A racist letter sent to a prominent Black pastor drew swift condemnation from Southern Baptist leaders while further highlighting elevated racial tensions within the convention.
Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, posted the letter to his Facebook account Feb. 1. In the letter, John V. Rutledge, an author and self-described former Southern Baptist, wrote that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) “has been repenting (foolishly) of the ‘sin’ of whiteness, and has rebaptized itself as an exemplar of diversity.” Rutledge referred to African Americans as “Negroes” and “savages.”
“There is an element among Southern Baptists who believe that racism is a myth and systemic injustice no longer exists,” McKissic wrote in the Facebook post, adding, “What percentage of the SBC is represented by the mindset conveyed in this letter by John V. Rutledge?”
SBC President J.D. Greear was among several denominational leaders who responded, saying he was “infuriated.”
“This has no place in any gospel-believing association of churches,” Greear tweeted, “and should be renounced all the way around. This attitude is anti-gospel and should be treated as such.”
Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, said he was glad Rutledge had left the SBC 20 years earlier.
“It is best he did,” Floyd tweeted, “because the words and spirit of his letter to [McKissic] does not represent us at all. It is contradictory to our [Baptist Faith and Message] and our commitment to human dignity.”
Marshal Ausberry, first vice president of the SBC and president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, called the letter “stone cold racist” and encouraged “the author to send a public apology” to McKissic.
Rutledge’s letter was written in reference to an article in the Baptist Standard, an independent partner of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), about a recent announcement by McKissic that he was withdrawing from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and considering a full withdrawal from the SBC because of the ongoing debate over Critical Race Theory (CRT).
McKissic is a longtime outspoken proponent of racial equity in the SBC. He was the original author of resolutions at SBC annual meetings calling on the SBC to repudiate the Confederate flag (in 2015) and denouncing “alt-white supremacy” (in 2017); both resolutions were approved.
He has also been critical that the heads of SBC entities are all white, and he was vocal in his opposition to a recent statement by the Council of Seminary Presidents of the SBC that declared CRT to be “incompatible” with the Baptist Faith and Message.
The statement prompted answering statements from other groups, including the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, which affirmed the supremacy of scripture while pushing back on the assertion that CRT could not be beneficial in helping identify systemic racism.
McKissic was among participants in a meeting called Jan. 6 by Floyd to address the topic and turmoil. A multi-ethnic group of Southern Baptist leaders, including officers of the National African American Fellowship and the Council of Seminary Presidents, as well as Greear and McKissic, said afterward more conversation was necessary, but they were committed together to fighting racism and to honoring “our common commitment to the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Later in January, McKissic announced in a 2,000-word essay that his church was “getting off the bus” and leaving the SBTC as a result of the debate within the SBTC and the SBC over critical race theory. At the SBTC’s annual meeting in November 2020, messengers approved a resolution that expressed a desire to foster racial harmony, but said CRT and intersectionality are “divergent from biblical truth and often create disunity, confusion, and conflict” and that the SBTC would “advance biblical language and avoid promotion” of CRT and intersectionality.
McKissic wrote that if a similar resolution was approved by messengers to the 2021 SBC annual meeting in June, his church would be “discontinuing our affiliation with the SBC also.” McKissic said he planned to remain a part of the BGCT and the National Baptist Convention.
McKissic’s announcement came amid a larger context of heightened racial tensions nationally – and within the SBC, as well, especially among Black pastors.
In recent months, several other Black pastors have announced their departure. Atlanta pastor John Onwuchekwa announced in July 2020 his church would leave the SBC, saying the convention had downplayed issues of race and social justice and that he was troubled by Southern Baptists’ support for President Donald Trump, including an attempt in 2018 to defund the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) because of ERLC President Russell Moore’s opposition to Trump.
In December, pastors Charlie Dates and Ralph West cited the seminary presidents’ statement as prompting their decisions to sever ties with the SBC.
Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, called it the “final straw.” West, pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, wrote that he would also withdraw from a doctoral program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS).
The racist letter from Rutledge to McKissic concluded: “The SBC should bid them goodbye and good riddance!”
After West’s announcement, he and other Black pastors were tagged in several social media posts as “Marxists,” along with suggestions that perhaps they should leave the convention. SWBTS President Adam W. Greenway criticized those applying those labels as “self-appointed defenders and definers of conservative Baptist orthodoxy.”
Both Jim Richards, the SBTC’s longtime executive director who recently announced his retirement, and Nathan Lorick, who was announced this week as the unanimous choice of a search committee as Richards’ successor, denounced the racist letter.
“The SBTC, with great urgency, denounces both the statements and sentiments” of the letter, Richards said in a statement, adding:
“Although recently Pastor McKissic led his church to withdraw from the SBTC, he is still considered a beloved brother and gifted pastor. He nor any of our African American brothers and sisters in Christ should ever have to endure such racist, ungodly remarks.”
Lorick, who is currently the executive director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention, described the letter as “vile, hateful and disgusting! This is sin on full display. There is no room for racism in the Kingdom of God.”
Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted that the letter was “vile, sick and disgusting” and said although “thankfully” Rutledge is not Southern Baptist, “this letter is a stark reminder that the reality of racism still exists.”
In a tweeted reply, McKissic said that while he’s made “no secret” of his strong opposition to the Council of Seminary Presidents’ statement on CRT, he was grateful for tweets like Allen’s, as well as phone conversations he’d had with other seminary presidents.
“I appreciate the fact that they’re making it clear that the racist letter received was ‘vile, sick and disgusting,’ and offering encouragement,” McKissic tweeted.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – George Schroeder is associate vice president for convention news with the SBC Executive Committee.)