RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Southern Baptists in the U.S. have a complicated legacy. The denomination once supported slavery and then racial segregation and has long struggled with social concerns. Some new ones will be top of the agenda when the Southern Baptist Convention opens its annual meeting today in Birmingham, Ala. At the top the list - how to deal with sex abuse allegations.
Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The problem of clergy sex abuse, most often associated with the Catholic Church, has also plagued the Southern Baptist denomination. Years ago, a few Baptist women began speaking out about sexual misconduct by male church leaders. Among them, Dee Parsons - so outraged over the failure of her North Carolina church to take action that she started a blog. She called it The Wartburg Watch.
DEE PARSONS: I'm kind of a nobody. And I figured nobody would be reading anything I had to say. And I was startled by the response that I started getting.
GJELTEN: Parsons is now a leading monitor of sex abuse allegations in the evangelical world. There are many others. Earlier this year, the Houston Chronicle reported that nearly 400 male Southern Baptist Church leaders have been accused of sexual abuse in recent years. The problem has gotten so serious that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Pastor J.D. Greear, has made sex abuse the top issue for his annual meeting.
Speaking from his car in route to Birmingham, Greear said he and other Southern Baptist authorities have no choice but to act.
J D GREEAR: Yeah. There's a question of, can we trust our church leaders to not only not be at using but to also be prohibiting people who could be abusers from having a place where they could do it with impunity?
GJELTEN: The Southern Baptists research arm recently found that about 1 out of 3 church members surveyed believe there are more accounts of sex abuse by their pastors still to come. Greear says the convention will consider stronger action against churches that are considered unsafe places because they don't deal with abuse allegations.
GREEAR: You're going to see a convention that is united in its agreement on the fact that this cannot be tolerated in our churches and that we have to do whatever it takes, regardless of what it costs us, to make our churches safe places.
GJELTEN: And now a related issue is emerging. Some Southern Baptist women are concerned about their lower status. They can't serve as ministers or even preach. Some women argue that a patriarchal culture in the church may contribute to a climate of impunity. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, tweeted last month that such complaints have brought his church to a critical moment.
And he addressed the issue in one of his Ask Anything programs on YouTube.
ALBERT MOHLER: If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they're also the denominations where people do the leaving. I think there's just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.
GJELTEN: The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., is itself experiencing membership decline, though at a somewhat lower rate than other churches. Finally, there's the question of politics. Southern Baptists are the core of the white evangelical base of the Republican Party. Their president, J.D. Greear, doesn't want that to be what his church is known for.
GREEAR: What brings us together should not be a cultural identity. It should not be a political persuasion. Southern Baptists are supposed to be a people that are united around the gospel and the gospel mission.
GJELTEN: His theme for the convention opening today - the Gospel above all.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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