Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:
More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.
The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.
The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”
The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.
Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.
The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”
The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.
“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.
I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.
This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.
It will be interesting to see:
a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.
b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.
c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.
During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.
The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:
1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists
2. Calm tensions
3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”
To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.
This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.
But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.
And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.
It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.
But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.
Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.
We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.
It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.
* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.
This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).
It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.
But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.
As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.
Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.
I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.
Stephanie McCrummen’s profile of a southern baptist church in Alabama is getting some attention this morning. I’m not sure what to make of it. She talked to a lot of people in the congregation. Here’s an excerpt:
What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.
Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”
It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.
There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.
“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”
The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”
“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”
As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.
“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.
So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.
There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.
“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”
There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”
And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”
It’s worth reading the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how McCrummen came to write about this particular church and what her own background is. If this was an academic religious studies article, it might be preceded by some elaborate handwringing about her own beliefs and cultural location and how those affected her work and interactions. Instead, because this is a profile in the Washington Post, the reporter is more or less invisible even as she crafts a narrative with a strong undertone of contempt. I’m not saying the contempt isn’t deserved, but I think there are real ethical questions here.
As for the congregation, the main thing I wonder is if it is representative of southern baptist churches today. It seems like many of the most outlandish quotes came from elderly people. Whether it’s representative or not, for this congregation we can say this:
–Abortion is really important.
–Hillary hatred is alive and well.
–There is an enormous amount of fear about Christians losing their place in America, or even their lives.
–Theological ignorance, even to the point of heresy, is common. Christian nationalism heightens their fears and turns them away from Christianity.
–Many feel conflicted about supporting Trump, but not necessarily for the reasons anti-Trump people oppose him. Even people who expressed discomfort did not name his racism as one of their qualms. Others suggested that racism was one of the things they most appreciated about him.
So: fear, racism, ignorance, Christian nationalism, and some concern for the unborn. It’s a damning portrait.
Vice-President Mike Pence has concluded his speech at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yesterday there was a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but it was easily voted down. John Fea has the details here. In defense of the decision to welcome Pence, the chairman of the business committee said this:
On a personal note, if President Obama’s White House had contacted us and I was chairman of this committee, we would have exercised the same judgement and welcomed them to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some are skeptical of this, but I believe him. Yet it completely misses the point. Everyone knows that SBC is a conservative institution. If Vice-President Biden had spoken at the convention, it would have rightly been understood as an act of hospitality and toleration on the part of the SBC. It would have been a way of saying the convention was open to dialogue with its opponents.
Welcoming political power with which the convention is already so closely aligned is a very different sort of move, one that speaks not of Christian hospitality but of crass conflation of conservative theology with conservative politics. So it looks bad, and it looks far worse when you account for the moral posture of the current administration. President Obama was a decent man. So was George W. Bush. No serious person can say the same of President Trump. Welcoming a representative of an anti-Christ administration to the stage can be defended on its own terms, but let’s not pretend it’s the same sort of act a welcome to a previous administration would have been.
After watching Pence’s speech, it seems the convention’s time might have been better spent in prayer and repentance. Here are the thoughts I jotted down as the speech unfolded:
Introducing Pence, Steve Gaines says, “I am so grateful to have a vice-president who not only loves people but also loves the Lord Jesus Christ.” Pence receives a big ovation from the crowd.
Pence says he wants to begin by bringing greetings from President Trump. Loud applause and cheers. “Four more years!” someone yells. Five minutes before, they were singing worship songs.
Pence talks about all the good Southern Baptists are doing and then segues into his own 1978 conversion experience. “I gave my life to Jesus Christ. It’s made all the difference.”
He says Southern Baptists have always worked for renewal, and our nation is in a moment of renewal, “a new beginning of greatness in America.” The greatest privilege of his life, he says, has been working for President Trump. “500 days of promises made and promises kept.” Loud applause.
Pence is going through the litany of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments.” Yesterday’s summit agreement about nothing gets big applause.
Pence keeps referring back to Trump, the great leader. He has this patented way of communicating that he is Trump’s toady and exercises no independent thought or moral judgment. He’s completely shameless. SBC leaders knew Pence would use this speech to talk about how great Trump is, right? They knew this would be a political speech.
I’m surprised how much of this speech is about North Korea.
Now as he tells a personal story he appears to be trying to cry but can’t quite get there.
Pence says strong American leadership is crucial for the resolution of the Korean conflict, but says he and Trump both know that the “effective fervent prayers” of righteous people are needed. This is a reference to James 5:16.
“Unlike his predecessors, this President kept his word” when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This line gets a roar and a standing ovation.
Now touting the tax cuts. More cheers. This is just a regular campaign speech with a few religious lines thrown in.
“Under President Donald Trump America is back and we’re just getting started.” Loud cheers.
Pence is emphasizing the Trump Administration’s efforts to protect “religious liberty.” Appointing conservative judges, protecting Christians in the Middle East.
“I couldn’t be more proud to stand with a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. President Donald Trump is the most pro-life President in American history.” This earns a general standing ovation across the convention hall. For anyone outside the Trumpist bubble, it’s very hard to believe that Trump or Pence care about the unborn when they are so cruel to the born.
Mike Pence says all Trump’s wonderful accomplishments would not be possible without the support of people like you (meaning Southern Baptists). Pence says Trump has “deep respect” for people of faith. “We respect how you care for the most vulnerable” Pence says, like how you try to help the people Trump and I are trying to oppress. Oh wait, he didn’t say that last part.
Pence is, inevitably, making a fool of himself. Hypocrisy on an almost unfathomable scale. Pence says “in divided times” Southern Baptist values and compassion are needed more than ever. He concludes with a call to keep practicing compassion, “especially for the most vulnerable,” and to “pray for America.” Then he quotes the classic text of Christian nationalists: 2 Chronicles 7:14.
I like the call for compassion, but I wish Pence wouldn’t support racism, sexual assault, tearing families apart, and lawlessness in general. I take the old-fashioned view that what a person does matters. But apparently I’m a snowflake for thinking that. This whole spectacle brings to mind another passage of scripture:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
Vice-President Mike Pence has been invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting tomorrow. The press release is…interesting: “We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
It is telling that southern baptist leaders think Mike Pence has anything useful to say about the moral fabric of the nation, or that he cares about anyone who contributes to it. It is amazing that they can’t see how this will look to anyone who isn’t already a true believer in their brand of hateful politics.
Mike Pence has repeatedly lied and covered for all kinds of evil in recent years. He supports racism and flagrantly denies Christian teachings on caring for the poor, the sick, and the refugee. He is militantly hostile to Christianity. This is the kind of man the southern baptists want at their convention. Very telling.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, and the evangelical leaders who approved this have just re-committed themselves to the tacit support of a racist, xenophobic, sexist administration and those who support it.
This is not simply about having a Republican official speak at the denomination’s biggest meeting. It’s about this particular administration. This president has engendered particular division among evangelicals and has alienated many black people. A journalist called the steady leak of black members from white evangelical churches a “quiet exodus.” It’s about to get louder.
This move also reinforces the reflexive association of white evangelicalism with Republicanism. I should not be surprised at this move, but it’s still baffling and utterly oblivious.
Last year’s annual meeting featured the alt-rightfiasco. This year everyone thought the story would be about the SBC’s #metoo moment. Now they’ve found another way to make things even worse. I will be watching Pence’s speech tomorrow very closely.
Yesterday afternoon the Southern Baptist Convention passed a revised resolution denouncing white supremacy. Here’s the full text of the version that passed:
WHEREAS, Scripture teaches, “From one man [God] has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (Acts 17:26); and
WHEREAS, The Psalmist proclaimed, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord” (Psalm 24:1); and
WHEREAS, The Apostle Peter said, “God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35); and
WHEREAS, Our justification before God is based on faith in Christ Jesus alone and not in our ethnicity (Galatians 3:27–28); and
WHEREAS, Scripture proclaims that Jesus is purchasing by His blood believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9); and
WHEREAS, Throughout eternity we will gather with a “multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in worship of our risen Savior (Revelation 7:9); and
WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message conveys that all Christians are obligated to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and in human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness, and vice, and bringing government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love; and
WHEREAS, We know from our Southern Baptist history the effects of the horrific sins of racism and hatred; and
WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry,” and “genuinely repent[ed] of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously”; and
WHEREAS, In recent years the Convention has nominated and elected individuals from a variety of ethnicities, including electing our first African-American president in 2012; and
WHEREAS, In recent resolutions the Southern Baptist Convention called on “all Christian men and women to pray and labor for the day when our Lord will set all things right and racial prejudice and injustice will be no more” (2014); expressed continued grief “over the presence of racism and the recent escalation of racial tension in our nation” (2015); and urged fellow Christians to discontinue using the Confederate battle flag, acknowledging that it is “used by some and perceived by many as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, offending millions of people” (2016); and
WHEREAS, More than 20 percent (nearly eleven thousand) of our cooperating Southern Baptist congregations identify as predominately non-Anglo and for the last three years more than 50 percent of Southern Baptist new church plants have been predominately non-Anglo; and
WHEREAS, B&H Academic recently published Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, highlighting our continuing need to root out vestiges of racism from our own hearts as Southern Baptists; and
WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as “white nationalism” or “alt-right”; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.
You can compare it to the original resolution. Some are saying the revised text is stronger because it uses the phrase “white supremacy.” I read it differently. Both versions condemn the rebranded racism that has entered our politics in recent years, but the revised text reads more as a defense of Southern Baptist racial progress. Appearing defensive in this moment is not a good look for the SBC.
In the past 24 hours there has been a lot of good reporting about why and how the original resolution failed. See Nicola Menzie’s piece. And CNN has an excellent blow by blow account. The short version: not only did the Resolutions Committee decline to send the resolution to the floor, the full convention voted twice against reconsidering the decision. Why?
Among the opponents, some were frustrated at the methods used to reintroduce the topic late last night; others balked at the idea of the SBC calling out a right-wing ideology in particular, knowing the alt-right’s affiliation with Trump. They argued the denomination had already made its stance clear against racism (a 1995 resolution apologized for its racist past; one last year repudiated the Confederate flag), and suggested liberal politics were behind the recent move.
One attendee tweeted the resolution committee did the right thing when they declined to bring the alt-right resolution before the group in the first place: “The res committee and their response is exactly right. It will only be criticized by race baiters and ppl pushing left-wing social issues.” …
“It is, in part, a concern that alt-right will be a label applied to non-racist conservatives who, for example, simply voted for Donald Trump,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, who blogged on the resolution for CT. “However, I think that concern is past its time—the alt-right is the klan without the robes, and Southern Baptists need to speak up on it.”
If people read the original resolution as an implicit critique against their team that tells you a lot about how politicized and white their “Christianity” is. More along this line:
Resolutions Committee chairman Barrett Duke said Tuesday the original proposal was “too open-ended” and could be misinterpreted.
A day later, he apologized.
“We regret and apologize for the pain and the confusion that we created for you and the watching world when we decided not to report out a resolution on ‘alt-right’ racism,” he told messengers, or delegates, adding that he shares their abhorrence of the “particularly vicious form of racism that has manifested itself in the ‘alt-right’ movement.”
He said the new version of the resolution speaks with “conviction but also with compassion” and repudiates racism “in a tone that honors all people, even those with whom we disagree.”
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, who authored a proposed resolution about the Confederate flag at last year’s convention that was rewritten and passed, didn’t understand why the resolution wasn’t dealt with in a less confusing way.
“I’m very heartened by the statement,” he said in an interview about the new version of the resolution.
But he added, “I guess I’m disappointed because they could have done that all the time.”…
Matt Bowman, a white Tennessee pastor, believed it was important to pass a resolution whose meaning wouldn’t be twisted by others.
“Just because someone is conservative doesn’t make them alt-right,” he said. “Just because someone has right-wing politics doesn’t make them alt-right, white supremacists, so we need to be clear about what we’re condemning.”
Again, the original resolution didn’t mention right-wing or conservative politics. If people saw themselves or things they care about implicated in that resolution it might say something about their own sense of guilt.
And finally, some more revealing details from Emma Green:
“We were very aware that on this issue, feelings rightly run high regarding alt-right ideology,” said Barrett Duke, the head of the resolutions committee, in an interview on Wednesday morning. “We share those feelings … We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love, which we’re also commended by Jesus to incorporate.” The resolutions committee did not reach out to McKissic ahead of the meeting to work on a revised version of the resolution, Duke said…
Jackie Hill Perry, a black artist and teacher who has frequently spoken at Southern Baptist events, tweeted that “the decision made at #SBC17 to not denounce white supremacy is hurtful.” Trillia Newbell, a black staffer at the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Commission in Washington, replied, “I’m seriously in tears. What’s going on?!”
“I certainly understand that hurt and anger, because to most people, this would be a no-brainer,” said McKissic in an interview on Wednesday. “Several of the resolutions they endorsed yesterday were just carte blanche things Southern Baptists believe. And so, it becomes a mystery how you can so easily affirm standard beliefs about other things, but we get to white supremacy … and all of a sudden, we’ve got a problem here.”…
The resolutions committee consulted with Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, to draft new language, Duke told me, but they did not consult with McKissic, the original author. “This is the committee’s resolution,” he said. “This is not Brother McKissic’s resolution.”
On Wednesday, McKissic said he is okay not having been consulted “because I don’t think it’s customary. … Once that person has submitted, I don’t think you’re normally involved.” There is one African American member on the 10-person resolutions committee, Roland Slade.
After the revised resolution passed there was celebration and talk of the “bold” and “prophetic” stance of the SBC. Those aren’t the words I’d use.
After the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal yesterday to denounce white nationalism and the alt-right caused a firestorm, a revised resolution is to be submitted today. Emma Green reports this morning that some SBC leaders are claiming the events of yesterday were really just a “procedural snafu.” This claim seems hard to square with the fact that the resolution didn’t even make it out of committee. The Resolutions Committee had the text in hand in advance. They considered it. They rejected it. I wasn’t there so maybe I’m missing something.
This is a developing story and what exactly happened will probably become clearer in the days ahead. But you can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. The damage has been done. Many fair-minded observers will see the first vote in the Resolutions Committee as a reflection of what many white Southern Baptists really think, and the second vote today as a gesture of political expediency to avoid bad press. Some might think that interpretation ungenerous, but it’s certainly not unreasonable.
Words and symbolism are not fitting substitutes for action, and in the grand scheme of things passing this resolution won’t have large material consequences. But not passing it communicates an astonishing message. White Christians were unwilling to denounce the very negation of the God they claim to worship. They communicated their priorities with unyielding clarity. Now, they will ask us to believe that Christianity is more important to them than nationalism or whiteness, even though their actions tell us the opposite.
I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of what language in the resolution bothered the convention, but it can be surmised. It seems likely that the resolution’s broad language hit too close to home for Southern Baptists who had already embraced the racist candidacy of Donald Trump, and in doing so allied themselves with the small but vocal white supremacist movement. So the failure of the resolution points back to a bigger problem: the ongoing en masse refusal of white evangelicals to give account for their decision to aid and abet racism in the last election. That’s the vote they chose, and we don’t need to re-litigate it. But they owe it to their brothers and sisters of color to explain how they’re working now to take responsibility and stand against the racism of the political coalition they joined.
The Southern Baptist Convention famously apologized—in 1995—for its support for slavery. The juxtaposition of that apology and yesterday’s cowardice is fitting. I know so many white Christians who are more than happy to denounce slavery and Jim Crow. They’re happy, in other words, to denounce forms of white supremacy that are no longer operative. But when you need allies in the fight against racism as it actually exists today they’re nowhere to be found. Ask them about police brutality, exclusionary zoning, segregated schools, white nationalism, Donald Trump. Suddenly they sing a different tune: “Wait a minute, I’m invested in those things!”
Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon. That message speaks to white Americans in the form of a choice most of us have yet to honestly face: Jesus declares that we can invest in whiteness or follow him. We cannot do both. If you’re unwilling to denounce racism in its current forms—you know, the kind that actually helps you and enables your standard of living—stop calling yourself a Christian. Stop it.
This is a good moment to return to something I wrote a couple weeks ago:
I happened to be visiting at a white evangelical church on the Sunday after the riots in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. To his credit, the pastor asked his congregation to try to understand the pain of black Americans and to pray for peace. Unfortunately, his prayer did not name any of the injustices that make peace impossible. The pastor asked his congregation to listen to black Christians, but he did not call on them to do their part to remove the injustice. So while asking for understanding and sympathy, the pastor allowed his white congregation to imagine themselves as mature Christians patiently dealing with the apparently inexplicable emotions of weak black Christians.
It gets worse. The pastor’s prayer was resolutely vague about why all this conflict might have been happening. I don’t recall any mention of the justice system, police brutality, or economic oppression. While avoiding phrases like that, the pastor did manage to name one specific problem. He prayed against the problem of “black crime.” I wish I had a transcript of the prayer. I don’t recall all the details. But that phrase—“black crime”—amid a vague prayer that did not name white racism, is seared into my memory.
People no doubt left the church that day thinking they were enlightened and compassionate. A few mentioned to me how nice the prayer was, thinking I would be happy that such a prayer had been offered in a white evangelical church. On the contrary, I was struck by the yawning chasm between the pastor’s good intentions and the action that moment actually required. A bunch of white Christians—people who benefit from America’s racist society—had gathered to worship God in a moment of racial crisis and had not been moved out of their comfort zone at all. Indeed, their supposed spiritual maturity had been affirmed.
It’s hard to describe how racism is transmitted in white evangelical churches, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. This is the point where people interject and say I’m being unfair and that it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated! Racism takes all kinds of things in its maw; it is, as George Frederickson memorably put it, a scavenger ideology. What does this scavenger quality look like in white evangelical churches? It often looks like narratives of Christian nationalism.
For many white evangelicals, a story of national decline—from Christian foundations to secular liberal disintegration—is the basic framework through which they interpret events. It’s axiomatic. For this story to have any coherence, the totality of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ experiences must be written out of it. Some of the history curriculums popular among Christian homeschoolers and private Christian schools do exactly that.
If the experiences of people of color are true, this country isn’t what many white evangelicals thought it was. For many of us, that is too shattering to contemplate. So telling white evangelicals to stop being racist kind of misses the point. To actually see and believe the experiences of people of color involves a radical rupturing of their view of reality. C’mon, do you want your grip on reality shaken?
In ordinary white evangelical church services, there are more subtle clues. A prayer might be offered in thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy in this country. The subtext of many of these prayers is that these freedoms are a blessing from God that can be taken away if the nation doesn’t turn back to him. Not only do such prayers echo the Christian nation declension narrative, they don’t speak to the experiences of people who are oppressed in this country right now. Thankfulness is of course a good thing. But prayers of thanks for what we have—combined with a note of worry for what might be taken away—are often the satisfied prayers of the comfortable. While we’re over here worrying about losing our rights, other Americans are trying to get them in the first place.
The mixing of God and country takes place against a backdrop of material entitlement and individual self-absorption. Anecdotally, I can attest that white evangelicals routinely speak about the hard material realities of life—homes, schools, jobs—with the anti-Christian rhetoric of the general American public. Safety first, family first, comfort first. Take specific concrete actions in your own life against the American Dream and watch white evangelicals be the first to criticize you. It’s an amazing phenomenon.
To wrap this up, let’s return to the Trump phenomenon. When Trump says Make America Great Again many white evangelicals hear a religious message. And it’s so enthralling that they are often unable to see that outside their bubble their support for him appears hateful. Much of white evangelicalism has become a religion of incumbency. We have and we hoard and we lament what we’ve lost and we fear what we might yet lose. We so easily identify with the powers of this age—the police, the military, the American Empire—over the oppressed people to whom God has given the gift of faith. We’re a religious movement that loves Donald Trump and hates Black Lives Matter. Despite all the good white evangelicals do in their local communities, as a collective political force white evangelicalism is hateful and oppressive.
I don’t stand outside this religious movement. I am implicated in it, a contributor to it. I must account for all the ways in which I promote racism and injustice in my actions and inaction, including my political behavior. I continue to hope that white evangelicals will repent broadly and deeply. I hope we will realize that the principles we claim to believe apply to racism just as well as to any other human problem.
The truth is not to be feared; it sets free. Those who hide their sins do not prosper, but the repentant find mercy. In other words, Jesus is powerful enough and good enough to save even white evangelicals like me.
Russell Moore is a Christian before he is a political lobbyist, and that has many white Southern Baptists concerned. The backstory is that Moore kept his integrity during the election while criticizing religious right leaders for prostituting themselves. This made a lot of Southern Baptists angry. There was a lot of speculation that Moore was about to be fired a couple months ago. That didn’t happen. Moore apologized and the rift seemed to close somewhat. But this was definitely a “to be continued” story.
The Wall Street Journal (paywalled) reported yesterday that there are still lingering animosities even months after Moore’s apology. Some churches are still withholding their monies from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And some Southern Baptists are upset that Moore seems to have no influence with the new administration. What’s the point of a public policy arm if it doesn’t really speak for the majority of the denomination and doesn’t have the ear of Republican leaders? The Journal writes:
After years of feeling shut out during the Obama administration, evangelicals are now enjoying far greater access at the White House. Mr. Moore, however, has been shut out, according to evangelicals who work in Washington. A White House spokeswoman said Mr. Moore didn’t appear to have visited since Mr. Trump took office.
While other evangelical leaders were in the White House Rose Garden last month, he was at a conference about orphans in Nashville, according to his Twitter feed.
What a sucker. Paying attention to orphans while there is political power to be courted in the nation’s capital. How could Russell Moore be so stupid?
Here’s a special Southern Baptist quiz for you. Who’s more offensive:
a) A racist, proud, dishonest, greedy, cruel, selfish, Christ-hating sexual predator?