The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Dallas this week. The two-day conference featured religious speakers from across the country, but the two that elicited the largest response were not pastors but politicians: Vice President Pence and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.).
Both Abbott and Pence used their time to their political advantage. Abbott began Tuesday morning with stories of faith and service, only to transition to culture-wars rhetoric: an invective against the secularist “onslaught against religious liberty” by “sacrilegious” atheists intent on removing the Ten Commandments, declaring war on Christmas and elevating political correctness over “God’s truth and righteousness.”
Pence followed up Wednesday with a triumphant policy speech, highlighting President Trump’s victories in national security, economic growth and the “most precious freedoms” of religious liberty and life. He ended his speech with Trump’s catchphrase: “Make America great again.”
By inviting politicians such as Abbott and Pence to speak, the Southern Baptist Convention has done a great disservice to the evangelical cause. Such invitations are not without precedent. Presidents and politicians — including Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ted Kennedy and George McGovern — have regularly spoken at SBC meetings. But by continuing to welcome political guests such as Pence, whose message is primarily partisan, the SBC is delaying an institutional reckoning that the largest Protestant body in the United States desperately needs, in favor of a political rally.
Generations of American pastors have historically warned of the perils of courting politicians, seeing a pattern of partisanship as detrimental, or even antithetical, to their ministry. Many of those who engaged politically did so with deep qualms, and sometimes regret.
Samuel Miller, who served as a Presbyterian pastor in New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was enamored with politics as a young man. Despite claiming that he was no “pulpit politician,” Miller consistently tried to ingratiate himself with prominent politicians such as George Washington, John Jay and John Adams. He was particularly fond of Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to a friend in December 1800, just a month after Jefferson’s election to the presidency, Miller bridled at those who questioned his support of a candidate many Christians believed to be an atheistic infidel: “I think myself perfectly consistent in saying that I had much rather have Mr. Jefferson President of the United States than an aristocratic Christian [John Adams].”
But Miller cautioned ministers against the “strange” choice of making religion “an engine of party” when they “ought to be its wise, prudent, and wary defenders.” Those seeds of doubt matured into full-grown trees of regret in his later years. He turned on Jefferson, whom he denounced in the 1830s as “one of the meanest and basest of men.” Indeed, Miller renounced his courtship of politicians and politics in general, which did “injury to my ministry.” Echoing Washington’s farewell address of 1796, he recommended that pastors avoid such “unnecessary political entanglements and alienations.”
A century and a half later, the Rev. Billy Graham likewise pursued a path of political courtship, becoming widely known as a pastor to all presidents from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. Yet politics would later become a keen source of regret for the pastor, especially his relationship with Nixon, whom he informally advised for several years.
In May 1970, Graham invited Nixon to address the crowd at his evangelistic crusade at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. At the time, Nixon was desperate for ways to drum up camera-ready support from his silent majority. Historian Kevin Kruse notes that the Knoxville Crusade was a perfect opportunity: a rally in friendly territory, within “the protective bubble” of the Graham crusade and in a town that made disrupting a religious service a criminal offense. When Nixon spoke to the religious gathering of approximately 100,000 people, some attendees booed and heckled, but the vast majority of the crowd cheered, drowning out all protest.
And yet that close partnership came with a price. In August 1974, Graham, like the rest of the country, had to come to grips with the Watergate scandal, which left him both devastated and jaded. After that, Graham tried, with mixed success, to avoid the overt partisanship he had previously displayed. In 2011, at age 92, Graham admitted in an interview with journalist Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Christianity Today that he wished he “would have steered clear of politics. … [L]ooking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Like the Revs. Miller and Graham, the Southern Baptist Convention appears to be at a crossroads in its relationship with politics.
On one hand, some of the body’s new leadership — including newly elected president J. D. Greear — seem to eschew political partisanship and express genuine concern about major social issues which have direct bearing upon the SBC, including the #MeToo movement. And in fact, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recently fired its president, Paige Patterson, for demeaning actions toward women and for allegedly encouraging a female student to not report her rape to police. The convention has also addressed matters of racial harmony and justice, recently calling for churches to take down Confederate flags and denouncing the alt-right, a white nationalist movement.
On the other hand, other prominent Baptist pastors and leaders — such as Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University — have made names for themselves in the national media not primarily as spiritual leaders but as what historian John Fea calls “court evangelicals” — those who defend President Trump and promote his political agenda, even at the expense of their prophetic voice. In doing so, these Baptist leaders continue a decades-long courtship of political power by aligning with the Republican Party, a relationship that has yielded dubious results for the causes Baptists profess to care so deeply about, particularly the antiabortion and religious liberty movements.
The Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t need Mike Pence, Greg Abbott or any other politician to laud their contributions to the “moral fabric of our nation.” They need to deal with a history steeped in racism, and continue down the long road toward racial reconciliation. They need to address the troubling pattern of sexual harassment and abuse within their ranks. They need to heed the words of a regretful Billy Graham, who called himself “naive” for believing that politicians wouldn’t use him to serve “political ends.” They need to wake up, because politicians in the White House and the governor’s mansion are using them.