James Merritt, “Rastus”, and Racial Reconciliation in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go.”  So said former Southern Baptist Convention President (SBC) and founding pastor of Cross Pointe Church James Merritt during the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham.  Merritt made these remarks while participating in a six-person panel on Racial Reconciliation.  According to Merritt, Southern Baptists had “made a lot of progress” but there remained “pockets of people in the convention who don’t understand where we need to be in terms of race.”  It was at the Birmingham Convention that messengers passed the controversial Resolution IX, in which Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality where affirmed as “analytical tools” that “can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences.”  Many Southern Baptists sought to correct this mistake during the 2021 Convention in Nashville (after COVID forced the cancellation of the 2020 Convention).  However, the efforts of those Southern Baptists who sought to rescind Resolution IX and condemn CRT fell short in Nashville, the headquarters of the SBC itself.  James Merritt, chairman of the 2021 Resolutions Committee,  was arguably a major roadblock to a formal SBC condemnation of CRT.  During the debate on CRT, Merritt, flanked by African-American pastors on either side, smugly remarked from the Convention platform, “If some people were as passionate about the gospel as they were about Critical Race Theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow.” In an emotional diatribe (one that would put Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker to shame) Merritt recounted reading the Bible in his college years and pastoral career multiple times and finding therein “a lot about race” and “a lot about racial reconciliation.” 

Merritt’s words rang hollow to Scott Morgan, a Georgia-based missionary who had twice served on Merritt’s pastoral staff (first at FBC Snellville and again and Cross Pointe).  Morgan remembered riding with Merritt in the Senior Pastor’s church-issued car during Tuesday night visitation.  During these rides, Morgan recalled, Merritt would call his various pastor friends and tell them his “Rastus” joke.  According to definitions.net:

“Rastus is a pejorative term traditionally associated with African Americans in the United States. It is considered offensive. “Rastus” has been used as a generic, often derogatory, name for black men at least since 1880… Rastus—as a stereotypically happy black man, not as a particular person—became a familiar character in minstrel shows.”

According to Morgan, Merritt would enthusiastically call various Southern Baptist leaders and tell them, in a old-timey southern black dialect (think “Massa” and “Missus”) a joke about “Rastus” defecating in his pants and failing to change them the next day.  Morgan retells the joke in the video below:

I think Southern Baptists can assume that James Merritt has not told his “Rastus” joke to the various members of his racial reconciliation committee.   I think they can further assume that the apparent racial concerns of SBC leadership is one of expediency, and not conviction. Merritt may be right about the “pockets of people” in the SBC who don’t understand race. Apparently, he’s right in the middle of one.

What do you say, James Merritt?

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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Seth Dunn

Masters of Divinity in Christian Apologetics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Member of the Evangelical Theological Society Certified Public Accountant