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Southern Baptists elect leader focused on bridging racial divide

The largest Protestant denomination on Tuesday resisted a push from the right in a divisive leadership vote.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— The Southern Baptist Convention tamped down a push from the right at its largest meeting in decades on Tuesday, electing a new president who has worked to bridge racial divides in the church and defeating an effort to make an issue of critical race theory.

Pastor Ed Litton, of Saraland, Ala., answers questions after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in Nashville, Tenn., on June 15, 2021.Mark Humphrey / AP

The more than 15,000 delegates in attendance picked as their next leader Ed Litton, a white pastor from Alabama who was nominated by Fred Luter, the only Black pastor to serve as president of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination. Luter praised Litton’s commitment to racial reconciliation and said he has dealt compassionately with the issue of sexual abuse within SBC churches, another hot-button subject at the gathering.

In the second round of voting, Litton defeated Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor backed by a new group called the Conservative Baptist Network, which encouraged supporters to come to the meeting as voting delegates. Stone had campaigned aggressively, including speaking at churches across the country and even appearing on Fox & Friends on Tuesday before the vote.

In the end the message that Stone — who supported a motion to repudiate critical race theory — was a divisive choice, seemed to resonate with voters.

Litton has embraced a role as the man best equipped to build bridges and promote unity.

“From time to time, every family has disagreements and tensions,” he said in a campaign video. “Because we’re a family, we don’t give up on one another.”

Among Litton's notable attributes are a long record of hard work promoting racial reconciliation, and his perseverance in the face of personal tragedy. Litton’s wife of 25 years, Tammy, was killed in an automobile accident in 2007; two years later, he married Kathy Ferguson, the widow of another SBC pastor killed in a 2002 car crash.

Alan Cross, an SBC pastor from California who has worked with him on racial reconciliation projects, evoked those attributes in endorsing Litton’s candidacy.

“He will do a good job because he has character and integrity, he operates in humility, he trusts and lifts up Jesus, he has suffered and experienced the love of God in the midst of great grief,” Cross wrote on the blog SBC Voices.

Litton, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and theater from Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university in Phoenix, and later received a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

He spent the early years of his ministry in Texas and Arizona, and since 1994 he has been senior pastor of an SBC church — now known as Redemption Church — in Saraland, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile.

For the past six years, he’s been active in a Mobile coalition called the Pledge Group, a movement of leaders from different racial, religious and vocational backgrounds who want to shrink the city’s racial divide.

Litton was nominated for president at Tuesday’s SBC meeting by pastor Luter, who in 2012 became the SBC’s first and thus far only Black president. Luter said he’d known Litton for more than 20 years, initially teaming up to preach on behalf of racial reconciliation.

That cause has been an enduring one for Litton, who has built strong relationships with many Black pastors.

Late last year, racial tensions in the SBC were heightened when the presidents of the SBC’s six seminaries — all of them white — issued a statement repudiating critical race theory, a term used to describe critiques of systemic racism. In response, a diverse group of Southern Baptists, including Litton and Luter, co-signed a statement asserting that systemic racial injustice is a reality.

During his campaign, Litton identified unity and diversity as two of his top priorities.

Without unified commitment to the Gospel, he said in one campaign video, “We will stumble into opposing factions, differences of opinions and turf battles that squander precious time and resources.”

As for diversity, he noted that Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans increased their presence in the SBC over the past 20 years even as white membership declined.

“I want to continue broadening ethnic diversity on our boards to reflect who we actually are and who we’re becoming,” he said. “I want to build bridges. Where necessary, we have to repair burned bridges.”

He noted that some Black pastors are asking why they should remain in the SBC.

“My answer: because we want you and need you” Litton said.