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Pastor Ed Litton, of Saraland, Ala., answers questions after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

To hear Newsmax tell it, Southern Baptists have taken a "dangerous turn left."

For our money (and we know thing or two about Southern Baptists as this writer was raised as one), the Southern Baptist Convention's election of a "moderate" pastor as its president represents a turn away from the seemingly-not-so-religious hard-line right-wingers.

Newsmax, in an online column, quoted a New York Times headline: "Southern Baptists Narrowly Head Off Conservative Takeover." The Newsmax columnist wrote that a "dejected Christian" told him "Biden Baptists won the day."

Who was it who coined the phrase "separation of church and state?"

Well they — specifically Thomas Jefferson — were shortsighted.

Here's a Washington Post headline: "Could the Southern Baptists be tiptoeing away from Trump?"

No one (we think not even Newsmax) expects this election to portend a truly liberal turn for the church. Perhaps those church folks are merely finding their way back to sanity and empathy after a year of turmoil over allegations of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and bullying.

Whatever the case, it is welcome news that the nation's largest Protestant denomination chose as its new president an Alabama pastor known for his work on racial reconciliation. And he wrested control from two would-be insurgents who would have taken the church on an even more right-wing path than it already treads.

With a majority of 52% of the good Baptists who gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting, Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, out-polled two better-known ultraconservatives, including one backed by the Conservative Baptist Network that last fall praised the former president for his stance against critical race theory and described CRT as a "divisive, anti-gospel ideology" that has a "destructive influence upon our nation."

Did we mention that the convention, with more than 16,000 church members present, also voted on resolutions to take on subjects like critical race theory, the role of women and how some of the convention's leaders have handled — or not handled — sexual abuse allegations within their ranks?

More than one reporter covering the convention referred to the agenda and expected debates over it as a "reckoning" and hinted that the outcomes would test the direction of white evangelicalism.

That's a stretch, even though, with 14 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention represents not only the largest religious group in the country, but also one whose leaders in past decades worked tirelessly to unseparate church and state. Southern Baptists have become a major political force in national politics.

Thus, as we noted earlier, no one should expect this convention election to result in a hard left turn. That evangelical political "force" — driven largely by Southern Baptists — has leaned hard right and is not likely to move much: Election exit polls indicated that white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden at a rate of 76% to 81%.

Southern Baptists believe the Bible is divinely inspired and without error. They believe Jesus is the only way to Heaven. They believe women may not serve as head pastors. They believe that true marriage is between one man and one woman. And perhaps the only thing they fear more than hell fire is anything that smacks of a liberal drift.

But apparently some of the church leaders are wising up that too much of a lean right — or to any politics — is becoming too risky in today's culture wars and declining church memberships. After all, the debate about critical race theory already has prompted a number Black churches in the convention to pull away. That's not a small thing either, as there are some 10,000 Black Southern Baptist churches in the convention.

The Baptists' departing president, J.D. Greear, in an address to the group on Tuesday, said it in a way that only a preacher can:

"Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant. And the offspring does not look like God the Father."

Greear has said the denomination should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time by promoting conservative Baptist theology while adopting a more "welcoming tone" on culture war issues.

Good luck with that.

The hard-line conservatives who unsuccessfully tried to take control this week characterized Greear and his successor Litton as "moderate, or even progressive — which they intend as slurs," wrote a New York Times religion reporter covering the convention.

For his part, Litton says, "I am a conservative but I'm not angry about it. I want to build bridges instead of walls."

He has two-year term in which to try. It should be interesting to watch. We wish him godspeed.

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