A hugely scrutinized election in Nashville, Tennessee came down to the wire for the Southern Baptists, who ultimately elected a little-known Alabama pastor named Ed Litton over his more well-known and hyper-conservative contenders. Litton’s win is seen as a rebuke to a strident and insurgent wing of the Southern Baptist Convention that was attempting a fundamentalist resurgence, forcing moderates out and barring a full investigation into claims of racist attacks, sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups among church leadership.
While Litton doesn’t (yet) enjoy the name recognition of some larger SBC names, his work is marked by a passion for racial reconciliation. Litton was enormously moved by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri around racist police brutality. Since then, he has sought to make the SBC a more effective force for racial justice in the U.S.
Litton was nominated by Fred Luter, who served as SBC president from 2012 to 2014 and is the only Black pastor to ever serve as president. Litton and Luter have served together on several efforts to champion racial justice in the U.S., and Litton has been critical of the SBC’s lack of engagement in the issue. “Our resolutions on race led nobody to weep over four girls who were bombed and killed at 16th Street Baptist Church blocks away from here,” he said at the SBC’s 2019 Pastor’s Conference in Birmingham. “It has led nobody to weep over the 3,446 African Americans lynched since 1886.”
Luter praised Litton’s gifts as a unifier and uniter, and Litton said unity was one of his four primary goals his term. Now, as president of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, Litton will have the opportunity to prove it.
It won’t be easy. Litton’s victory was a narrow one. He got just two percent more votes than Mike Stone, the hard right conservative who has made headlines in recent months for his role in scuttling investigations into pastoral sexual abuse. This year’s SBC meeting has been marked by deep divides around the SBC’s handling of abuse claims. Victims of sexual abuse in the SBC attended the convention, calling for justice and transparency. One victim, Hannah-Kate, was reportedly left in tears after her conversation with Stone turned sour. Stone has denied those reports.
So while Litton won, he still faces the enormous challenge of turning the SBC’s decline around and bringing together its various factions. “We are a family,” Litton said at a press conference following his victory. “At time it seems we’re incredibly dysfunctional, but we love each other …My goal is to build bridges and not walls.”