Southern Baptists form a core part of the white evangelical Christian bloc that has reliably and overwhelmingly voted Republican in recent elections, and is expected to again in 2024.
But Southern Baptists are weighing their options in the GOP presidential primary field — some already lining up behind Donald Trump, others wary of the former president, whom most evangelical voters supported in previous elections despite his vulgar language, serial marriages and sexual bravado. Some are looking at what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or other candidates might offer.
But even critics of many Baptist voters' embrace of hard-right politics have little doubt where this is headed in November 2024 — support for whichever candidate emerges from the GOP nomination process. The only question is the extent of the fervor they bring to the polls.
In addition to Trump and DeSantis, other GOP candidates have made a point of proclaiming their Christian convictions, including former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Pence spoke to the SBC annual meeting in 2018.
"There is a segment of the white evangelical populace, they're looking for a way to distance themselves with the deal with the devil they made in 2016" in supporting Trump, said the Rev. Joel Bowman Sr. of Louisville, Kentucky, who was among several Black pastors who left the SBC in 2021 in dismay over what they saw as a racial backlash in a denomination that had once formally repented of its forebears' racism.
"Whether that's Ron DeSantis or Mike Pence, one thing you can be assured of is most of the white evangelical populace is going to be in alignment with some GOP candidate, whoever that might be," said Bowman, pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church, which maintains ties to SBC churches on the state and local level.
Albert Mohler — longtime president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary also in Louisville, and one of the denomination's most prominent leaders — said he hopes "the Republican Party nominee will be someone not named Donald Trump."
Mohler said opposition to abortion is non-negotiable.
"It's unclear where Donald Trump is placing himself vis a vis that issue," Mohler said. He's looking for someone "sharper on the issues and carrying less baggage."
It's the latest turn in Mohler's response to Trump. In 2016, he said evangelicals' support for Trump undermined their credibility. But he later said he was pleased with Trump's actions in office, particularly in appointing the Supreme Court justices who provided the tipping point needed to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
But Trump has since said the abortion issue should be decided by the states, drawing criticism from some seeking a federal ban.
Mohler acknowledged that Democrats have benefited politically from the backlash to the Supreme Court decision. He's looking for candidates who can navigate that political reality without compromising. "I'm not going to support any candidate who is not prolife in conviction and with an honest and straightforward strategy to lead a prolife effort," he said, and noted that the GOP has a "good number of attractive candidates," putting DeSantis at the top of that list.
But if Trump becomes the nominee, "I'll revisit that question" of whom to vote for.
DeSantis formally entered the race last month and is the leading alternative to Trump, who remains the dominant force in GOP politics at the moment. But if the Florida governor were to ultimately capture the Republican nomination and face Joe Biden, two Catholic major-party presidential candidates would face off for the first time in U.S. history.
One of Trump's staunchest supporters in this and past elections is Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
"When Trump first announced his re-election bid last November I predicted that some evangelicals would 'kick the tires' of other candidates but would eventually coalesce around Trump as they did in 2016," Jeffress said via email. "However, 'eventually' happened even more quickly than even I expected."
Jeffress, who began backing Trump during the 2016 primary season, said evangelicals are concluding that only Trump can defeat Biden. Jeffress cited issues traditionally important to evangelicals in calling Trump "the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-Israel president in history."
The political season is heating up even as Southern Baptists head to their mid-June annual meeting roiled by internal conflicts and scandals over the mishandling of sexual abuse — the subject of a Department of Justice investigation. While theological debates will be prominent — particularly over whether to uphold the ouster of churches with female pastors — many proposed resolutions in recent years have reflected debates in secular politics.
A key question is how much energy and fervor Southern Baptists will be able to muster for the GOP presidential primary.
The denomination continues to experience long-term declines in membership and other measures of spiritual vitality, such as baptisms, according to its own statistics. Like other religious groups, it has struggled to regain pre-pandemic attendance levels. And like many historically white Protestant denominations, Southern Baptists are graying, with the average age at 55, according to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study. All this would affect any get-out-the-vote campaign among a flock that is smaller than in previous elections and that has its hands full of challenges.
And Southern Baptists are experiencing the same media fragmentation that the nation is as a whole. Whereas the denominational press and state Baptist newspapers once wielded strong influence, members now get competing views and news from a wide array of social media and niche sites.
Pastor Mike Stone of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia — a candidate for SBC president from its more conservative wing — said he doesn't use the pulpit to endorse candidates.
But as a pastor, "I unapologetically address issues that Christians should consider in making their own personal choices," he said. "These include the sanctity of human life, Biblical marriage and issues of sexual morality, and a Scriptural understanding of the role of government" to punish evil and promote good, he said.
"Christians should prefer righteous men and women for public office," he said. "Because no perfect candidate exists, that often means voting for the better or best of the available options."
SBC President Bart Barber declined to comment for this story.
At the local church level, pastors navigate pressure from members who want them either to be more political from the pulpit — or less.
"These days it's almost impossible to avoid it, more than it used to," said Eric Costanzo, pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "We've had to cross those lines in different ways because of the issues we're involved in," such as advocating for immigrants or for reforms in how Southern Baptists deal with issues of abuse.
"During COVID it was tricky, and after Jan. 6 it was tricky," he said. "I try to lead by example by not endorsing or not disparaging by name. Sometimes we have to dig into issues that have no choice but to have political implications."
For Bowman, efforts by many in Republican and Southern Baptist circles to focus on criticizing "wokeness" have served to distract attention from realities of systemic racism, as well as the SBC's own internal conflicts.
"If the SBC attaches itself again with the GOP and continues to focus on wedge issues and culture wars, there will begin to be an exodus from the SBC on the part of white members who would be considered more moderate or centrist," he said. "The SBC is in many ways backing itself in to the corner. It is not going to help its professed cause to bring people to Christ."
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