ANAHEIM, Calif. — Minutes before thousands of Southern Baptists voted for their next president, the most famous man in the room made a surprise appearance at a microphone on the convention floor.
For years Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, was a hero for Southern Baptists. He built what became the denomination’s largest church, trained 1.1 million pastors around the world and wrote one of history’s best-selling books, “The Purpose Driven Life.”
But on Tuesday, as infighting over weighty topics like politics and sexual abuse consumed the county’s largest Protestant denomination, Mr. Warren came to the convention he once personified to offer what sounded like a lover’s goodbye.
He is on the brink of retirement, and the denomination has been drifting from the compassionate conservatism and “seeker-sensitive” style Mr. Warren came to represent. Southern Baptists spent part of the afternoon debating whether to oust his church over its ordination of three women as pastors last year. “We have to decide if we will treat each other as allies or adversaries,” Mr. Warren said. The response in the room was tepid.
Hours later, the denomination announced Bart Barber as its new president after a tense and unusually politicized contest for a religious group that is moving deeper into an era of hardening divisions, and farther away from the tradition that shaped Mr. Warren.
The choice of Mr. Barber, a pastor in rural Texas, is a victory for establishment leadership that has shown openness to making changes in the wake of a sex abuse scandal and not shied away from broader discussions of race and the role of women. It also sets up more pitched internal clashes between those who back such leadership and an energized ultraconservative wing pushing for a harder, bolder line in national culture wars.
The election, which Mr. Barber won 61 to 39 percent in a runoff election after he failed to secure more than 50 percent of the first vote, suggested that a majority of Southern Baptists were not swayed by warnings of their denomination’s leftward drift on an array of hot-button cultural and political topics. The election was held as more than 8,000 Southern Baptists gathered for their annual convention this week near Disneyland.
A year after the convention voted along similar lines in Nashville following the end of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, divisions in the denomination are hardening into discrete camps. Though traditional conservatives pulled off a victory, they are challenged by a groundswell of energy on their right flank empowered by culture wars animating midterm elections. Among the most prominent: an expected decision from the Supreme Court to overturn the longstanding constitutional right to abortion within the next few weeks.
The election and meeting in Southern California comes less than a month after the release of a bombshell report alleging that leaders in the denomination suppressed reports of sexual abuse. Delegates, called messengers, heard a report from the sexual abuse task force on Tuesday afternoon.
“Today we will choose between humility and hubris,” Bruce Frank, the chair of the task force, told messengers from the stage. “The time for action has come.”
Turmoil in the Southern Baptist Convention
Internal and external crises have hit the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
After more than an hour of sometimes contentious debate, messengers approved the task force’s two recommendations, to create a group to study further changes to safeguard churchgoers and to create a website that tracks pastors and other church workers who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. The convention hall erupted into sustained applause as the resolutions passed, then stood and joined in song: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.”
“I’m feeling acknowledged, validated and encouraged,” said Jules Woodson, who in 2018 came forward to say a youth pastor sexually assaulted her when she was 17. “This is a step in the right direction and for the first time in 24 years, I feel like true action to stop this systemic crisis has been set in motion,” she said.
Mr. Barber defeated Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who has criticized what he describes as the denomination’s leftward drift on issues including gender, sexuality, abortion and critical race theory, which the convention publicly affirmed as a potentially useful “analytical tool” in 2019.
Mr. Ascol’s supporters mobilized to ensure his voters could make the expensive trip to Anaheim and were prepared to vote as a bloc when they arrived. The Conservative Baptist Network, an influential ultraconservative group founded in 2020, texted supporters reminders for the timing of important votes, and recommendations on how to vote.
Jared Moore, a pastor in Tennessee, had volunteered to connect sympathetic voters to donors providing scholarships for travel expenses. Mr. Moore, 41, described himself as a fundamentalist, and said he saw the denomination under its recent leadership as kowtowing to secular trends by tacitly condoning female pastors and homosexuality. He was part of a visible faction of “abortion abolitionists” in Anaheim who support not just overturning Roe v. Wade, but criminalizing the procedure and prosecuting those who procure it.
Christians should be less concerned with how “the world” will react to them, Mr. Moore said.
“I believe John the Baptist was a culture warrior,” he said. “I believe Jesus was a culture warrior.”
Ed Litton, the convention’s departing president, described the denomination as facing a “come to Jesus moment,” and urged the fractious body to “have the mark of people who love one another even when we don’t see eye to eye on everything.”
The top candidates for leadership represented starkly different directions for the convention’s future. Unusually for an internal contest for denominational leadership, the election took on the tenor of a traditional political campaign.
In the weeks leading up to the convention, Mr. Ascol, who has called for Baptists to be “culturally uncompromising,” was interviewed by right-wing outlets including One America News, Real America’s Voice and The Daily Wire. Mr. Barber, who was endorsed by Mr. Warren, has lamented how “secular politics” have influenced the tone and content of debates in Southern Baptist circles.
With 13.7 million members, the denomination has been in a steady slump since its peak of 16.3 million members in 2006. But it still has 47,000 churches spread across every state, and is closely watched by a much wider sphere of conservative evangelicals.
The annual gathering serves as a social event for many pastors and church members. Events related to the meeting started early in the morning and continued late into the evening. At 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Baptist 21, a group that describes itself as a “positive voice,” had a panel discussing how to address sexual abuse. Both Mr. Ascol and Mr. Barber spoke, lightly pushing back against each other. Mr. Barber encouraged people to go back to their own churches to effect local change.
Mr. Ascol, holding a Bible in his lap, worried about “the danger” of what the task force’s report would mean for church structure and autonomy. He urged the audience against supporting a system that could inhibit the ecclesiastical mission God called them to do. The problems they face are much bigger than sex abuse, he said. “We’ve lost our fear of God in this convention,” he said.
Across the hall, at a competing breakfast hosted by the Conservative Baptist Network, the focus was on politics, not sex abuse. The right-wing activist Charlie Kirk was onstage, revving up attendees against the news media. “We are going to stand against the lies, we are going to stand against the deceit,” he said.
The focus was more about saving the United States than the Southern Baptist Convention. Organizers passed out voter registration kit details and advertised a “Christian Heritage Tour” of Washington. They showed a promotional video promoting Liberty University, which became a center for evangelical Trumpism in recent years, and its initiative Freedom Voters. A video for that group’s “I Promise to Vote” campaign pushed people to make various “promise pledges,” including not just voting but poll watching. “Our mission to the 21st century is to get out to the polls,” a voice-over proclaimed.
Speakers attacked critical race theory and cancel culture. One speaker reminded the audience that Mike Huckabee endorsed Mr. Ascol, their preferred candidate, for convention president.
For this group of Southern Baptists, the fate of the country and the church are tightly intertwined. At a moment when “the country is being overrun by these evil ideas,” we have a chance “to do something good for the kingdom,” said Rod Martin, one of the founders of the Conservative Baptist Network.
“Stand!” he told them, or risk heading “into an age of true darkness.”
Here, unlike the Baptist 21 ballroom, Mr. Acsol received two standing ovations. When he gave his stump speech lines about the need to return to the fear of God, he received a resounding amen. The hundreds prayed for him, and their desire to see him elected. “Help us to take a stand today,” the host prayed.