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Southern Baptist Move to Bar Women as Church Leaders Shows Cultural Fears

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Two summers ago, an insurgent group of ultraconservative Southern Baptists branded themselves as pirates, vowing to “take the ship” of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and steer it farther to the right on issues like sexuality and race.

They were determined to halt what they saw as rising liberalism and drift from biblical truth. Many were outraged that one of their most prominent churches had ordained three women. Opponents pushed back, arguing that a spirit of welcome could help stem declining membership.

Now, the ultraconservatives are seizing power, and the ship is beginning to turn.

The dramatic fight that played out this week in New Orleans at the Southern Baptists’ annual convention, where delegates moved to purge women from church leadership, provides an early look into the psyche of much of evangelical America and the cultural direction of a key Republican voting bloc ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

The crackdown on women is, on its face, about biblical interpretation. But it also stems from growing anxieties many evangelicals have about what they see as swiftly changing norms around gender and sexuality in America.

Many within the denomination fear that ascendant secular values are restructuring family life, children’s education and personal identity. And, they worry about their denomination’s shrinking size and cultural stature.

The battle in some ways looks old: Many other Protestant denominations fought over the question of women in leadership decades ago, and Southern Baptists themselves have had a prohibition on women pastors enshrined in their theological documents for years.

But the identity crisis is fresh. The broader debate in schools, legislatures and consumer culture over the place of transgender people is prompting some evangelicals to assert their standards about the roles of men and women in society.

The changes they fear surrounded the annual meeting, which took place in New Orleans during Pride month. Outside the convention hall, the city was draped in rainbow flags, signifying L.G.B.T.Q. pride rather than what the rainbow meant to Southern Baptists: God’s promise to Noah to preserve his people on Earth.

Ultraconservatives in the denomination are making their case to the broader body via slick websites, conferences and organizations, many of which were started within the last few years. They are also making allegiances with theological and political allies outside the denomination.

At a breakfast this week hosted by one of the most influential new groups to rally their camp, the Conservative Baptist Network, founded in 2020, speakers urged attendees to vote against women in church leadership, and also to institute poll watching and voter mobilization programs at their churches for local and national elections. An evangelist Marine declared that America needed “real men” and railed against “all this trans stuff,” to great applause.

“They are trying to make sissies out of our boys, and they are trying to make boys out of our girls,” the Marine, Tim Lee, said.

Southern Baptists needed women “working in our churches” Mr. Lee said, speaking directly to women. “We just don’t need you to be the pastors of our churches.”

The convention’s size and reach means it attracts attention from politicians and activists hoping to influence conservatives more broadly. That night, the group hosted Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state in the Trump administration.

The campaign to oust women, pushed by a younger conservative movement outside the Southern Baptist Convention, reveals how the rising hard-right is increasingly intertwined with mainstream evangelicalism. To bolster their case, the ultraconservative S.B.C. delegates pointed to a widely shared analysis on the number of female pastors that was published over the weekend by American Reformer, a publication that promotes a hard-edge political Christianity.

The push from conservative Baptists echoes tactics of a previous generation of conservatives who wrested the denomination from perceived liberal drift starting in the 1970s. The “conservative resurgence,” as it was known, gained power incrementally during the Reagan era, taking control of the denomination’s seminaries, entities and, eventually, presidency — and having a significant effect in Republican politics.

The annual gathering in New Orleans also revealed this moment to be one of enormous flux: The denomination is fracturing, and its future is unclear.

While some ultraconservatives are pushing to take over the S.B.C., others have already left, convinced its liberal drift has gone too far. At the same time, some of the most prominent Southern Baptists in the country, once seen as mainstream voices, have also cut ties, turned off by the hard-line politics of the right.

They include Russell Moore, the former Southern Baptist policy head who opposed President Donald J. Trump. A wave of Black pastors left in the wake of the racial reckoning over the death of George Floyd. And delegates at the meeting this week overwhelmingly rejected an appeal by the prominent pastor Rick Warren, whose large church was ousted in February over its installation of several women as pastors.

“Those who oppose women in ministry, they get credit for turning out their vote,” Mr. Warren said this week. “All the sudden allegiance to a political cause became more important than their spiritual connection.”

Some on the more moderate side appear to be less motivated and organized than the insurgent right-wing.

The S.B.C.’s move this week to further expand restrictions on women leadership will almost certainly force a greater reshuffling of power. Conflict is inevitable, people across the denomination believe, as Southern Baptists will have to sort out the fate of hundreds more churches with women in positions of leadership.

Already, the focus and rhetoric has left some Southern Baptist women disenchanted, echoing what many women feel more broadly as the country navigates a new landscape on women’s rights. The denomination has spent the last several years grappling with sprawling revelations of sexual abuse against women and children.

Caitlin Gerrald, a longtime Southern Baptist who attended the meeting in New Orleans as a delegate for the first time this year, found herself profoundly discouraged by the relentless focus on questioning women, and the tone of many discussions she heard — onstage, but also “in every coffee shop I went to, every line I stood in.” She walked out of a luncheon featuring an all-male panel discussion on the issue of women’s leadership.

The emphasis on women’s roles “feels like such a personal attack,” she said.

Mrs. Gerrald, 37, said she would be personally uncomfortable belonging to a church with a female head pastor, but she had no issue with women in other leadership roles, and couldn’t understand the move to purge anyone who disagreed.

She said she was stunned when the delegates voted for an amendment stating churches must have “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” The amendment must pass against next year to go into effect, and she is already rallying her church to send a full delegation to the meeting in 2024 to vote against it.

“I believe in the power of prayer, and I’m fervently praying for the convention,” Mrs. Gerrald said. “The vote next year, if that goes through, I’m not sure where we’ll land.”

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