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Southern Baptists debate handling of a #MeToo case and hear a controversial speech from Pence

Vice President Pence spoke at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas on June 13, praising the administration's "500 days of action." (Video: The Washington Post)
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DALLAS — The debate about the treatment of women that has roiled the Southern Baptist Convention came to a head Wednesday at the denomination’s annual meeting.

The group of more than 9,000 delegates who gathered in Dallas debated whether a seminary’s board acted properly in firing the seminary president after a former student of his alleged that he did not report her rape to police.

It was a dramatic conclusion to two months of bitter division over accusations against Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson and two days of a meeting that focused in large part on gender.

The other focal point Wednesday at the meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination was an address by Vice President Pence — a hybrid campaign speech and sermon boasting about the Trump administration’s actions on North Korea negotiations, tax cuts and more.

“Today on behalf of the president, I want to say thank you. Thank you to the Southern Baptist Convention for the essential and irreplaceable role you play in America,” said Pence, who is an evangelical Christian and generally popular in this conservative evangelical denomination. “I’ll make you a promise: This president, this vice president and our administration will always stand with you.”

Many attendees felt that Pence’s speech was overly political. J.D. Greear, the newly elected president of the denomination, reacted immediately after the address. “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention — but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

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But within hours, the focus switched from Pence to Patterson. Patterson became the target of criticism this spring over years of sermons in which he commented on a teenage girl’s figure and women’s physical appearance and advised an abused woman to stay with her husband.

The board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth initially decided, in a marathon meeting that ran into the wee hours of the morning, to demote Patterson to president emeritus but allow him to keep his salary and retire in a house on campus.

Then the accusation that Patterson did not report an alleged 2003 rape when he was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., came to light. That was when the executive committee — not the full board of trustees — fired Patterson outright.

Arkansas pastor Thomas Hatley made a motion at the meeting this week to fire the entire executive committee that fired Patterson. Wayne Dickard, one of the trustees not on the executive committee, argued in favor of Hatley’s motion Wednesday, saying the committee broke its promise to give Patterson a salary and housing. “We gave a man our word. I believe our word should mean something, or else we are shallow in integrity,” he said, arguing for the dismissal of the entire 12-member committee.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke at the AWAKEN Conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 2014. (Video: Hope Church)

Some delegates shared that disappointment over Patterson’s treatment, including Bill Cannon, an Alabama pastor whose daughter is a student at Southwestern. He said Patterson and his wife have seemed welcoming to female students. “We left our baby girl 700 miles away and never worried,” he said. As for the trustees, he said, “I think they were overwhelmed by a Twitter storm.”

But others, including past denomination president Ronnie Floyd and the interim president of the Texas seminary, D. Jeffrey Bingham, stood at the microphone delivering strong defenses of the trustees’ trustworthiness. And one of the executive committee’s members rose to speak, revealing numerous details about Patterson’s interactions with the board.

Bart Barber, the committee member, said that when the board placed a trustee in charge of a financial review last fall, Patterson tried to remove that trustee from office. Then when thousands of women signed a letter denouncing Patterson’s sermons as sexist, Barber said, Patterson released a defiant statement above the objections of the board and refused to meet with board members.

Patterson could not be reached for comment.

In the end, a significant majority of delegates voted against removing the executive committee.

Along the way, one woman who described herself as a pastor’s widow from Shreveport, La., made an emotional comment voicing something many here had expressed — discomfort with the national reckoning on the treatment of women that has made its way into the Southern Baptist Convention. “I think we’ve gotten swept into the hashtag #MeToo. And I am not a ‘me too.’ And I talked to several of the church ladies before I came,” she said. “None of them said that they felt they were less than or abused or assaulted. I believe that is a very small minority . . . . I don’t think it’s our Southern Baptist culture. I’m not scared to walk down the hallways of my church, that I’m going to be accosted or looked down on.”

Aside from gender, the other contentious motions during the two-day meeting dealt mostly with Pence’s talk. Several delegates made motions that Pence’s time slot should be filled instead with prayer or that all politicians should be barred from addressing the annual meeting, but those motions were denied or delayed Tuesday.

While many applauded while Pence spoke — particularly when he spoke about abortion and Israel — others sat with hands folded. Key leaders in the denomination complained afterward that he had focused too much on partisan politics.

Brian Kaylor, a Baptist pastor who is not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and who researches the intersection of politics and religion, said Pence’s heavy focus on praising President Trump was a surprising deviation from previous Republican leaders who have addressed the convention over the years. “It was so over-the-top partisan,” he said.

He said previous Republican presidents and vice presidents addressed political issues and praised their administrations’ successes. “But it’s framed differently,” he said. ” . . . This was all about Trump. Trump is the singular strong leader. Trump is the one doing this or that. I was surprised how strong he came down on the tone.”

Many attendees agreed:

During the speech, when Pence opened with greetings from Trump, the room erupted in applause and one loud shout of, “Four more years!” Pence hit on other topics of interest to the religious audience — the Trump administration’s desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bans tax-exempt churches from campaigning for candidates, and the fight against the Islamic State — and also subjects with less obvious religious aspects. He touted Trump’s tax law and the low unemployment rate, and he began the speech talking at length about the recent meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“While strong American leadership has accomplished much,” Pence concluded in that segment, “[Trump] and I both know that the righteous and fervent prayers . . . can accomplish much more. So let’s all pray. Let’s pray for peace for the Korean people and the world.”

Toward the end of his address, Pence sermonized more, dwelling on the mass shooting last year at a Southern Baptist church in nearby Sutherland Springs, Tex. The faith of the survivors inspired him, Pence said.

He called the Southern Baptist Convention “one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.”

Southern Baptists adopt resolutions on abuse and affairs, in a season of grappling with gender

The conclusion was J.R. DeBusk’s favorite part. “It was a real mix of politics and religion,” the delegate from Arkansas said afterward. “But I thought it ended on a high note.”

Cannon, the Alabama pastor, was pleased with Pence’s talk and thought the vice president shouldn’t have been expected to say anything different. “He’s not a preacher. He’s the vice president,” Cannon said. He recalled speeches by presidents that he said were similar. “Politicians are going to sing their praises of their accomplishments,” he said. “Preachers are going to sing about Jesus.”

Ross McLendon and Sean Wegener, friends who attended the same church in Texas together before McLendon moved to Providence, R.I., and Wegener moved to rural Georgia, reunited at the convention. As they caught up during the lunch break, they realized they had different opinions about Pence.

McLendon skipped the speech. “I think it’s not good basically to have a stump speech. When we center a church around politics and political influence, we’re not centering a church around the gospel,” he said. “There’s a lot of division around the administration that he represents. A lot of that division is related to issues such as race, ethnicity and also gender treatment.”

That’s why he didn’t attend. “It’s in some sense unkind to our brothers and sisters who feel marginalized by that administration to provide that platform here,” McLendon said.

His friend disagreed. Wegener fears that the United States might someday turn its back on religious freedom, and when the administration supports Christians’ religious rights and opposes abortion, he said, Southern Baptists should extend an invitation. “I believe it is good to be hospitable to a government that is hospitable to us,” he said.