he questioned the ethics of the Tennessean and unnamed “SBC elitists” who he believes leaked the binder for a reason.
A Dec. 13 tweet from Founders Ministries linked to the Ascol’s response with this teaser: “The Southern Baptist Convention has a new scandal to add to its tragically growing list. Let’s call this one ‘bindergate,’ because a black notebook binder with a red and white identification page is at the center of it.”
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