The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s interim leader, Brent Leatherwood, will become its next president.
Leatherwood spent the past year as acting president, leading the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm during a historic span that included the reversal of Roe v. Wade and landmark denominational moves on abuse reform. The ERLC board of trustees unanimously approved his appointment on Tuesday.
A five-year staff member at the ERLC, Leatherwood was chief of staff under the previous interim leader, Daniel Patterson, and vice president of external affairs under former president Russell Moore, who left his position and the SBC in 2021. (Moore is now editor in chief of CT.)
Like during Moore’s leadership, the ERLC has continued to be a topic of debate in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose 48,000 churches operate independently but cooperatively. For some Southern Baptists, the ERLC’s lobbying and training efforts around issues like religious liberty and sanctity of life represent an important form of witness and engagement. Critics, though, believe the ERLC and its leaders have taken stances that do not represent the denomination overall.
At the annual meeting in June, as in previous years, a proposal to defund the ERLC was voted down. Former ERLC president Richard Land told the convention, “I cannot imagine a more damaging moment for the Southern Baptist Convention to defund the ERLC.”
Leatherwood also ran into pushback when he presented a vision for pro-life campaigns in the “post-Roe” era but didn’t agree with an abolitionist minority who wanted to criminalize abortion. “You are not going to get me to say I want to throw mothers behind bars,” he said from the stage.
The ERLC has also been involved in addressing the most high-profile issue the SBC has faced in recent years: its response to abuse. The ERLC had launched the Caring Well Initiative and conference back in 2018 to help train churches in how to respond to survivors.
The outside investigation into the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC), made public in a 288-page report in May, revealed how its leaders clashed with the ERLC over abuse, including censoring ERLC materials that described a sexual abuse “crisis” in the SBC.
“It is essential that we resist the urge to react defensively or from a position of protecting ourselves or an institution rather than precious individuals made in God’s image. Whether at a church or an entity, we must foster an environment where survivors are confident they will be received, listened to, and supported,” Leatherwood wrote in May.
“It is imperative that the stories of survivors be met with the same compassion Jesus exhibited for those who were marginalized or vulnerable.”
Last year, the ERLC began an “audit and assessment of sexual abuse within the SBC,” separate from the EC investigation.
Leatherwood has a background working for the Republican Party in Tennessee and on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
When he moved from politics to the ERLC, he said, “I’ve come to realize that politics flows downstream from culture. So, if I truly want to make a difference, I have to be active upstream.”
Over the past few weeks, Leatherwood has led the ERLC as it joined an amicus brief siding with the religious liberty rights of Yeshiva University, called attention to the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China, and applauded Tennessee’s recently enacted abortion restrictions.
Leatherwood said he was “honored and humbled” to become the next president. “True leadership begins as service,” he said in a statement. “That has been the heart I have brought each day to the ERLC these past 12 months. And it is that same heart I will continue to bring as this new chapter begins.”
He also emphasized the importance of the ERLC’s cooperation with churches, state conventions, and other entities.
Southern Baptists have seen giving levels climb, furthering its mission work, over the course of the pandemic; however, annual membership and baptisms have declined year after year for more than a decade, losing more than a million members in a three-year span, according to SBC reports.