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At a historic meeting, Southern Baptists may consider opposing Confederate flag

Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, speaks at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on June 14, 2015. (Paul W. Lee, courtesy of Baptist Press/RNS)

Such a simple gesture shouldn’t have been remarkable in the least: When Dr. Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, heard that Dr. Jerry Young would be the next president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the head of the nation’s largest evangelical denomination wrote his new counterpart in the nation’s largest historically black denomination a brief congratulatory note.

The aftermath of that note was resounding, echoing with the fraught racial history of the Southern Baptist Convention. And on Tuesday, Floyd and Young will share the stage — the first time the leader of the black Baptists has been invited to address the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting in at least 35 years, the Southern Baptists say.

At the same annual meeting, attendees may have the chance to vote on whether the Southern Baptists should take an official stance against the Confederate battle flag, which has been coming down from statehouses as well as churchyards in the contentious year since nine black churchgoers were killed in Charleston, S.C., last June by a white man, Dylann Roof.

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“We’re gonna dialogue,” Floyd said on Monday night, “about the whole racial issues of the country and how we come together. Because we believe the answer is in the church. We believe government can only do so much. We want it doing all it can, but the ultimate answer is in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest faith group in America behind only the Catholic church, is meeting in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday. There, attendees will consider a slate of resolutions which will be announced Tuesday morning.

One option submitted to the committee that determines which resolutions make it to the floor: the statement calling for the removal of all Confederate battle flags.

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The Southern Baptist Convention is linked from its origin with the history of the Confederacy and of race in America, as Dwight McKissic, the black Texas pastor who proposed the Confederate flag resolution, pointed out in blog posts. The denomination was founded in Georgia in 1845 by Baptists who split from the northern Baptist church because they disagreed with its anti-slavery positions.

The church has acknowledged its ugly past and apologized to African-Americans in previous resolutions, and it elected a black president in 2012.

Still, McKissic wrote, rejecting the Confederate flag would help mend the still-raw wounds of the denomination’s history.

“The SBC supported the Confederacy and was emotionally and philosophically attached to the Confederacy,” McKissic wrote. “The Dylan Roof love affair with the Confederate [flag] and his murdering of nine innocent Black Kingdom-citizens (Christians) has brought this matter back to the forefront. The SBC has an opportunity to get it right this time. Blanket apologies, and broad, generic repudiation of racism does not suffice.”

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Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical thinker who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has called for the removal of Confederate flags.

Some Southern Baptists are already opposed to McKissic’s resolution. Almost every commenter on his website disagreed with it, with comments including:

  • “As a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, part of my obligations and duty is to place Confederate flags on graves of Confederate soldiers every April. If this resolution is passed, SBC churches whose cemeteries include Confederate graves will forbid this sacred honor to American Veterans.”
  • “To suggest the banishment of the Confederate flag, is misled and continuing a sad purge on our history. For many, especially southerners, the flag represents the bravery of those who fought to defend their homes, independence, smaller government, and southern identity.”
  • “If this resolution passes, the SBC will never get another dime of mine. No offerings, no support for fund raises and no attendance. Period…. I could give many historical examples of why the South was right in seeding from a tyrannical government.”
  • “I will leave the Convention if this is pursued, and I have been in SBC churches FROM A BED BABY! … I am the Daughter of some 34 Confederate veterans and the niece of some 120. NONE OF WHICH HAD SLAVES.”

And Floyd, the president of the denomination, refused to predict whether voters at the annual meeting would support McKissic’s resolution, or whether it would even make it to the floor to be debated.

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Floyd instead touted his invitation to Young, the black Baptist leader, to speak at the annual meeting. The two men first met soon after Floyd’s congratulatory note to Young when both were invited to speak at a church in Jackson, Miss., and a Mississippi nonprofit focused on racial reconciliation.

“The Lord opened up some doors in our relationship. Neither one of us knew one another, but it’s been incredible.”

Floyd said race has been high on his agenda since Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. He noted that his denomination has been encouraging churches across the country to join the Southern Baptist Convention — including predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian congregations that were not previously affiliated with the Southern Baptists.

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In an annual survey, the Southern Baptist Convention asks its member churches what the predominant race of their congregants is, Floyd said. More than 20 percent are not predominantly white, he said — including more than 50 percent of churches established in the past year. “If we’re going to be able to reach America with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’ve got to plant not only Anglo churches,” he said.

Churches with racially diverse memberships are rarer, Floyd acknowledged.

Floyd said he was speaking separately to groups of Hispanic, Asian, and African-American pastors leading up to the general meeting on Tuesday.

“After the Ferguson, Missouri, situation two years ago, I got real burdened about that situation,” Floyd said. “I just finally decided we’ve got to really get after this and talk about this and deal with this.”

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