The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is shown in Nashville (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention struggled to denounce white nationalism at their annual gathering in Phoenix this week. The nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which was founded in 1845 over the issue of slavery and whose leaders once championed segregation and Jim Crow laws, has made significant strides in recent years to reform its image on such matters. But when it comes to the denomination’s race relations, the past is a ghost whose haunting seems unending.

The most recent problem began when Dwight McKissic, a prominent black Southern Baptist pastor, grew alarmed that white nationalist ideologies were gaining prominence in the U.S., even among some of his denominational colleagues. Rather than sit idly by, he drafted the “Resolution on the Condemnation of the ‘Alt-Right’ Movement and the Roots of White Supremacy” for consideration at the Phoenix meeting. The alt-right is a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.

“I believed this resolution would be a slam-dunk and a no-brainer. I was hopeful that we’d turned a corner on issues of racism,” McKissic said. “But I was in for a rude awakening.”

The resolutions committee declined to approve the resolution. The chairman of that committee, Barrett Duke, reportedly said the reason for the rejection was that the resolution “contained some significantly inflammatory language that we felt was over the bar.”

Indeed, the resolution did not mince words, calling the alt-right a “toxic menace” and urging the denomination to repudiate its “totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.”

But the committee’s reasoning still seems specious. The Southern Baptist Convention has never shied away from expressing strong opinions about political and theological matters. In 2008, for example, the denomination did not hesitate to pass a resolution denouncing Planned Parenthood, calling for the government to defund the organization, and suggesting that the group was guilty of “murder[ing] the innocent.” Southern Baptists then did not object to using inflammatory language regarding a divisive issue. So why are they hesitant when it comes to white nationalism?

McKissic went to the floor of the convention center to introduce a motion for reconsideration, but the motion failed. This unleashed an outpouring of protests from Southern Baptist leaders, particularly from African Americans. The chaos pressured leaders to move toward a vote on the resolution, and it passed on Wednesday. But the damage has been done.

Fred Luter Jr., a New Orleans pastor and civic leader, gives the final message of the two-day Pastors’ Conference at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 18, 2012, in New Orleans.

From a public relations viewpoint, this is exactly the opposite of what the denomination needed. Leaders have worked hard to move beyond their racist past and increase denominational diversity. In 1995, they officially apologized for condoning and perpetuating racism in their past.

In recent years, they have sought to incorporate more African Americans into leadership, including electing Louisiana pastor Fred Luter Jr. as the first black SBC president in 2012. Next year, the denomination’s public policy arm will host a racial reconciliation conference in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

But despite these efforts to mend race relations, Southern Baptists can’t seem to win for losing. In 2011, they considered changing their name in part to help the group open a new chapter untethered from their racist past. The name-change effort failed and Southern Baptists instead approved an optional alternate name: “Great Commission Baptists.” To date, very few churches if any are using the new label.

Richard Land, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, testifies July 14, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In 2012, the same year that Luter was elected, Southern Baptists’ chief lobbyist, Richard Land, incited controversy by saying on his radio show that it was “understandable” for white people to see young black men as threatening since they are “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” In the same segment, he called African American leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “race mongers” and “racial ambulance chasers.” Land was formally reprimanded and eventually resigned, but the denomination did not immediately fire him over his comments.

At their annual gathering last year, Southern Baptists considered a motion renouncing the display of the Confederate flag. As with this year’s white nationalism resolution, it was met with fierce opposition from white Southern Baptists who celebrate their Southern heritage and find the symbol to be meaningful. After spirited debate, the resolution passed.

Luter rotated out as SBC president in 2014, and the convention elected another white man as its leader. To date, no major Southern Baptist agency is led by someone who is black. The SBC’s Executive Committee, which is a centralized governing board, has only one black member out of more than 60 potential positions.

So this year’s Southern Baptist Convention is, in the words of the late Yogi Berra, “like deja vu all over again.” Another effort to denounce racist ideologies and symbols, another wave of resistance from white leaders.

Right now, Southern Baptists are their own worst enemies, making strides and stepping backward by turns. Rather than reacting to the moment, leaders need to figure out how to get in front of these debates and lead prophetically and proactively.

“African American leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention are totally disheartened at this point,” McKissic told me. “I had to encourage others not to jump ship yesterday, reminding them that things are a lot better than they were in the 1950s when the first black churches began joining the denomination.”

When it comes to racial justice, the 1950s is a pretty low bar. Southern Baptists need a quantum leap into the 21st century if they hope to thrive in an era where racial tensions are strained and social awareness of such issues is high. If they don’t make this jump quickly, they’ll find themselves wrestling as much with race as their own irrelevance in the years to come.

Jonathan Merritt is a writer for The Atlantic, senior columnist for Religion News Service, and author of “Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined.”

This piece has been updated to reflect that the resolution passed.