It's been a turbulent few months for the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC is the largest evangelical institution in America, representing 47,000 churches and about 14 million members. But in May, it was revealed some of its now former executives had ignored hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches for decades. When SBC members elected a new president in June, they turned to a small-town, Texas pastor named Bart Barber to lead them.
With a Department of Justice investigation into the abuse scandal underway, and midterm elections looming, we weren't sure he would want to sit down and discuss weighty matters of church and state, but he did– and as you're about to hear, Bart Barber has a lot to say about faith, scandal, and the political extremism threatening American democracy.
Bart Barber: Blind partisanship destroys everything-- except baseball. I'm a St. Louis Cardinals (LAUGH) fan and I'm stickin' with that, no matter what. But, so many things-- in-- in church life and beyond that are areas where we have an opportunity to-- to unite to solve problems, and we pass over that opportunity over and over again to shoot at the other team.
Anderson Cooper: And you see that filtering into the church?
Bart Barber: And it's absolutely comin' into the way that people in churches, who oughta know better, are speaking to one another about the-- the issues that are outside the church that aren't really theological. The-- the best characterization is they're not listening.
Bart Barber lives with his wife and two children in Farmersville, Texas, he's got some land with a dozen or so cows and has preached every sunday for 23 years at the First Baptist Church, which only has about 320 members.
Anderson Cooper: What made you decide to try to become the, the head of the SBC?
Bart Barber: I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention faces some unique challenges right now. I felt like God was callin' me to try to give leadership at this moment to help Southern Baptists move forward.
When Bart Barber was elected SBC president in June, it was just four weeks after an independent investigation revealed that some former members of the SBC's executive committee – which oversees budget and organizational issues – had for decades ignored hundreds of credible accusations of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and seminaries, partly to avoid being held financially liable.
Ryan Burge: They actually kept a list of over 700 names of people who had been credibly accused. What they said, though, is, "We couldn't give that to the churches because local churches have autonomy in who they hire and fire for pastors. We can't tell them they can't hire this person."
Ryan Burge is an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University, and an American Baptist pastor. He is one of the country's leading data analysts on religion and politics.
Anderson Cooper: Were they calling law enforcement and letting police know that there was-- a predator at this church in this state?
Ryan Burge: The Executive Committee had the list, put it in a drawer, and didn't tell anyone about it for over ten years.
Bart Barber: That's the mindset that we're repudiating and moving against.
Anderson Cooper: When you read that report and to read accounts of people who were brave enough to call in to the Executive Committee, to report abuse, for them to be ignored –
Bart Barber: That's not a strong enough word. We didn't just ignore them. Sometimes we impugned their motives. Sometimes we attacked them. The reason why I'm president of the Southern Baptist Convention is because our churches do not agree with that and have taken action to correct those things.
Bart Barber says he's cooperating with the Justice Department's investigation and appointed a new, 9-member sexual abuse task force that's building a registry for credible reports of abuse to help churches track predators.
Bart Barber: I have strong feelings about this. I'm-- it's not just anger. Although I'm angry about it. God called me to be a pastor when I was 11. I believe in this. For people to sully this hurts me. I'm not doing this to try to accomplish some PR objective for us. I'm doing this because I wanna serve God well.
For the new president of the SBC, that means staying true to his deep conservative values and his beliefs about the last presidential election.
Anderson Cooper: Do you believe the 2020 election was stolen?
Bart Barber: No.
Anderson Cooper: You believe Joe Biden is the legitimate President of the United States?
Bart Barber: I do. Absolutely. I pray for him consistently as the President of the United States. I believe he was legitimately elected.
Anderson Cooper: Bart Barber told us that he doesn't believe the election was rigged. He does believe that Joe Biden was duly elected the President of the United States.
Ryan Burge: That's a big deal. 60% of white evangelicals believe the election was stolen in 2020. And many, many Southern Baptists go to church every Sunday believing that. Southern Baptist pastors have been afraid to speak about that from the pulpit, because they know lots of people oppose that in the pews.
Anderson Cooper: How many people, how many voters is-- is Bart Barber in a position to influence?
Ryan Burge: At least 70 million people identify as evangelical today. He can have a huge impact when it comes to who they vote for and why they vote for that candidate.
Ryan Burge says in 2016, evangelicals accounted for 33% of all votes cast for Donald Trump, but Bart Barber's vote was not among them.
Anderson Cooper: In 2016, you said, "I think it hurts the credibility of my testimony for me to be a vocal supporter of a demonstrably evil man whose campaign platform consists mainly of his evilness."
Bart Barber: Yeah. I, I did not vote for President Trump in 2016. And that lays out my rationale for that pretty well.
Anderson Cooper: What was the evilness that you saw?
Bart Barber: The way he treated women that had been documented at that point. Uh, I thought that-- a lot of the rhetoric about immigration was wrongful. A lot of Southern Baptists thought that the rhetoric about immigration was wrongful.
Anderson Cooper: You're talkin' about legal immigration?
Bart Barber: Talkin' about legal immigration.
Anderson Cooper: You embrace it?
Bart Barber: I embrace it. I'm-- I'm thankful for people who have immigrated. I live in Texas. I'm surrounded by people who are intermarried into our families. They make our community better.
Anderson Cooper: Correct me if I'm wrong. In 2020, you did vote for Donald Trump.
Bart Barber: Part of what changed is that, um, the President advocated for some legislation on, uh, sentencing reform, uh, somethin' that really addressed some injustice that affected, uh, minority communities. I was encouraged by the consistent pro-life support that the President gave. I didn't expect that.
Barber did tell us what happened on January 6th, and Donald Trump's role in it, has had a big impact on his opinion of the former president now.
Bart Barber: I, and I think a lotta Southern Baptists, would be thrilled to have the opportunity to support someone for leadership in our country who's strong on the values that matter to us, who can do that without putting the vice president's life in danger.
Anderson Cooper: You would be hard-pressed to vote for somebody who put his vice president's life in danger?
Bart Barber: Yes.
Anderson Cooper: Donald Trump did invite and incite and encourage a mob of people to march on the Capitol.
Bart Barber: I'll just say this-- I wanna be driven by the principles of Jesus Christ. And-- that does not involve mob violence. I-- I don't-- I don't support that. Anyone who does support that-- I'm less likely to vote for them because of their support for that.
Anderson Cooper: If Mike Pence ran in a primary, you would vote for him in a primary?
Bart Barber: There is nothing that would prevent me from voting for Mike Pence in a primary.
We asked Barber what he thinks about the Christian nationalist rhetoric increasingly being used by some elected officials, like congresswoman Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Lauren Boebert: The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.
Bart Barber: It stands contrary to 400 years of Baptist history and everything I believe about religious liberty. I'm opposed to the idea of Christian dominion, churchly dominion over the operations of government.
Anderson Cooper: Why do you object to that?
Bart Barber: Kay. Uh, I object to it because Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. I object to it because historically every time it's been adopted it wound up persecuting people like me. Doesn't stop at persecuting people who are not Christians. It eventually winds up persecuting people who are Christians for whom the flavor of their Christianity is different from that of the government.
Support for the separation of church and state was a foundational principle for Baptists who faced religious persecution in England and America in the 1600s. Baptists split in 1845 over slavery, which is when the Southern Baptist Convention was founded. The SBC supported slavery and later segregation. On abortion the SBC's opposition has hardened over the years. In 1971, they made exceptions in cases where there was, "the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother."
But in 1980, they narrowed that exception only to cases where a pregnancy threatened the life of the mother. Bart barber says he stands by that today.
Bart Barber: Our interest with abortion is not—is not to police everybody's sex life. Our interest with abortion is that we believe that's a human person who deserves to live.
Anderson Cooper: There was just the case recently, a ten-year-old girl who's raped, barred from having an abortion in Ohio. Was able to obtain one in-- in Indiana. I mean, this is a, a little girl who, she has a right to life too.
Bart Barber: Sure.
Anderson Cooper: Even in that case, you think she should have the child?
Bart Barber: I do.
Anderson Cooper: She should be forced to have the child?
Bart Barber: I think, um, I don't want that to sound like I don't have tremendous compassion for her and her circumstance. I wish we could put an end to ten-year-olds being raped. I'm-- I'm trying to work against child sexual abuse because I think that's atrocious.
Anderson Cooper: But you don't see forcing a ten-year-old child to go to term with-- a baby th-- from rape, as abuse of a child.
Bart Barber: I see it as horrible. I see it as preferable to killing someone else.
Not surprisinly, Barber – and the SBC – oppose same sex marriage.
Bart Barber: We're committed to the idea of gender is a gift from God. We're committed to the idea that men and women ought to be united with one another in marriage.
Anderson Cooper: Do you still believe that gay people can be, should be converted out of being gay?
Bart Barber: I believe that sinners should be converted out of being sinners, and that applies to all of us.
Anderson Cooper: Can somebody be a good Christian, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and be gay-- or lesbian and married to a person of the same sex?
Bart Barber: No.
Can a good Christian in good conscience vote for Donald Trump in 2024? Before we left, we asked Bart Barber one last time about how he'll vote.
Bart Barber: I'm not even gonna speculate about that. Who are the other choices?
Anderson Cooper: Ahead of the election in 2016, you said who you were gonna vote for. In 2020, you said who you voted for. Now you're not saying who you'd vote for?
Bart Barber: That's correct.
Anderson Cooper: Somebody seeing this is gonna think, "Okay, well, that's--"
Bart Barber: Why are you hedging it now—
Anderson Cooper: "--that's-- that's political,"
Bart Barber: It's not political calculation. The fact in 2016 I could say something and I was speaking only for myself. And now, um, you know, um, 50,000 churches of people I love are represented by me when I speak. And so-- do I feel a sense of needing to be more wise and careful about things that I say now? Absolutely, I do.
Anderson Cooper: Have evangelicals sold their soul in order to support Donald Trump?
Bart Barber: First of all, I think we had to choose from the choices that were given to us. And that's, uh, that's-- that's an inescapable reality in our political system.
Anderson Cooper: But there's a lot of evangelical support for Donald Trump that goes beyond just somebody holding their nose and saying, "Well, I have these two choices. So I'm gonna vote for this person."
Bart Barber: That-- there are. I'm telling you, there are also a lot of people who articulate what I've just said. I just think that, under President Trump, they saw less backtracking on the things that were promised to them. I do think that Americans are hungry for strong leadership. I think that there's opportunity for strong leaders to emerge who give us better choices. I'm praying for that.
Produced by Sarah Koch and Chrissy Jones. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Robert Zimet.
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