The Southern Baptist Convention, founded in defense of slavery more than 170 years ago, on Wednesday took another faltering step on its long road to racial reconciliation.
At its annual meeting in Phoenix, the group voted to “decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and "denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil."
"We are saying that white supremacy and racist ideologies are dangerous because they oppress our brothers and sisters in Christ," said the Rev. Russell Moore, who leads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist public policy arm, the Associated Press reported. "If we're a Jesus people, let's stand where Jesus stands."
On Tuesday night, the group initially refused to take up the alt-right resolution amid concerns that it did not clearly identify who the alt-right is, the Washington Post reported.
But with numerous churches threatening to quit the convention, the group reconsidered on Wednesday.
Washington D.C. pastor Charles Hedman told the AP that far-right groups had been distributing racist material outside the convention hall Tuesday night. He said some pastors had told him they would have to leave the denomination if the convention failed to denounce white supremacy Wednesday.
"We must stand strong," Hedman said. "We must all issue an apology that we didn't act on this yesterday."
The resolution was introduced by the Rev. Dwight McKissic, a black pastor from in Arlington, Tex.
“I saw people identifying themselves as Southern Baptist and members of the alt-right, so this is horrifying to me,” McKissic said, according to the Post. “I wanted the Southern Baptist Convention to make it very clear we have no relationship to them.”
McKissic later said he was heartened by the change of heart at the meeting.
“I don’t think they anticipated how white people would get upset about this and demand something be done,” McKissic said. “I’m encouraged and heartened by this. It was the white people who said, no we will not take this sitting down. We don’t want this association with the convention.”
Breaking away to protect slave owners
The formation of the SBC prefigured the secession of the Southern states 16 years later. The Baptist church of the mid-19th century split after northern churches declared that slave owners could not also be Baptist missionaries.
Meeting in Augusta in 1845, delegates from nearly 300 churches joined together in the Southern Baptist Convention. Their organization flourished in the postbellum South, in large part because of aggressive missionary work that helped establish Baptist churches in city after city.
But the church and white supremacy were practically synonymous, and it would be nearly 150 years before the denomination would come to terms with its racist past. Indeed, as Wednesday’s vote illustrates, it’s still struggling to do so.
Meeting in Atlanta in 1995 the SBC voted to "repent of racism of which we have been guilty. . . . We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.”
Meeting just a few miles from Ferguson, Mo., in 2016, the Southern Baptists called all members to stop flying the Confederate flag.
Moving forward but sometimes stumbling
The Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country with 15.2 million members.
The denomination is still about 80 percent white.
It has made important strides in moving beyond its racist past, but it also has stumbled. Just this past April, for example, five white professors at a Baptist seminary in Texas posted a photo of themselves wearing hoodies, sideways baseball caps and gold chains. They were pointing their fingers as if they were guns.
The Rev. H.B. Charles, a black pastor who will be president of the Southern Baptists’ pastors conference next year, acknowledged this week that the denomination still has a long way to go.
“If we had fumbled the ball. . . (people) could’ve concluded that the SBC does not care about matters of race,” Charles told the Washington Post. “I’m glad we picked up the fumble and are trying to address this before we leave. It could have had a really bad effect on our witness.”
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