by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
It was the news that rocked the religion corner of Twitter. Beth Moore, the famed author and Bible teacher who had been a lifelong member of the Southern Baptist Convention, announced that she would be leaving the denomination as well as no longer publishing her widely read books with the SBC publisher Lifeway. The reason for Moore’s departure was linked to the continuing rightward drift of the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few years.
Moore has always stood out among the most influential members of the SBC. She was a Bible teacher in a denomination that strictly prohibits women from holding the role of pastor in their churches, thus, she always skirted the line in the Southern Baptist world. Instead of giving sermons, she would give “talks.” That all came to a head when Moore announced on Twitter that she would be preaching on Mother’s Day in 2019 at a Southern Baptist Church. The evangelical chattering class on social media went into an uproar.
However, what may have been the last straw for Beth Moore was the election and continued support of Donald Trump by the loudest members of the Southern Baptist leadership. She noted that the Access Hollywood tape was the “shock of her life” and “disoriented” her. Subsequently, Moore has written quite pointedly about how she was treated by male leaders in the SBC, specifically about how she had to defer to them on numerous occasions to not bruise their egos.
Is Beth Moore an aberration? The SBC has been hemorrhaging members at a steadily increasing rate over the last decade – are those defectors largely women leaving the pews? Or is religious switching not related to gender? The General Social Survey can help us answer those questions. It asks people about the tradition in which they were raised, as well as their current religious tradition.
Let’s start broadly – are women more likely to leave the SBC than men? Has that changed over time? And is the SBC any different on this front than the largest mainline tradition (the United Methodist Church) or the Catholic church?
It’s pretty clear that retention is down for everyone. About 80% of Catholics stayed Catholic in the late 1980s, today it’s about 65%. For United Methodists, retention was never that good. About 60% remained United Methodist in the 1980s; that’s down to about 50% now. For Southern Baptists, there’s also a decline. In the earliest data, about 72% of those raised Southern Baptist stayed in the Convention. That’s declined to about 55% in the last few years.
But, are women more likely to defect than their male counterparts? There’s little evidence to indicate that there’s a gender gap, at least in this data. I think it’s fair to say that there’s some tacit evidence that women are more likely to stick with the Catholic church in recent years, and the same is true for the United Methodists. The gap is not large, which is problematic when the sample size is relatively small. For Southern Baptists, there’s really no evidence that women are any more likely to leave the tradition than men. In the last decade, there’s less than a percentage point difference between the men and women and that’s obviously not statistically significant.
But, there’s another question worth exploring: do women move around the religious landscape differently than men? That is, are men who leave the SBC more likely to become a none than a woman who is disaffiliated from the Convention?
There’s little evidence of a strong gender gap on issues of disaffiliation in the earlier waves of the data. Women who left the Southern Baptist Convention were just slightly less likely to wind up in an evangelical tradition than their male counterparts. However, that difference disappeared around the mid-2000s. However, when you add together those who stayed evangelical and those who went to another Christian tradition, the gender gap essentially disappears.
There is something small but notable that has begun occurring in the last decade that is worth mentioning, though. Men who leave the Southern Baptist Convention are more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated than women who leave the SBC. About 13% of men who were raised with SBC end up with no affiliation, compared to only 9% of women.
Understanding the reasons why people leave a specific religious tradition and move to a new one are nearly impossible to ascertain using survey that we have currently available to us. Think about all the reasons you’ve heard for why people left a church. It could be theological differences, or poor leadership. Or it could be that they moved to a different part of town or their work schedule changed and they couldn’t make it to Sunday worship.
Despite the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention maintains a doctrine that does not afford women access to church leadership, there’s no evidence in these data that women are more likely to leave the SBC than their male counterparts. However, what cannot be known just yet is if Moore’s departure is going to be the beginning of an inflection point for many Southern Baptist women to head for the exits in the near future.
I think it’s fair to say that the Southern Baptist Convention is teetering on a crisis. There are groups like the Conservative Baptist Network that are trying to paint the SBC as a denomination rife with “creeping liberalism” – a claim that finds no evidence to support it in the data. As it continues to drive off women and African-American pastors, it’s going to face a reckoning in due time. Undoubtedly, the future of the Southern Baptist Convention will be smaller and less diverse than it was a few decades ago. Part of that is due to demographics, but defection to other evangelical traditions will also thin the herd. Maybe that’s what some of its members have wanted for a long time.