Here’s a few headlines:
- Salon: Southern Baptists — once an overtly racist, pro-slavery group — declare war on white supremacy and the alt-right
- ThinkProgress: The Southern Baptist blowup over white supremacy, explained (Racism is hard to condemn, apparently.)
- Religion News Service: A media firestorm elevates a false narrative of Southern Baptist racism
- The Atlantic: A Resolution Condemning White Supremacy Causes Chaos at the Southern Baptist Convention
- Vox: What a unanimous Southern Baptist condemnation of the alt-right says about evangelicals in America
I didn’t find out about this story from any of those headlines. I didn’t even find out about this from my Southern Baptist Convention friends (full disclosure – the church I’m a member of is affiliated with the SBC, and I have a few friends and colleagues who work for the Convention). I found out about this from the following Facebook post:
This was June 13th, at 11:11 pm. Here’s my response, unfiltered, two minutes later:
(The pride reaction is from a gay friend who has been using that as his default like since it was out. The anabaptist who asked me the question gave me the wow. There’s a sad reaction hiding back there too)
So what happened in under twelve hours to get from “Satan.” to “exceptionally proud”? I wish I could tell you it was simple, but it’s not. But the three parts are pretty easy to understand.
I. The Southern Baptist Convention
The SBC is a loose coalition of around 42,000 churches and over 15 million members. What binds those churches? Theologically, it’s a belief in the core tenets of evangelical Christianity (summarized here), believer’s baptism (we don’t baptize babies), and local church sovereignty (a fancy way of saying that no one tells us what to do). In other words, we all agree on a few core concepts, and there’s no organizational hierarchy or College of Cardinals or Pope to make decrees about what Southern Baptists do or believe. The member churches further agree to put a portion of their income towards the cooperative program, where it gets dispersed to fund missionaries abroad, church planters in North America, seminaries across the United States, disaster relief, and the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, the public policy arm of the SBC.
The SBC has a pretty shady history – it started when Southern Baptists broke off of the Triennial Convention in order to allow slaveholding members to become missionaries. In 2012, the SBC elected it’s first black president. In 2017, at their annual meeting, the SBC condemned “white nationalism and alt-right white supremacy.” But what does that mean?
II. The Annual Meeting
Every year, thousands of Southern Baptists gather at some hotel or convention center to discuss family issues – to vote on leaders, hear about where their donations have been going, and to vote on resolutions. These resolutions aren’t laws that require certain behavior – rather, they are affirmations of principles that a majority of the congregations agree upon. These are “bottom-out” statements, not “top-down.” They represent individual congregations coming together to declare agreement. They are not orders from SBC high command.
Past resolutions have included commitments to fight hunger, condemnations of gambling, affirmations of the importance of university ministry, and even a call for the government to use more money to fight poverty and less money to fund nuclear weapons.
The resolution that sparked last week’s brouhaha was in many ways routine. Last year, the SBC condemned the flying off the Confederate Flag. In 2015, they resolved to prioritize racial reconciliation in local churches and within the convention proper. In fact, the SBC has been regularly condemning racism since as far back as 1941. So what happened this year? Here comes the story of the terrible, inspirational, no good, very good twelve hours.
III. On the Anti-Gospel of Alt-Right White Supremacy
On the night of June 11th, a black pastor from Arlington, Texas proposed a resolution condemning the alt-right. In congressional terms, the bill didn’t make it out of committee. The Resolution Committee critiqued the resolution’s language, calling it “not well-written” and critiquing some of the word choice “inappropriate.” A vote was held (requiring a two-thirds majority) to bring the resolution to the floor without the committee’s approval. That vote failed, and that’s about when the story broke.
12 hours later, after a parliamentary expert and a team of pastors rewrote the resolution, it passed apparently unanimously (some eyewitness accounts note a single dissenter in the room). And with that, the Southern Baptist Convention officially adopted the view that the alt-right is antithetical to the Gospel, and that racism in any form is “satanic.”
So what elevated this parliamentary back-and-forth to a front page, international, news fiasco?
- The denomination’s racist history: The SBC has horrible, racist, origins, and has failed to repent of those in the past. Despite recent progress, there is valid concern that those same demons might fester in the heart of the organization and the churches it represents. Constant, unwavering, repentance is the only thing that puts the SBC above and beyond reproach.
- The denomination’s recent history: In an election where 81% of voting, white, evangelicals selected Donald Trump, the SBC made the news for some strange reasons. Namely, Russell Moore, head of the aforementioned ERLC, was a constant critic of the candidate and his character. This outspoken #NeverTrump advocate attracted more than his fair share of internal antagonists – including a handful of wealthy churches who threatened to pull funding from the SBC if Moore remained onboard. He did; for the most part, they didn’t. This controversy has brought to the fore the denomination’s inner struggle between a politically conservative membership, and a burgeoning right-wing movement that is in many ways dead-set against their values.
- Richard Spencer – The alt-right leader and occasional Nazi sympathizer dropped a few cryptic tweets that were just enticing enough to draw media attention.
Did it deserve the attention? Yes and no.
On the one hand, the SBC is one of the world’s most influential Christian organizations. What it says continues to wield incredible cultural cachet. And despite strong, bottom-up activism towards racial reconciliation, it still has a long way to go – and many members of color expressed their hurt and confusion at the initial failing to condemn racism.
But on the other hand, the initial ruling didn’t fail because it critiqued racism. It failed because it spoke more broadly than members felt comfortable with, because the resolution hadn’t actually been seen by many in the room, and because of general ignorance of what the alt-right even is. There were no reports of alt-right sympathizers make impassioned cases to promote racism at the meeting, and the final resolution (which again, called racism “satanic”) passed without any evident disagreement or dissension. Remember, this resolution passed unanimously, and it passed unanimously in a room of thousands of independent church representatives. That isn’t a crowd that’s typically influenced by whether or not the media looks fondly upon them, nor are they particularly known for being the sort of people to change fundamental convictions literally overnight.
No, what happened yesterday doesn’t indicate that the demons of racism are haunting the Southern Baptist Convention, even if I thought it did. The subsequent vote, and the powerful resolution passed in the aftermath demonstrate that fighting racism is still a priority and a point of universal agreement within the SBC. What the entire process also reveals is that there’s a dangerous ignorance of malignant personal forces that put black, hispanic, and indigenous members of our communities at real risk and a failure to act in ways that consider our minority brothers and sisters within the denomination – which is in and of itself a form of racism.
This was, of course, an avoidable situation. And the resolution alone – though powerful – is simply words. The Book of James tells us that words aren’t sufficient when our brothers and sisters are hurting. If SBC churches don’t get even more serious about combating racism in every insidious form it takes, the black eye we took the other night could well progress into something far more sinister and far more dangerous. In the words of Southern Baptist pastor Thabiti Anyabwile:
I’m praying we can put shoe leather to our resolutions. May the Lord give us grace to do so!
— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) June 14, 2017