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Southern Baptists are meeting in Indianapolis and they have a full agenda

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The largest Protestant group in the U.S. starts its annual convention today, and it's expected to affirm its ban on women clergy.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're talking about the Southern Baptists. They're meeting in Indianapolis this week. Other items on the agenda include a resolution opposing in vitro fertilization and revisiting how the group deals with clergy sex abuse.

SCHMITZ: Joining us to preview the meeting is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Hey, Jason.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So let's start with women clergy. Didn't they already vote to ban female pastors?

DEROSE: They did. They passed that ban last year, but it has to pass two years in a row to become policy. Albert Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He says this vote is about clarity, since a few congregations still give the title pastor to women.

ALBERT MOHLER: Some churches are quite honestly, straightforwardly telling us that they are basically out of sync with the Southern Baptist Convention on the issue of women preaching and women holding a pastoral office.

DEROSE: Mohler argues the Bible prohibits women clergy. The measure is expected to pass again and therefore go into effect. So then they'll need to figure out how to enforce it.

SCHMITZ: They're also taking up in vitro fertilization. What does that resolution say?

DEROSE: It calls on church members to advocate for human life, which, quote, "necessarily includes frozen embryonic human beings." Now, you remember earlier this year, the Alabama Supreme Court used similar language. IVF usually involves creating more embryos than needed or wanted. So they're either kept frozen or destroyed or used in medical research. And that's the ethical problem for people who view embryos as life. This resolution also encourages Southern Baptists to, quote, "consider adopting frozen embryos in order to rescue" them.

I spoke with Erin Dufault-Hunter, who teaches Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena. She worries moves like this actually scuttle moral deliberation over IVF.

ERIN DUFAULT-HUNTER: One of the things that this kind of resolution can do is shut down any kind of creative kind of imagining of what it might mean to invite people into a new way of understanding, say, infertility.

DEROSE: For instance, Dufault-Hunter would like to see more compassionate pastoral care for infertile couples.

SCHMITZ: So the Southern Baptist Convention has faced numerous allegations of clergy sex abuse in recent years. How has the church responded?

DEROSE: Well, they're actually having trouble responding. The task force charged with creating a database of abusive clergy has issued a report saying it hasn't published the name of even one abusive pastor. The task force says its efforts have been hampered by a lack of funding, worries over legal liability and a lack of will among church leaders. Now, remember, in 2022, a third-party investigation detailed numerous instances of Southern Baptist leaders mishandling clergy sex abuse allegations. And that report, in fact, sparked a federal investigation.

SCHMITZ: I mean, the church is dealing with all these difficult issues. So why are these votes important to people outside the Southern Baptist Convention?

DEROSE: This church holds a lot of political sway. House Speaker Mike Johnson is Southern Baptist. It's a conservative church that influences Republican policy. You know, there are nearly 13 million Southern Baptists in the U.S. who attend about 50,000 congregations. And what's happening also illustrates the reality of polarization in the country.

I was recently covering the United Methodist Church. Now, that group dramatically liberalized rules around LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings. These two churches, Southern Baptists and United Methodists, are the first- and second-largest Protestant groups in the U.S., and they're examples of deep divides in American public life, including in religious life.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Thank you, Jason.

DEROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.