Southern (Baptist) Discomfort

Southern Baptists voting to formally condemn the political movement known as the “alt-right,” at their national meeting in Phoenix in June. Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Southern Baptists voting to formally condemn the political movement known as the “alt-right,” at their national meeting in Phoenix in June. Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, recently held its annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, and among the items of business addressed were various resolutions establishing the sense of the assembled participants on current issues. Unlike many denominations, the SBC believes in and stresses the autonomy of the local church, so these resolutions, although they may speak to the general sense of the denomination as a whole, are not necessarily reflective of a particular local congregation.

I experienced this first hand when we lived in Valrico, Florida, just outside of Tampa. My family and I were searching for a local church after moving to the area from a company assignment in Germany, and the first church we attended was very traditional in its presentation and style of worship. The church we eventually called home was dramatically different, with a large auditorium rather than an ornate church sanctuary, contemporary music and creative arts for worship, and a casually dressed pastor who oftentimes used pop culture to set themes for his sermon series. One would never have guessed that these two stylistically different churches, mere miles apart, were part of the same denomination.

Over the past year or so, the Southern Baptist Convention, perhaps more so than any other denomination, has found itself struggling internally over the questions raised by the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump. The issues raised by his rise to power date all the way back to 1998, when the SBC passed a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials" in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s infidelity with young intern Monica Lewinsky.

Some in the SBC, most notably Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), looked at Donald Trump’s history of infidelity, multiple marriages, and generally intemperate comments about women, minorities and others who drew his ire, and saw no difference between his character and that of the former President, and they were highly critical of him as a candidate for public office.

This was in stark contrast to the warm embrace Donald Trump received from several conservative religious leaders, including prominent Southern Baptists such as Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian institution of higher learning. In fact, most polls suggested that white evangelical Protestants, which make up a majority of the SBC, were among Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters.

Incidentally, in the interest of full disclosure, as is apparent to most who are familiar with me, I am an employee of Liberty University. President Falwell’s endorsement and support of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, however, was a personal endorsement and not that of the university, which, as a 501(c)3 organization, is non-partisan.

That is how Liberty University, unlike practically any other college or university today, could host as guest speakers former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders in the same year as Republican presidential contenders Senator Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, and Mr. Trump without the disruptions which seem common to other campuses which struggle with allowing views divergent from their prevailing cultures to be heard. But I digress.

The conflicting views of SBC members on Mr. Trump became a source of rancor within the ranks of the denomination. People who agreed with Dr. Moore accused their fellow Southern Baptists of spiritual hypocrisy and blatant political partisanship for endorsing a candidate whose only distinction from past political figures of equally disputed moral standing, in their opinion, was his political affiliation. Those who endorsed Mr. Trump fired back that his opponents in the SBC, indeed in the Christian church as a whole, were self-righteous and seeking to impose a religious standard on an office which has no religious test to determine one’s fitness to serve.

They also pointed out that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s opponent and, ironically, the wife of the former President whose behavior was the catalyst for the 1998 SBC resolution on the character of public officials, was known to be hostile to the SBC’s positions on sexual ethics and morality and religious freedom. They argued that if she became President, with the power to select liberal Supreme Court justices for lifetime appointments, her policies on abortion, LBGTQIA issues, and religious liberty could become entrenched and immovable for decades to come.

This split in the SBC nearly came to a head after Mr. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, with some SBC congregations withholding or threatening to withhold their contributions to the SBC over Dr. Moore’s continued criticism of their unquestioning support for the new President, and Dr. Moore’s future as the head of the ERLC, the SBC’s conscience on moral and public policy issues, came into question.

Eventually, the president of the SBC affirmed Dr. Moore’s leadership of the ERLC and Dr. Moore, while still holding fast to his beliefs, offered an apology for the tone of his criticism, which he acknowledged as lacking in grace for those who took a different view from his own.

I recited this recent history to set the stage for the event I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the SBC’s annual meeting, and what transpired there. The meeting and its aftermath have demonstrated that the rift in the SBC over Donald Trump is still present and threatens the unity of the denomination as nothing has since the 1979 conservative takeover of the SBC from more moderate leadership. This threat isn’t just a matter of a religious organization in conflict; it goes to the very heart of how Jesus Christ proclaimed the world would be able to distinguish His people from all others:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. ~ John 13:34-35

One of the more disturbing trends of the recent political season is the rise of the “alt-right”, a term coined to describe a collection of groups and individuals who advocate white nationalism and, by extension, promote what most of society regards as racist and anti-Semitic views. Their resurgence coincided with Donald Trump’s unlikely ascension to the White House, and some believe his appeal to working class voters threatened by illegal immigration and the perception that social welfare benefits are being accrued to many who are underserving of them is responsible for their newfound boldness. Of course, his political opponents are all too willing to link him to the “alt-right” movement and its odious positions despite his multiple public condemnations of their words and actions.

It's against this backdrop that the Reverend William D. McKissic Sr., a black pastor and the leader of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, introduced a resolution at the meeting in which the SBC condemned the “alt-right” movement. Rev. McKissic and other minority leaders in the SBC were concerned about the public perception, especially within their congregations, that significant SBC congregational and leadership support of President Trump equated to an implicit endorsement of the “alt-right” movement by the SBC, and they felt it was important for the SBC to go on record condemning the movement.

The original resolution, however, never made it to the floor for a vote because the resolutions committee withheld it for what it called “inflammatory” language. After some tense moments and behind the scenes actions by SBC leaders, a revised resolution did eventually come to the floor for a vote and it passed overwhelmingly.

The initial action rankled some minority SBC members and they were not appeased by the outcome despite it being ostensibly in their favor. Some of their discontent comes from the SBC’s long and troubled history in race relations. After all, the SBC is the denomination which broke away from the nationwide Baptist association in 1845 over the issue of slavery, thus the word “Southern” in their name. Most of the SBC’s congregations endorsed segregation and opposed the 1960s civil rights movement and, until recently, it was largely a conservative, white and Southern denomination.

In 1995, the SBC formally apologized for their role in perpetuating slavery, racism and institutionalized discrimination. In 2012, the SBC elected its first black president, Fred Luter Jr., the senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and he served two terms. The SBC has promoted the inclusion of more minority congregations in its membership, and Dr. Moore, who grew up in Mississippi and observed racial tension in the church first-hand, is an outspoken advocate for racial reconciliation in the church.

Despite this positive record of progress on race relations, many minority SBC pastors were disillusioned by the tempest at the annual meeting over the “alt-right” resolution. One of them, Lawrence Ware, decided to take to the pages of the New York Times to express his disappointment and announce his decision to disassociate himself from the SBC. The article sparked a lot of discussion and debate over the progress within the SBC on racial reconciliation, and even some black pastors disagreed with Mr. Ware’s decision and the way in which he chose to announce it.

Of note, Mr. Ware cited the events at the SBC annual meeting as the catalyst which led to his decision, but he was not in attendance and those who were felt that he mischaracterized what took place. Rev. McKissic, the sponsor of the original “alt-right” resolution, indicated he was satisfied with the outcome and would continue to work within the SBC for racial reconciliation and unity.

Mr. Ware also took the opportunity to raise other issues which made the article read like a progressive political manifesto. Richard Land, the former head of the SBC’s ERLC, pointedly addressed Mr. Ware on one of the progressive issues raised in his opinion piece, stating, “If Ware no longer agrees with the vast majority of Southern Baptists past and present on LGBTQ issues, then as a matter of integrity he probably ought to leave and join a fellowship that is more in line with his views.”

The tone, content and objective of Mr. Ware’s opinion piece become more evident when one reads Mr. Ware’s bio at the end of the article. He is described as a “co-director of the Center for Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University and the diversity coordinator for its philosophy department.”

Only in the article itself does he give any indication that he is a minister, and even then, he describes himself as “a black scholar of race and a minister who is committed to social justice.” I found nothing in the article that gave primacy to the Gospel or to Jesus’ command that his disciples love one another. Instead, the article makes broad accusations about the SBC’s members and uses provocative language to describe the resolutions committee that originally tabled the “alt-right” resolution because of its language. In calling them “a contingent of predominantly white, old-guard members” who “refused to take the resolution seriously,” he reaches conclusions which any discerning reader should question. After all, since he wasn’t there, one can only presume that he was either told by someone in attendance that the committee was comprised of “predominantly white, old-guard members” who “refused to take the resolution seriously,” or he reached that conclusion on his own.

While Mr. Ware references some instances of inappropriate behavior by individuals affiliated with the SBC from his childhood and in more recent times, he uses the SBC’s history, these discrete personal and public episodes, and his dislike of President Trump to weave a narrative which establishes from the very beginning that his objective, his professions of love for the church notwithstanding, is to cast aspersions on the SBC and its members.

The most telling statement comes at the end of his article, when he declares, “I love the church, but I love black people more. Black lives matter to me. I am not confident that they matter to the Southern Baptist Convention.”

As a person of color, black lives matter to me as well, and I understand that this statement, as controversial as it has become, has at its heart a plea for acknowledgment of equal value with the rest of humanity, not dissimilar from the plea in the days of British legislator and abolitionist William Wilberforce when he and his “Clapham Saints” asked on behalf of black slaves, “Am I not a man and a brother?” It’s a shame that the phrase has become entangled in partisan agendas and has been weaponized by those who seek to bludgeon their political opposition with it because it didn’t originally seek to exclude, elevate or isolate. Instead, it was a call to bring those who’ve been excluded forward to stand alongside their fellow human beings as equal heirs in the sight of God. I intend to expand on this thought in a book I’m writing – slowly, I’m afraid!

My faith in Jesus Christ, however, is the organizing principle around which I order my life, and the church, whatever form it takes and whatever its failings, is His bride for whom He gave His life. The church is us, all who call Jesus Lord and Savior, black, white and every shade or ethnicity in between, and to love anything or anyone more than Christ and his church is to violate the First Commandment in all its Scriptural forms:

You shall have no other gods before me. ~ Exodus 20:3
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. ~ Deuteronomy 6:5
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” ~ Matthew 22:37-38

Jesus said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37-38).

Does that exclude loving them, or loving black people, or anyone else we hold dear? Of course not. What is does, however, is give precedence to our love of Jesus Christ and, by extension, those who love Him as we do:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” ~ Matthew 12:46-50

The sad thing we as Christians often fail to realize is that when we put Christ in His rightful place on the throne of our hearts, He promises to provide the good and worthy things that matter to us. Jesus said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

That includes the emphasis on black lives that Mr. Ware seeks. After all, it was Jesus’ disciple John who emphasized:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
— 1 John 4:20

You can’t love Jesus and hate your fellow Christian. Those two passions cannot reside in the same space and anyone who worships the Lord while denigrating his or her black or white brother and sister is deceiving themselves.

If we truly want racial harmony and to repudiate the rage of the “alt-right” or the more radical elements of the BLM movement, black and white Christians need to put aside their idols, whether they are movements or people, and put Christ first.

When Jesus prayed for us before His crucifixion, it was his fervent desire that, in the midst of a world which would hate us and persecute us, we would be as one under Him:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” ~ John 17:20-24

How beautiful that our Savior prayed so passionately for us to the Father even before we were conceived! It moves me to see into the heart of Jesus and to know how much it meant to Him that we become one in His name. That is why I have made it my life’s goal to bring the church together across the racial divide and model the love of Christ to an unbelieving world.

I hope that those in the SBC who are truly devoted to Jesus Christ will ignore the idolatrous forces that seek to tear Christ’s church apart, whether they are “alt-right”, BLM, progressive, conservative, or whatever phrase or acronym one wants to use to describe them. Let us honor the prayer He made for us before He went to the cross to secure our salvation. Peace be with you.

Ron Miller of Lynchburg, Virginia is an associate dean and assistant professor of government at Liberty University, a commentator and author of the book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch. He serves the No Walls Ministry as a member of the board of directors and the director of No Walls University.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” ~ Galatians 3:28