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Southern Baptists' New Leader Has Many Issues To Tackle

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The country's largest Protestant denomination has a new leader. His name is Ed Litton. And he says his goal is to create unity among the more than 14 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, which isn't easy in this moment. The SBC has been dealing with several controversies, including the alleged mishandling of sexual abuse and the organization's approach to combating racism. I talked with Pastor Ed Litton yesterday about the path forward for the SBC.

ED LITTON: Those are very serious issues. And I want to say, at the same time, while there is great concern among our members, what was very clear is that we left and I left with a mandate from the convention for whoever the president was going to be, a mandate to deal with the issue of sexual abuse fairly, honestly, transparently, and also to engage the process of racial reconciliation. Those two things are very clear.

MARTIN: I do want to spend a couple moments talking about each of those issues, though...

LITTON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Separately. Let's begin with the reckoning about racism that's happening, obviously, around the country. And the Southern Baptist Convention is no exception. There was an effort to get the convention to take a stand on critical race theory, which is the idea of viewing our current institutions in America through the lens of racism and our history with slavery. Where did you land on that?

LITTON: Well, it's interesting because those efforts did not succeed. And, in fact, what I think our listeners need to understand about Southern Baptists is we have bound ourselves to the word of God as the tool for evaluating anything, systems of injustice would be included. And the reason we don't first turn to CRT is because CRT doesn't really deal with what we think is the core issue, which is the human heart. And the truth is, CRT doesn't deal with the origin of sin in all of us. It doesn't deal with the origin of - or the nature of redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us. Nor does it give us hope for what we call a Revelation 7:9 Vision, which is around the throne of God in eternity, there will be every tribe and tongue.

MARTIN: As you know, I mean, there have been Black pastors within the Southern Baptist Convention who have...

LITTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...Felt unwelcome. And they have put that criticism into letters to the leadership. I mean, SBC churches are overwhelmingly white. American demographics are changing. I mean, are there efforts underway to diversify, to reach out to Black Americans to change the way the SBC is perceived?

LITTON: Well, yeah. Absolutely. But it's not just perception. It's some realities that we're having to face. The issue for us is to engage them, because you're absolutely right. The culture we want to communicate the gospel to is very diverse. And it's diversifying at a rapid rate. And gospel-loving people welcome that. We want people of color. We want people with different perspectives at the table with us. You know, a friend of mine recently said that the best way to listen is to just stop talking. Just get to know each other and hear each other and listen to each other. And as we began to open up and share and hear and learn, my perspective got challenged. But the reality is I realized my theology didn't change. What happened is my heart began to change.

MARTIN: When you say your perspective changed, your heart opened, how and to what?

LITTON: (Laughter) Well, I've always considered myself a student of history. And I had to admit I was an ignoramus about what my brothers and sisters of color have been living with and things that they've experienced. And so my reading changed. I started reading other history sources. I started seeing things I didn't know. Things started falling in place. And it began to make sense to me how limited my perspective was. And there's...

MARTIN: May I say, though, that shining a light on those holes in your own understanding of history and Black experience, that is what critical race theory is about. I mean, it's secular. You're right. It doesn't have a religious component. But that's the whole idea is recognizing the holes in our collective, white memory of Black experience.

LITTON: Yeah. No, I'm - and I'm not going to argue with that. As a matter of fact, I think that may be well right. But that's not what brought me to it. It was the gospel that brought me to that revelation.

MARTIN: The label itself has become polarized and politicized...

LITTON: Yes, well...

MARTIN: ...And you're saying, set it aside. And think of it through the lens of the Bible.

LITTON: And I'm not demanding other people set it aside. I'm saying, for Southern Baptists, you don't have to approach it through critical race theory. What we have to approach it through is the love of Jesus Christ.

MARTIN: I also do want to talk about what will practically change with how the Southern Baptist Convention deals with sexual abuse allegations. You're going to oversee a task force...

LITTON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To investigate allegations that the SBC's executive committee mishandled sexual abuse claims.

LITTON: Right.

MARTIN: What can abuse survivors expect you to do differently?

LITTON: Well, what's real clear leaving the convention in Nashville is Southern Baptist has spoken plainly and clearly almost unanimously that they want this investigated properly through a third party. They want it not to be tainted. The task force's commission from the floor of the convention is to look at the evidence and report back to us what's actually happening and what - or what has happened. And so that is exactly my charge. And right now, we're in the process of putting that team together to do that. We want to look at it honestly and transparently because we have to deal with this for the sake of the survivors. But also, we really, at the same time, need to lead our churches to become serious about creating safe places for people, that people do not have to fear that they're going to be molested or abused or taken advantage of. And so that's our challenge.

MARTIN: What would you want to say to the hundreds of alleged victims who are listening to you right now looking for a way back to the church, perhaps?

LITTON: Well, I understand trust has been violated. And as a pastor, I would say, I am sorry. And I want to do everything I can to help you heal and find healing. It takes time. But at the same time, you need to know that your pain is not in vain and that there are people listening to you. I would be heartened if I were you that the whole convention resoundingly said, deal with this, not just to - not to cover up some sense of public embarrassment, but deal with this because it's wicked.

MARTIN: Pastor Ed Litton. He is the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. We appreciate you taking the time and having this conversation with us. Thank you.

LITTON: Rachel, I'm honored to be here. And thank you for taking the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "SEVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.