The nation’s largest Protestant denomination elected a new president Tuesday at an annual meeting attracting far more than just church members’ attention.

The Rev. Ed Litton, a 62-year-old anti-racism activist, will take the helm of the Southern Baptist Convention for the next two years. Known as a unifier, he’ll have to use his bridge-building skills to steer the faith group through ongoing controversies over race, sexual abuse and the role of women in the church.

Dozens of national news stories have been written in recent weeks about in-fighting at the very top of the denomination. Leaders have lobbed startling accusations at one another regarding the faith group’s efforts to root out racism and protect its most vulnerable members from sexual predation.

Observers have compared these battles to the types of conflict increasingly cropping up within the Republican and Democratic parties. The Southern Baptist Convention, like many institutions, is struggling to balance the competing demands of its most conservative and most liberal wings.

So far this week, the meeting’s nearly 20,000 participants have voted to reject critical race theory — although that phrase isn’t actually used in the nonbinding recommendation — and limit the scope of denominational investigations into sexual abuse.

Here’s what else you should know about the high-profile gathering:

Pastor Ed Litton, of Saraland, Ala., answers questions after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

What is the Southern Baptist Convention?

The Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Around 14 million Americans identify as Southern Baptists — more than twice as many people as identify with the next-largest denomination, the United Methodist Church, according to political scientist Ryan Burge.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in the mid-19th century amid increasingly contentious battles over slavery. Baptists in the South broke off from their neighbors to the North when “Northern church leaders refused to appoint a missionary who owned slaves,” The Christian Science Monitor reports.

In recent decades, the denomination has worked to repent for its relationship to slavery, and its membership is now around 6% Black.

J.D. Greear, who led Southern Baptists from 2018 until this week, called on Christians to embrace the sentiment behind the Black Lives Matter movement in a Facebook Live event last year.

Today, the theologically conservative faith group is better known for its opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion rights and other traditionally liberal political causes than for its past teachings on race. Many Southern Baptists identify as white evangelicals, a category of believers associated with strong support for former President Donald Trump.

Why was the convention’s 2021 annual meeting contentious?

The Southern Baptist Convention typically holds a national meeting once each year to enable members from across the country to worship together, share what they’re experiencing at their home churches and vote on resolutions that will affect the future of the denomination.

Because of its size and its strong relationship with the Republican Party, the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meetings have always attracted national news coverage.

However, this year’s meeting has been in an especially bright spotlight because of internal battles over race, sexual abuse and women’s rights, among other things, that were recently exposed to the broader world.

This exposure came after Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, announced his departure from the faith group’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Documents leaked to Religion News Service in late May showed Moore’s frustration with denominational leaders’ efforts to interfere with work on sexual abuse and racial reconciliation.

Moore said top Southern Baptist leaders “took issue with his hiring of Black staff at the ERLC and advocating for the convention to elect a Black president,” Religion News Service reported.

Other denominational insiders later shared additional revelations, accusing members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee of working to limit investigations into sexual abuse and block public debate about the faith group’s ongoing struggles with racism, according to The Washington Post.

“This stuff has to be exposed and acknowledged, and we need to own the truth and repent of it and turn toward God,” said Rolland Slade, the first Black chairman of the denomination’s executive committee, to the Post.

Many of the accusations made in recent weeks reflected poorly on Mike Stone and Albert Mohler, who were both candidates to replace Greear as convention president this year. Some Black Southern Baptist leaders said they’d leave the denomination if either of the two won the election.

“A lot of us will know if this convention is for us once (this year’s meeting) is over,” said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, to The New York Times.

However, other members of the denomination strongly supported the two men, presenting Stone, in particular, as a defender of conservative values. They wanted this year’s annual meeting to be about repudiating critical race theory and other liberal causes, not softening the church’s approach to gender roles or expanding investigations into sexual abuse.

What has happened so far at this week’s gathering?

On Tuesday, participants voted on a number of key resolutions and elected the Rev. Litton, who is senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama.

“When officials announced the results from the stage — the Rev. Litton bested Stone by just 556 votes, or 4 percentage points — the floor erupted in a mixture of cheers and boos,” The New York Times reported.

Unlike other candidates, the Rev. Litton has not been seen as a so-called culture warrior. He was nominated by the Rev. Fred Luter, “the only Black pastor to serve as president” of the convention, according to Religion News Service.

Also on Tuesday, Southern Baptists voted against a request to expand the scope of an inquiry into sexual abuse and in favor of a statement that condemned racism but discouraged engagement with concepts like critical race theory. The approved measure rejects “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic,” The Tennessean reported.

On Tuesday night in his final address, the convention’s outgoing president called on Southern Baptists to focus on the battles that really matter instead of warring with one another.

“If we’re going to be at war, let us be at war with the principalities and the powers that impede gospel proclamation,” Greear told the assembled crowd, according to The Tennessean.