Ralph Northam and Nashville


The Commonwealth of Virginia is in turmoil. If someone had predicted ten years ago that the most honorable state leader would be Terry McAuliffe, we would have laughed. The onetime darling of the Religious Right and recently divorced former Republican governor Robert McDonnell was found guilty of public corruption, though his conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

And now, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, clings to office by his fingertips amid scandal involving racist photos from his medical school yearbook. Northam denies he is wearing blackface in the photo, though he admits fellow classmates gave him the nickname “Coonman.” He admits to wearing blackface in the early 1980s while impersonating pop legend Michael Jackson at a dance competition. A growing number of Democratic Party leaders are calling for his resignation.

The Commonwealth’s attorney general, Mark Herring, now admits he too wore blackface years ago. Days before his confession, Herring suggested Northam should step down.

And now two women have come forward to accuse Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, of sexual assault and rape. Both Republican and Democratic leaders in the state have asked him to leave office.

In less than a week, the nation has been transfixed on matters of race and sex abuse that are roiling the Old Dominion.  Southern Baptists had better pay attention.

The nation’s largest protestant denomination is now facing its own twin crises of rape and bigotry. This weekend, the Houston Chronicle will publish a devastating report on clergy sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention that details as many as 400 offenders and more than 700 victims. Less than a year ago, one of Southern Baptists’ most prominent leaders was fired, in large part because of his cavalier handling of sex abuse on two seminary campuses.

At the same time, calls for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities in the convention’s leadership structures have been largely dismissed by the search committee charged with finding a new chief executive at the convention’s headquarters in Nashville. When asked by three prominent pastors — including two former convention presidents — if they had interviewed a single minority candidate for the job, the committee issued a statement claiming to have “actively pursued resumes” of non-Anglo candidates. What “actively pursued” means is anybody’s guess, but the non-response makes it clear the committee has only been talking to white men.

All of this comes in a way that is “humiliating,” according to one Southern Baptist theologian. “The judgment of God has come,” announced Southern Seminary president, R. Albert Mohler.

Compounding the embarrassment is the fact that both issues — preventing sex abuse and promoting ethnic diversity — have been addressed unambiguously by the convention on numerous occasions in the last decade. Nevertheless, the message somehow was lost.

For instance, despite former SBC President Steve Gaines public statements about the value of racial diversity, his own Committee on Nominations drew fire last year for its predominantly caucasian slate of new trustees. Gaines predecessor, Arkansan Ronnie Floyd, scored points for his overtures to African-American pastors, yet during his presidency elicited a collective wince for his response to a prominent molestation case within his own congregation.

“Things like this have happened before and will happen again,” Floyd said of a teenage boy who repeatedly fondled the breasts and vaginas of his four preteen sisters.

But are Southern Baptists really doing everything possible to make sure they don’t happen again? Is there a better response than a sanctified sigh and a dismissive shrug?

Later this month, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention will meet for its first gathering since questions about the search committee’s preference for white candidates became public. Likewise, it will be the first meeting of any SBC trustee board after the Houston Chronicle story goes live tomorrow.

Thankfully, from all indications, current SBC President J.D. Greear is leaning into the headwinds on both issues of racial inclusion and preventing sex abuse. Time will tell if the mostly old, white, male committee represents the the Convention’s values on these fronts or if it clings to an antediluvian denominational culture that doesn’t exist anymore outside of the Nashville headquarters.