WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation's largest Protestant denomination has new leadership in Washington, D.C. and an ambitious agenda for influencing policy this year.
As president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Brent Leatherwood represents 13 million Baptists in the nation's capital, navigating policy issues ranging from abortion to religious freedom.
Leatherwood, who previously served as the ERLC's acting president after the departure of Russell Moore, says he's looking forward to influencing legislation alongside sharing his faith.
"Not only do we get to advance public policy solutions that we think are grounded in and reflect scriptural truths but we get to minister to elected officials," he told CBN News.
The ERLC's 2023 agenda prioritizes religious liberty, pro-life initiatives and issues such as advocating for immigrants known as Dreamers. On Capitol Hill, that includes pushing back against taxpayer funding for abortion, moving to restrict abortion pills, and investigating ways to regulate the gambling industry.
The ERLC is also closely following two Supreme Court cases that could alter workplace religious freedom. One involves a graphic artist in Colorado seeking the right to say no to creating for gay weddings.
The other case features a mail carrier who wants Sundays off for worship.
"Religious accommodation, conscience accommodation – I think that's more and more going to become a part of our dialogue in the public square," said Leatherwood.
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At the same time, he and other Baptist leaders are acutely aware of the convention's sex abuse crisis that surfaced in 2019.
"If we don't confront it, if we don't address it, if we don't make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse, it undermines our ability to be effective messengers of the gospel," Leatherwood said.
Many survivors have worked for years to get the denomination's attention. Now, they're frustrated with the slow pace of reform. Leatherwood says there's a reason for it.
"This isn't just a simple fix and then we can say 'we're done.' No, no," he said. "We're in this for the long haul and we're going to take methodical scriptural guided steps to ensure that we get this right."
The ERLC board of trustees voted unanimously to appoint Leatherwood during its first session in September. In addition to serving as acting president prior to his appointment, Leatherwood has held the role of chief of staff at the ERLC as well as its director of strategic partnerships. He's also the former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Leatherwood maintains that the ERLC works both sides of the aisle and in an era known for wide-sweeping political polarization and despair, he says believers can model a better way.
"We're living in chaotic times, and my sense, from my perspective, the Gospel actually helps settle you because you know that this is a story and we play a role in it and we know how it all ends," he said.
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