Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, left, discusses racial unity with Atlanta pastor Dhati Lewis, a vice president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, during Evangelicals for Life on Jan. 17, 2019, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In recent decades the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded defending slavery, has attempted to come to terms with its record on race.
Now as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination faces a rare leadership vacuum at the top of two of its agencies and two of its seminaries — and installs a new mission board president Wednesday (Feb. 6) — questions have arisen about whether its statements committing to diversity will be reflected in hiring decisions.
SBC President J.D. Greear told Religion News Service he has recommended that search committees seeking new executives keep racial diversity in mind and consider going beyond “following networks that you know” in their search.
“In the ones that have asked me I have strongly encouraged there to be at least consideration given,” he said in an interview in January.
Greear noted that he does not have direct control over the selection of the new leaders. But he said that the search committees are open to diverse candidates.
“I haven’t received resistance from any of the search committees that I’ve talked to,” he said.
James Merritt is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo courtesy of James Merritt
Last week, two former SBC presidents, joined by a prominent Las Vegas pastor, took the unusual step of sending a letter to the search committee for the new president of the SBC Executive Committee, inquiring about the breadth of efforts to replace Frank Page. Page retired last year after a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
“In your search for the person to fill this position, have you interviewed any minority candidates?” asked James Merritt, Bryant Wright, and Vance Pitman in an email to the search committee, according to the Biblical Recorder, a Baptist journal in North Carolina. “If not, we respectfully ask why not?”
Merritt confirmed to RNS that he sent the email. In response, he said, the committee “respectfully declined to answer our questions,” saying it could not reveal internal discussions.
“We felt like it was a legitimate question to ask out of a deep concern that we do indeed fulfill both the spirit and the letter of what we resolved to do,” said Merritt, a Georgia pastor. “And that is to reach far and wide and include minorities in the process.”
Almost a quarter century ago, Southern Baptists passed a historic resolution repudiating slavery. In 2012, they elected New Orleans pastor Fred Luter as the SBC’s first black president to a one-year term and re-elected him the next year. In 2015, they passed another statement that urged “Southern Baptist entities and Convention committees to make leadership appointments that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the body of Christ and of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Texas pastor Dwight McKissic, who has called for the SBC to place minorities in appointed executive positions — beyond the elections of denominational officers to one-year terms — tweeted his appreciation of the email sent by the three Baptist leaders.
“It would be a travesty to appt a Prez, without … interviewing a minority,” he tweeted Saturday. “It would be a huge statement of disrespect to the 20% + minority churches who comprise the SBC.”
Roger “Sing” Oldham, spokesman for the Executive Committee, responding to a request for additional information, said the search committee is “diverse in its composition” — including a white woman and two black male pastors. He expects it will update the full committee about its search by its Feb. 18 meeting.
Oldham noted that the nominees elected to the SBC’s boards and committees in June, and chosen by its Committee on Nominations, were 12.6 percent non-Anglo. Of those nominees who were not serving as pastors, 43 percent were women.
Recently, at least two milestones also have been reached among the six SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Kentucky-based flagship of those seminaries, appointed its first African-American board officer in 2018. Also last year, a woman was elected chair of the trustee board of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
Merritt said he hoped that all the current search committees would consider and interview diverse candidates.
“I think too often that Southern Baptists, we kind of come to the party a little bit late and too often we’ve been the caboose and not the locomotive,” he said. “And I think that we have an opportunity here to kind of start changing that narrative.”
After Wednesday’s installation of Paul Chitwood as president of the International Mission Board, four major SBC institutions will need to find new leaders: the Executive Committee, two seminaries and LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing division.
Paige Patterson was ousted as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas in May after allegedly dismissing women’s concerns about rape and domestic abuse. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley announced in October that he would retire at the end of this academic year. Thom Rainer announced in August that he plans to retire from LifeWay this year.
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, speaks with reporters at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 14, 2017, in Phoenix. Photo by Van Payne/Baptist Press
McKissic said in an interview that he has seen progress in blacks being hired as Baptist association and state convention staff. He said he also is aware of minority candidates who have applied for past open executive positions and were not chosen.
“It’s not because they are not interested or they don’t apply,” said the black pastor, who has proposed SBC statements condemning the Confederate flag and “alt-white supremacy.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention has not demonstrated a willingness to place a black — a minority, period — to those high-level positions,” he said.
Dhati Lewis, the sole African-American vice president at the convention’s North American Mission Board, said he is not optimistic about diversity being accomplished soon in the top ranks, though he believes it should occur.
“They’re going to choose people that they trust,” he said of selection committees. “And when your relationships aren’t diverse, it’s hard to find people that you can trust that don’t look like you, talk like you and act like you.”
Appointing more diverse executive leadership beyond the traditional choices, he said, would be an opportunity for the convention “to show that we genuinely want to reach North America and we can get beyond our Southern roots and we can become more global.”
Asked about whether a woman could assume any of these positions, some leaders said that there’s nothing in the denomination’s constitution that precludes a female executive. The SBC’s faith statement declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Greear said his North Carolina megachurch has reviewed its staff directory and determined that many roles that traditionally had been held by men could be held by women. Now, the captain of its domestic and overseas missions program is a woman.
“I think the SBC as a whole – that’s in front of us – is asking the same questions,” Greear said.
For their supporters, the thousands of Christian schools across America are literally a blessing — a place where children can learn in accordance with biblical teachings, untainted by the secular norms of public schools.
To critics, many of these Christian schools venture too often into indoctrination, with teachings that can misrepresent science and history and potentially breed intolerance toward people with different outlooks.
“These schools are front and center in the politicization of knowledge and that’s problematic,” said Julie Ingersoll, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida.
The polarized views have been highlighted in recent days after the appearance of an #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag on Twitter. It was introduced by Chris Stroop, an Indianapolis-based writer and activist, on Jan. 18, shortly after news broke that Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, would be teaching at a Christian school in northern Virginia that lists “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity” as among the disqualifying criteria for prospective employees.
Stroop, 38, calls himself an “ex-evangelical.” He says he attended Christian schools in Indiana and Colorado almost continuously from first grade through high school and recalls pervasive messaging that demeaned LGBT people and discouraged the empowerment of women.
“Not everything about it was bad — I had teachers I liked who encouraged me academically,” said Stroop, who went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford. “But I don’t think education as indoctrination is right.”
The news about Karen Pence’s teaching job was quickly followed by debate over the behavior of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky during a visit to Washington, D.C. While opinions varied widely as to whether the boys had behaved badly, that incident further fueled debate over faith-based schools.
Within days, there were thousands of responses to #ExposeChristianSchools on Twitter, including many personal stories of bad experiences by people who attended them.
One man said his school required students to sign an agreement promising not to listen to “worldly” music. Others faulted their curriculum, such as a Christian biology textbook that cited Scotland’s fabled Loch Ness Monster as evidence of flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Even as the critiques multiplied, many people took to Twitter to defend Christian schools. Among them was Greg Lukianoff, an attorney active in promoting freedom of speech on college campuses. He said he was an “outspoken atheist” beginning in the seventh grade and frequently skipped school.
“Only as an adult did I realize how kind & tolerant my Catholic high school was towards me,” he tweeted.
In a telephone interview Friday, Lukianoff said he had forged close friendships with people from religious and secular schools, and felt it was unproductive to generalize about them.
Even Brian Toale, a 65-year-old New Yorker who says he was repeatedly sexually abused in the early 1970s by a staffer at his Catholic high school on Long Island, recalls many positive aspects of his school years.
“The education itself was top notch,” he said. “I did have several extracurricular activities where I learned stuff and made friends I still have today.”
But Toale, who eventually converted to Judaism, says the school administration failed to properly vet the person who abused him, and later treated him with disdain when he reported the abuse.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.9 million students — a tenth of the national prekindergarten through 12th grade total — attend private schools in the U.S. About three-quarters of them attend one of the roughly 22,000 Christian schools.
By far, the Catholic Church accounts for the biggest share of this group, operating more than 6,300 schools serving more than 1.8 million students — about 20 percent of them non-Catholics. The totals are down sharply from the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide.
The Council for American Private Education identifies 4,154 schools as “conservative Christian,” serving about 664,000 students.
Julie Ingersoll, the religious studies professor, says those schools are faring well, at least in the eyes of their supporters. She notes that many are now able to access publicly funded tax credits and vouchers in various states, and often can operate with limited regulation.
“But this leaves kids vulnerable on all kinds of levels, which of course was what the hashtag was about,” Ingersoll said in an email. “It’s been portrayed as a campaign against Christianity from ‘the left,’ but it was really a group of young adults who grew up in Christian schools (and Christian homeschooling) explaining how they believe they were personally harmed by it.”
“These harms were often related to sex, gender, shame, and abuse,” she wrote. “But stories also detailed impoverished education, especially when it came to science and history.”
The Rev. Russell Moore, a high-profile official with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the recent criticisms of Christian schools reflect some broader societal trends that have riled conservative religious leaders.
“There’s a certain mindset in America that sees any religious conviction as authoritarian,” Moore said.
Overall, Christian schooling “is in a very good place,” Moore said. “There are some phenomenal evangelical schools, preparing their children with remarkable academic rigor.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life, graduated from an all-male Catholic prep school near Baltimore. He has suggested in recent articles that such schools — while admirable in many ways — could do a better job of teaching their students about the church’s historical role in exploitation and oppression.
“I’m frustrated by the overheated commentary where Christian and public schools are almost viewed as enemy combatants in the culture wars,” Gehring said. “Each has their place, and like any institution they have strengths and weaknesses. The Catholic schools I attended through college shaped my understanding of justice and cultivated a spirituality that frames my life, even if those environments could sometimes be a little cloistered and privileged.”
News stories and social media have widely reported and shared Brown’s story. Many have compared her harsh sentence to lesser ones for white juveniles since the state of Tennessee first tried her case more than 10 years ago. The latest decision was the result of an appeal to her original sentence, submitted because it is now unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison.
A 2011 PBS documentary about Brown’s life and trial revealed the challenges Brown faced in her young life. The documentary shows Brown, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, hair pulled into ponytails, waiting to hear from a judge to see if she would be tried as a juvenile or adult.
Her mother was raped at age 16 by an older man and she was given up for adoption. Her adoptive father routinely inflicted physical abuse on her. At 15, she ran away and met a 23-year-old drug dealer, “Kut Throat,” who raped her and forced her into sex work.
After a disagreement with him, she left and went to a local burger place. That is where she met Allen, who asked if she was looking for “action” — meaning was she selling sex? After bartering, they agreed on $150 for the “exchange.” They went to his home, ate, had sex and remained in his bed. Allen boasted about being a former soldier and said he had multiple guns in his home. He grabbed Brown and rolled over. She feared for her life, grabbed a gun and shot him.
The recent ruling seems even harsher in light of the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to give juveniles mandatory life sentences without parole. According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Brown’s sentence falls within the parameters of the constitution because she is eligible for parole once she turns 67.
The girls I spoke with often experienced abuse in their homes. They ran away to escape the abuse. They spoke about being left no choice but to engage in high-risk behavior, including shoplifting, hitchhiking or soliciting. They were vulnerable prey for older predators who began “relationships” with them, exchanging sex for access to clothes, food and shelter. Many like the ones I spoke with end up behind bars.
Tragically, the experience of marginalized girls in the U.S. and Canada are eerily similar. The tragic stories of Cyntoia Brown and Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl whose body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, have parallel issues despite the roughly 2,000 kilometers between Nashville and Winnipeg where they lived.
A recent study by the Vera Institute found that approximately 66 per cent of incarcerated women in the United States are women of color — and 86 per cent of them have experienced sexual violence, often at the hands of an intimate partner or caretaker. Additionally, 79 per cent of these women care for children. Almost all incarcerated women included in the Vera Institute study lived in poverty.
These findings are confirmed by other classic and contemporary research done with incarcerated women. What is staggering is that 82 per cent of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses like shoplifting or using drugs.
In short, inequality, a lack of essential services and supports geared toward women help contribute to tragedy for so many poor, young women.
Researchers, politicians and leaders need to address the root issues that hurt poor, young, women in jail. These issues include increasing poverty, abuse in the home, a lack of social services, inadequate education and the fact that many youth in the wealthiest countries like the U.S. and Canada still do not have access to three meals a day, a safe home, clean water and reliable transportation.
As others have accurately pointed out on social media this week, white men and women who commit crimes in the U.S. are given lighter sentences compared to people of color. Jeffrey Epstein, a 54-year-old accused of trafficking underage girls, received a 13-month prison term. Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman and was sentenced to six months in jail. Teen Ethan Couch ran over and killed four people and injured several others while driving drunk and received no jail time.
In contrast, Brown’s life is effectively ruined. Tennessee law has since changed, prompted by Brown’s case. That means minors can no longer be sentenced to life in prison. But that law does not apply to Brown, who must wait until she is 67 before she can go before a parole board.
New Jersey’s athletic association said Saturday that a referee who told a high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit, which drew ire from an Olympian, the state’s governor and many others, won’t be assigned to any matches until the incident is reviewed.
Michael Cherenson, spokesman for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the organization had reached out to groups that assign referees “and they’ve all agreed” not to assign Alan Maloney to any event until further notice.
Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, who is black, had a cover over his hair Wednesday night during a match. But Maloney, who is white, said that wouldn’t do. An SNJ Today reporter tweeted a video of Johnson getting his hair cut minutes before the match. Johnson went on to win but appeared visibly distraught.
The video was shared widely on social media, with users calling the incident “racist,” ”cruel” and “humiliating.”
Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, posted and spoke on social media early Saturday about the incident, saying he had never seen anything like it in a quarter-century of wrestling.
“This is nonsense,” a message on Burroughs’ Twitter account said. “My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.” In a video posted on Instagram, he criticized parents and coaching staff at the match for not intervening, calling it “absolutely shameful.”
Burroughs called Johnson “courageous” for his performance in the match despite “all of the adversity and racism that you were facing in the moment.” The fellow southern New Jersey wrestler said Maloney had been the referee for some of his high school matches growing up.
Gov. Phil Murphy weighed in on the issue on Twitter, saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the story.
“No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports,” he said.
The state attorney general’s office has confirmed an investigation by the Division on Civil Rights. The school superintendent said in a letter to the community that they support and stand by all student athletes.
Maloney came under fire in 2016 for using a racial slur against a black referee, according to the Courier Post newspaper. Maloney told the newspaper he did not remember making the comments. After the incident was reported, he agreed to participate in sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program. A one-year suspension was overturned.
A woman answering the phone Friday at a listed number for Maloney said the ordeal is being blown out of proportion and the referee was simply following rules.
A rare bipartisan deal in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing laws passed after a few black ministers, leaders and lawmakers forged an alliance with President Donald Trump, who some have condemned as racist for the last two years.
The reforms could offer a path to freedom for hundreds of black and Latino inmates who were sent to prison by a justice system that critics say has long been stacked against minorities.
“It’s like threading a needle politically,” said Marc Morial, the National Urban League’s president and CEO. “It’s been very delicate to get us to the point where we are right now.”
Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, still gets questions from fellow African-Americans asking him why he and other conservative black ministers went to the White House over the summer to talk about the issue with Trump.
“People are still mad at us about that,” Jackson said.
But the end result could be worth it to address what Jackson called “the defining civil rights issue of this era,” even as detractors complain that the legislation did not go far enough and could invite new problems for minority communities.
The bill, which is expected to go to Trump soon for his signature, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and expands prisoner rehabilitation efforts. It also reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” to 25 years.
Another provision would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
That will be a win for minorities who were caught up in a sentencing system that made crack cocaine a more serious offense than other types of cocaine, said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.
“When you correct an injustice in a biased system, it dramatically helps the marginalized people,” Booker said. “That provision alone, 96 percent of the people who are helped by that, are black or Latino.”
Among the advocates of the legislation was a diverse and unlikely group that included presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Kim Kardashian West, the National Urban League, black ministers and minority lawmakers and libertarian-leaning conservatives.
Some of the bill’s advocates say it was a tough decision to work with a White House that is deeply unpopular with black people. More than 8 in 10 African-Americans said they thought Trump was racist in a February poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
But even the supporters say they know this legislation is only the beginning, as reflected by its name, the First Step Act.
Groups such as the NAACP cheered the passage of the bill but also harbored reservations.
The legislation “offers some important improvements to the current federal criminal justice system, but it falls short of providing the meaningful change that is required to make the system genuinely fair,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau.
The bill only affects the federal system, meaning anyone given harsh sentences at the state and local level will have no recourse. Those inmates make up the bulk of people behind bars across America.
Blacks constitute 38 percent — or about 68,000 — of the more than 180,000 inmates in the federal prison population, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Hispanics make up 32 percent — or about 58,000 — of federal prison inmates, with about 122,000 non-Hispanics in federal prison.
Some groups say the bill will open the door to increased surveillance of minority communities through electronic monitoring of released inmates. Others point out limitations in the bill on which federal prisoners will benefit from its changes.
The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations, called the legislation “custom-made for rich white men.”
“All of the carve-outs make the vast majority of our people ineligible for the benefits of the bill,” the group said.
Even with the limits, the bill’s advocates are thrilled to have made progress on an issue where reform has remained elusive for more than a decade. Jackson said any president willing to talk about even minor changes should be worked with.
“I believe with all my heart, if Dr. Martin Luther King was alive, he would have been in that meeting,” Jackson said. “And he would have been advocating for the voiceless instead of playing politics and personality games.”
Given how often public schools fail black children, the allure of a “college prep” school – even if it is in a nontraditional school environment – becomes easy to understand. A school like that is seen not only as an alternative to the regular public schools but as the doorway to the most elite educational institutions of higher education in the nation – and all that earning a degree from one of those institutions entails.
Gateway to elite schools
And so it was with T.M. Landry College Prep – an independent private school located in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The school doesn’t list race or ethnicity in its student profile. However, promotional materials and news reports suggest the majority of the student body is black.
The school began to garner widespread attention in 2017 after students and school officials posted a series of videos of Landry students being accepted into some of the nation’s top colleges and universities – including Ivy League schools. The image of elated black students clad in college sweatshirts as they learned they had been accepted into the likes of Harvard and Yale made for striking theater.
T.M. Landry had seemingly cemented its status as a model school for black students who hail from families that were struggling to make ends meet.
Beset by allegations
Unfortunately, it now appears that this dream school was actually a nightmare.
As reported by The New York Times, the husband-and-wife co-founders of the school – Michael and Tracey Landry – allegedly falsified student transcripts and exaggerated or lied about students’ life stories in order to make them more attractive to college admission committees looking to diversify their student bodies.
People are rightly incensed about what the students at T.M. Landry reportedly had to endure.
Beyond the allegations of abuse, there were also academic practices that raise serious questions about T.M. Landry’s approach to educational success. For instance, the high school students spent an excessive amount of time on ACT practice tests – “day after day,” according to The New York Times.
“If it wasn’t on the ACT, I didn’t know it,” Bryson Sassau, a T.M. Landry student who took the ACT three times, told The New York Times as he lamented how ill prepared he was for college.
Rethinking education’s purpose
But even if Sassou and his fellow students at Landry had been prepared for college, would that necessarily make T.M. Landry a good school for black students?
As one of many scholars who studies the interplay of race, culture and education, I believe the true measure of a school’s worth is not the extent to which its students get accepted into elite institutions. But rather, I’d measure a school by the degree to which it inspires students to engage in collective efforts to improve the human condition.
In fairness, T.M. Landry College Prep’s creed includes a line that states: “Commitment to the betterment of self and society as a whole.” The degree to which the school infused that into its daily coursework is questionable.
Educational researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings has questioned the overemphasis on test scores. She has stressed the need reframe the way society thinks about education – to go from focusing on the so-called “achievement gap” to an “education debt” that reflects how much more should be invested in the education of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I have stressed the need to focus not on achievement gaps but rather on “opportunity gaps” that show inequities in systems, structures and practices, among other factors, that can prevent children from reaching their potential.
Given the unique history that evolves from America’s “peculiar institution” – slavery – and the many ways in which it has impacted black identity, education must also equip black students with knowledge and skills they need to analyze, critique, question and write about the ways in which they’ve been miseducated.
Even at its best – that is, even if the school wasn’t facing allegations of abuse or that it doctored student transcripts and came up with fake sob stories to get them into college – if the school’s focus was primarily concerned with test prep, T.M. Landry was not a truly transformative school that black students need and deserve.
True transformative schools don’t just work to help black students better fit into the existing educational and social system. They don’t want to just contribute another “beat the odds” story about how so called “merit” and “hard work” can help them overcome centuries and decades of class and race inequity and oppression.
Education, on the other hand, is an emancipatory process of lifelong learning that enables students to study and read the broader society and work to disrupt injustice.
Schools like T.M. Landry that just want to “school” black students well enough to get into the Ivy Leagues so that they can earn a degree, acquire material things and the trappings of success – all the while fitting into the existing power structure – are problematic. Such schools may appeal to black families because of their negative experiences in traditional public schools, but they don’t really enable students to challenge the status quo.
Indeed, as Audre Lorde has argued, the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And as James Baldwin has stressed in his famous “Talk to Teachers,” during these times of anti-blackness, racism, xenophobia and discrimination writ large, it is time to “go for broke” in order to teach black children to break out of the existing social order. In order to do that, educators must radically shift what education is – and who decides what counts as academic and social success.
As of the publication of this article, the school’s co-founders, Michael and Tracey Landry, had stepped down from the school’s board but will continue to teach at the school.