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Moderates win the day in close vote over Southern Baptist presidency

By Michael Warren

Alabama pastor Ed Litton will be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention following a narrow election win Tuesday — a victory for the more moderate establishment against a conservative insurgency in an ongoing fight within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The vote comes as the SBC has been grappling with questions about racial reconciliation, gender roles within the clergy and how to handle sex abuse cases. Litton defeated the favored candidate of conservative Southern Baptists, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, in a runoff, receiving support from 52% of the delegates (called “messengers”) to the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville.

“My prayers and congratulations are with Pastor Ed Litton as Southern Baptists continue to serve our churches and our communities,” said Stone in a statement Tuesday evening.

The outcome was uncertain in the days and even hours before the vote, which took place at one of the largest annual meetings in SBC history. More than 13,000 messengers voted in person Tuesday, a year after the 2020 meeting was canceled due to the Covid pandemic.

Lindsay McDonald, the wife of a pastor from Casey, Illinois, told CNN that she and her husband voted for Litton in part because of his “compassion” and understanding of “different people groups” in communicating the Gospel. But she says she expected the race to be close.

“Coming into the convention, we believed that Mike Stone was going to be a very good contender as president,” said McDonald, who has been attending SBC annual meetings for 14 years. “We were thankful that Ed Litton was the one that did win.”

Despite the talk of unity, Southern Baptists appeared headed for a major split over the sorts of culture-war issues usually reserved for politics, such as race and gender. The internal conflict took on a particularly Trumpian tone, pitting a populist group of self-identifying “real” Southern Baptists against those they say would transform the church into something unrecognizable to many traditionalists.

Beyond the presidential race, the fight over the future of the SBC played out over a series of votes on hot-button issues like the use of critical race theory, which the SBC adopted as acceptable in 2019.

While conservatives had hoped to see language rejecting critical race theory, the SBC’s moderate wing appears to have carried the day here, too, as a resolution was passed to reaffirm the church’s position on racial reconciliation and to condemn racism.

“If some people were as passionate about the Gospel as they were about critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow,” said James Merritt, a pastor and former SBC president who chaired the rules committee, during the floor debate over the resolution on race.

In addition, the convention passed a resolution to permanently disqualify those who commit sexual abuse from holding pastoral positions. Conservatives had sought unsuccessfully to change that language in order to allow for more local control over those decisions.

This story is being updated.

CNN’s Nick Valencia and Angela Baraja contributed to this report.

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