Members of the Southern Baptist Convention voted Wednesday to condemn a white nationalist movement, but only after fierce backlash following their decision a day earlier not to move forward with a similar resolution.
The decision was met with a standing ovation as about 5,000 members of the denomination voted at their annual convention to affirm their opposition to the alt-right movement, which seeks a whites-only state. But it was not a decision easily reached.
Dwight McKissic, a black pastor from Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tex., had introduced the resolution calling on the denomination to make it clear it had no sympathy for the alt-right.
“I saw people identifying themselves as Southern Baptist and members of the alt-right, so this is horrifying to me,” McKissic said. “I wanted the Southern Baptist Convention to make it very clear we have no relationship to them.”
Members had already voted Tuesday to condemn gambling and Planned Parenthood, and they adopted a statement on the importance of public officials who display “consistent moral character.” That resolution also commended “those leaders who choose not to meet privately with members of the opposite sex who are not their spouse,” a group which includes Vice President Pence, who drew attention when he said he doesn’t eat alone with a woman other than his wife.
But when the resolution on the alt-right failed to move forward because of objections to some of the wording, many younger members and evangelicals of color became upset. “I thought it would be a slam dunk, but I misread Southern Baptists apparently,” McKissic said.
Barrett Duke, chairman of the SBC’s resolutions committee, told Religion News Service that the committee’s decision to not bring the resolution forward for a vote on Tuesday was “not an endorsement of the alt-right.” He said the initial resolution did not clearly define who the alt-right is. A call to Duke was not returned.
The debate over the resolution highlights the divisions within the denomination. A majority of white evangelicals supported the election of President Trump. But many evangelicals of color have questioned that support and criticized Trump’s policies as harmful to minorities, if not racist.
While several Southern Baptist leaders have served on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, many younger Southern Baptists — including the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty president Russell Moore, 45 — vocally opposed his candidacy.
When the membership failed to move the vote forward — and Richard Spencer, one of the alt-right’s most vocal proponents, took to Twitter to comment on the decision — the leadership of the convention decided to continue to work through the night and reintroduce the resolution.
The initial text of the resolution called on Southern Baptists to “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system,” which was removed in the final version.
The new text of the resolution noted some of the convention’s previous actions on race, including how Southern Baptists voted in 1995 to apologize for the role that slavery played in the convention’s creation. It noted how in 2012 it elected its first black president. More than 20 percent of Southern Baptist congregations, it says, identifies as predominantly nonwhite.
“Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as ‘white nationalism’ or ‘alt-right,’ ” the resolution states. Southern Baptists “decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and “we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil.”
Moore and Steve Gaines, the president of the SBC, who worked on the revised resolution, declined to comment on the resolution before it came to a vote. But Moore said he was encouraged by the decision to revisit the resolution. “They recognize that white supremacy in this alt-right guise is dangerous and devilish and we need to say something,” Moore said.
McKissic, who wrote the original resolution, declined to speculate over why the committee didn’t bring his proposal forward. He said black Southern Baptists were disappointed by how it was handled, but it became clear on Tuesday that a large number of white Southern Baptists wanted to vote on the resolution.
“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.”
Just before the proposal was passed, one member asked Southern Baptist leaders whether a study of the “alt right and the alt left” could be done this year. But then several Southern Baptists stood before the convention urging the convention to adopt the resolution before it passed.
The Southern Baptist Convention has a long and complicated history on race, one that has recently gotten wrapped up in many Southern Baptists’ support for Trump. Some of the committee members are affiliated with National Religious Broadcasters and First Baptist Church in Dallas, institutions that are seen as friendly to Trump. The committee considering resolutions has 10 members, one of whom is black.
The SBC has made steps to condemn racism in the past, but it still struggles on issues related to race. In April, five white Southern Baptist seminary leaders posted a racially insensitive photo on Twitter with many of them dressed in hoodies and pointing as though they were holding guns. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Barry McCarty, who is chief parliamentarian of the SBC, was shown holding a gun.
H.B. Charles, who was just elected the first black pastor to serve as the president of the next Southern Baptist pastor’s conference in Dallas in June 2018, said Tuesday’s resolution was another example of how the convention still has a long way to go on race.
“If we had fumbled the ball and kept going without addressing this, it would have been damaging for those from the outside looking in, who could’ve concluded that the SBC does not care about matters of race,” Charles said. “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.”
The Southern Baptist Convention of 15.2 million members is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, but its membership is on the decline. Attendance was down nearly 7 percent from the year before and baptisms were down 5 percent. Just 6 percent Americans who identify as Southern Baptist are black, according to the Pew Research Center, and 85 percent are white.
Editor’s note: This report has been updated to reflect the vote.