Conservative Christians are primarily older, whiter and more male than the U.S. population overall. While many faith communities have recognized that as a problem for their future and have made efforts to diversify, their task is made more difficult by their churches' close association with the Republican Party as a whole and President Trump in particular.
More than 8 in 10 white evangelicals backed Trump in the 2016 election, and his approval ratings remain high with the community despite his exhibiting behavior and language that many would say runs counter to their faith.
Nevertheless, many of the priorities championed by the Trump administration, including its stances on abortion and religious liberty, resonate with white evangelicals. Vice President Pence's warm reception at Wednesday's Southern Baptist Convention annual gathering was evidence that many white evangelicals have no plans to turn their backs on the Trump administration.
But other evangelicals expressed frustration with SBC leaders' apparent unwillingness to hear the concerns of those with opposing views.
Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, a Baptist institution, told The Fix that the concerns of people of color go beyond Trump and Pence to their fellow Christians.
“I do think that it's very clear that there are African American pastors and Hispanic pastors and lay people and some women who found the election of Trump painfully dismaying, not only because of the election itself, but because of the way so many white evangelicals rallied around Trump and Pence,” Kidd said. “And so for the SBC to sort of casually invite or receive Pence seems unnecessarily offensive to people who have those kinds of concerns.”
Those who thought Pence was a better alternative for the conference than the president himself are misguided about the vice president's complicity in the president's more offensive comments, said Kyle Howard, a counselor and student at a Southern Baptist seminary.
“Vice President Pence has defended Donald Trump’s comments where he boasted [about] sexual assault,” Howard said, referring to the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump refers to sexual misconduct.
“Pence has also defended Trump’s excuses for white supremacy and other racist rhetoric. … Vice President Pence is Donald Trump’s right-hand man, and so he is culpable in all of this. Pence’s presence, speech and public praise of Trump at the convention was an assault on every resolution the SBC has made concerning their desire for reconciliation with African Americans, women and immigrants, and brings their genuineness into question.”
The SBC is struggling with the aftermath of the ouster of prominent pastor Paige Patterson from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after allegations that he lied about his treatment of a woman who reported that she had been raped and had made demeaning comments about women.
The presence of Pence was tone deaf considering the numerous sexual harassment allegations facing Trump, said Katelyn Beaty, author of “A Woman's Place.” Beaty is an editor at Christianity Today who writes about women’s issues in evangelicalism.
“That the SBC leadership decided to have the vice president speak at this year's convention reveals a blindness if not willful ignorance at how this could be painful for many SBC women and minority leaders,” Beaty said. “Especially in a time when the SBC is reeling from the downfall of one of its most respected leaders for his poor, irresponsible treatment of women, it seems that adding Mike Pence into the mix might simply be unwise discernment.”
The repeated standing ovations Pence received from those in attendance signaled that support among the majority of evangelicals isn't waning. And Pence, perhaps aware of this, thanked those in the audience for their support.
“I know that with your support and prayers, with the strong support of leaders at every level of government, with President Donald Trump in the White House, and with God’s help, we will make America safe again. We will make America prosperous again. And, to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again,” he said to close out his speech.