A Confederate flag was on display on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse after the lowering of the Confederate flag from the dome of the Statehouse on July 1, 2000, in Columbia, S.C. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

As Republicans send mixed messages on whether or not the Confederate flag should be flown in the South, a debate has been swirling in the country’s largest Protestant denomination where Southern is core to its name. One South Carolina pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention has served as the public face of those who favor the state’s flying of the Confederate flag, while national Southern Baptist leaders have been calling for the flag’s removal.

Two days after the church shootings in Charleston, Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s policy arm, swiftly condemned the Confederate flag ahead of many political leaders. (Moore permitted The Washington Post to republish his call for the flag’s removal.) And Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called racial superiority “heresy.”

Racial issues play an important role in the SBC, which was created after a split in the 1840s among Baptists over the question of slave-ownership. When the American Baptist Home Mission Society refused to approve slave-owners as missionaries, Baptist congregations pulled out of the association and formed the SBC.

One hundred and fifty years later, the SBC officially adopted a resolution repudiating its own racist past, apologizing to African Americans and calling for renewed efforts to eradicate individual and systematic racism. Moore replaced Richard Land in 2013 as head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land engineered the denomination’s 1995 resolution on race, but he also stepped down in 2012 after making inflammatory statements on race.

Just because the SBC passed a resolution on race does not mean that all of the churches in its associations agreed with its national leadership. Pastor Bobby Eubanks of Ridge Baptist Church in Summerville, S.C., has led a local effort to keep the Confederate flag flying.

A year after the national SBC resolution on race, the issue of the Confederate flag became the top political issue in South Carolina. The South Carolina Baptist Convention (a state convention of the SBC) responded by distancing themselves from churches who pushed for the state to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol.

When Gov. David Beasley ran for the office in 1994, he advocated for keeping the Confederate flag flying atop the Capitol dome. Amidst a rise in hate crimes and scrutiny from business groups, Beasley changed his position. In November 1996, he  gave a television broadcast to call for the legislature to work out a compromise that would bring the flag from atop the Capitol.

Two weeks later,  Eubanks and 14 other clergy circulated a document called “The Moral Defense of the Confederate Flag.” The 1996 letter laid out a case for the Confederacy being a Christian movement that properly understood God’s will and the U.S. Constitution, modeled after “The Address to Christians Throughout the World,” an 1863 letter from 98 clergy who defended the Confederacy. Some of the points of the letter included the following:

  • The Confederate Flag is a Christian symbol.
  • Leaders of the Confederacy are historical examples of Christian character.
  • The Civil War was a fight between Christianity and Atheism.
  • Removing the flag is part of liberal attacks on traditional values.
  • Race relations are better in the South than in the rest of the nation.
  • The flag “represents the noble effort, of South Carolinians and Southerners generally, to resist the federal government’s unconstitutional efforts to subjugate sovereign states.”

About a month after this letter was distributed, the Christian Action Council, an ecumenical group of clergy, held a vigil at at the state Capitol. In November 1997, Eubanks went to the South Carolina Baptist annual convention with a resolution to defund the CAC.  The convention adopted the resolution and stopped all Baptist support for the CAC.

A year later, Beasley lost his gubernatorial reelection, and many believe his flip-flop on the flag issue was a key part of his loss. In that 1998 election, 264 people gave write-in votes to Eubanks.

In 2000, the state legislature took up the question of the Confederate flag. Days before the debate began, a group called the South Carolina Heritage Coalition organized a pro-flag rally at the state Capitol featuring a 4,000-square-foot Confederate flag. Eubanks served as the public face of the coalition, bringing together at least 6,000 supporters who wanted to keep the Confederate flag flying above the Capitol.

It was during the rally in 2000 that South Carolina State Sen. Arthur Ravenel infamously referred to the NAACP as the “National Association of Retarded People.” He then apologized to retarded people for lumping them in with the NAACP.

Ravenel’s comments became a footnote in the Republican presidential contest. When asked about Ravenel’s comments, then-candidate George W. Bush called the remarks “unfortunate name-calling” and deferred to the senator to decide whether an apology was needed. Shorty thereafter, Alan Keyes challenged Bush in a debate over the comments.

“We’ve got a Republican named Senator Ravenel who has also – among other things in the last couple days — made extremely insulting and derogatory remarks about black Americans, saying in effect that we’re all retarded. Will you join me in repudiating that kind of racial slur?” Keyes asked.

“Yes, I agree with you, Alan,” Bush said.“His comments are out of line, and we should repudiate them.”

Bush did not change his position on the Confederate flag during the campaign. He held to his position that it was up to South Carolina alone to decide whether or not the flag should fly over the Capitol.

Today, Ravenel is known more for a Charleston suspension bridge named in his honor (his efforts secured funding for the bridge). On Sunday afternoon, thousands gathered on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in solidarity with the victims of last week’s shooting. Thousands, including Stephen Colbert, walked hand-in-hand in a “unity chain” across the Ravenel bridge. Ravenel was an independent Senate candidate against incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014. He finished in last place.

The flag was moved from the Capitol dome to its current location on the grounds. Eubanks is now active in Tea Party politics, though it is unclear whether he is still involved in efforts to keep the Confederate flag flying. When The Post tried to reach his office  Tuesday and Wednesday, a receptionist said he would have no comment.

He appeared to tweet about the issue  Monday:

In a talk two years ago, Eubanks reflected on the meaning of slavery and the Civil War.

“I studied slavery. It was not about enslaving a race. … It was not about racism. It was an accepted way of economics throughout the whole world. In fact Islam enslaves more people today than they did then. And the real fault lies with Africa selling their own people to the slave traders. There’s a whole other story.” (YouTube 11:27)

Southern Baptists practice congregational autonomy, so the denomination cannot do anything to discipline a particular church or pastor (other than disfellowshipping them) for particular views.

Tobin Grant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced she supports removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. Here's what you need to know about the history of the flag in the state and what needs to happen to have it removed. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)