It’s a strange sight – seeing a crowd of 15,000, packed shoulder to shoulder in a convention hall, with no faces covered by the masks that have become so ubiquitous over the last 18 months.
Indeed, with the pandemic fading in the United States, there was little need for facemasks at the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, this week.
This left the attendees, constituting the largest Protestant denomination in the country, to wear only the tattered masks of fundamentalist ideology they have woven into their spiritual identities.
In their first meeting since the onslaught of COVID-19, the convention set out to tackle a range of issues gnawing away at the delegation of churches, from racial reconciliation, sexual abuse, abortion, ordained women and the supposed leftward drift of the convention.
As seen time and time before, Southern Baptists were at odds with themselves and the world around them, staring terrified at down-sloped line graphs indicating shortcomings in their evangelical mission.
Unable to reconcile with an increasingly accepting world, they decry equality as godless, their mental image of a straight, mostly white heaven seemingly jeopardized by the thought of confronting one’s own position of privilege over another of God’s children.
They comfort themselves with words of revelation, of the impending judgment day that will validate their cause, uphold their prejudice and leave all their ideological foils to burn in a lake of fire.
It’s difficult to imagine eternity spent engulfed in flames to be much more unbearable than the regurgitated rhetoric of regressive politics lobbed from the messengers present, who used the platform to advocate for amendments to proposals that would remove any doubt that the God they worship fills out the ballot in line with their views.
Confusing their scripture readings with right-wing talking points, they spent much time deliberating critical race theory, with many feeling it to be an attack of whiteness.
And yet, there remains glimmers of hope that the convention hasn’t fully committed to molding itself to the political tool many have strived for.
The generally understood moderate candidate, Ed Litton, was elected by convention attendees to take the presidential helm for the upcoming year. Litton’s stance on racial reconciliation far outpaces his ultra-conservative opponents in terms of meaningful action as opposed to empty statements.
Additionally, a number of proposed amendments that would have seen harsher stances toward the LGBTQ+ community and women who’ve had abortions were struck down.
Most encouraging was the proposed motions of a number of messengers, using the precedent set by the CRT removal resolution, to repeal a number of Civil War-era Southern Baptist resolutions supporting the Confederacy.
It still remains to be seen whether this hope is truly more than a savvy convention growing more skilled in their exclusion, but sometimes hope has to be searched for.
Sitting president J.D. Greer summed it up best in his closing address to the convention, encapsulating the crossroads the denomination has yet to reconcile with.
“What’s the more important part of our name: Southern or Baptist?” Greer said.
Will the convention see their mission not as a crusade against an immoral world delaying the second coming, making them vulnerable to every figure in power looking to exploit their collective influence, or will they understand their mission to be far more merciful, loving and accepting?
Time only knows.
An undergraduate student at Emerson College pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, he was an Ernst C. Hynds Jr. intern with Good Faith Media for the summer of 2021.