81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Now one of their biggest blocs has just condemned the alt-right.
When it comes to mainstream media coverage of religion, “evangelical Protestants” and “social justice movements” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. But today in Phoenix, representatives of the second-largest religious group in America, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — after two fraught days of internal debate — seemingly unanimously passed a fraught resolution condemning the alt-right and “all forms of racism.”
From the outside, this might seem like a stunning about-face for the SBC. After all, white evangelicals famously voted four to one to put Donald Trump in the White House.
But the tensions in play during the SBC annual meeting this week — tensions that transcend the fact of the resolution itself — tell a far more complicated story about age, race, and the changing face of religious leadership in evangelical America.
This year’s meeting involved a resolution condemning the alt-right — and a bureaucratic nightmare
As the first meeting since Donald Trump’s inauguration, this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention — especially with the presence of controversial SBC figurehead and sometime Trump opponent Russell Moore (more on him below) — was always going to be politically tricky to navigate. But a non-binding resolution proposed by Texas pastor William Dwight McKissic thrust the SBC’s divisions into the spotlight.
McKissic asked the SBC to affirm as a body that “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing … toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right,’ must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.”
On Tuesday, the resolution — which had been sent to the resolutions committee months prior — died in committee before being put to a public vote, on the formal grounds that the wording used was unclear and could lead to confusion. (In a later interview with the Atlantic’s Emma Green, the committee’s chair, Barrett Duke, said “We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love.”)
Attendee David Gass, pastor at the Grace Family Fellowship in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and a supporter of McKissic’s resolution, said that supporters of the resolution found such an explanation inadequate; in the past, he said, it wasn’t unusual for the resolution committee to work closely with members on ambiguous or unclear messaging before making the decision to throw it out. A floor vote to bring the resolution to the floor anyway, which would have required a two-thirds majority, failed.
Messengers’ reactions to the committee’s decision, both on Twitter and in person, was swift, immediate, and strong. Almost immediately, “messengers” (church representatives present at the conference), began lobbying for the chance for SBC messengers to weigh in publicly: Gass and others immediately convened to start working on an amended form of the resolution, while, according to Gass, “big names” worked in parallel behind the scenes (Gass declined to name them publicly, saying only that it was “big names … who you’d see onstage”).
Moore himself took a strong position, with his public stance indicating that he may well have been one of those “big names” in question. He tweeted last night, “Racial unity and justice is a hill on which to die. If you’re at #SBC17, get in the convention hall and stay till last gavel” and calling racial injustice “satanism.” (Earlier today, he condemned the alt-right even more directly, tweeting: “The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so..”)
After hours of debate and discussion, as well as varied floor votes on the issue, Dr. Steve Gaines, the SBC president, took the stage with strong words. The resolutions committee had unanimously decided to revisit the matter and hold a vote, subject to a floor affirmation by the messengers, which passed.
Yet no less significant than the vote itself was the language Gaines used to frame it. He referred to the alt-right using even stronger language than the original resolution had used, terming them the “anti-gospel alt-right white supremacists.”
That language, however, was mild compared to the blistering tone of Tuesday afternoon. Barrett Duke, chair of the 2017 resolutions committee, apologized unreservedly on behalf of the committee — both to the SBC messengers and “the watching world” for throwing out the original motion, referring to racism as “abhorrent” and to the alt-right in particular as “particularly vicious.”
A proposed amendment from the floor — from Georgia messenger David Mills — motioning for a report on the alt-left in addition to the alt-right for the 2018 meeting was met with stony silence, and immediately rejected on procedural grounds. Meanwhile, Russell Moore, speaking not from the stage but from the floor like other messengers, excoriated the alt-right in his strongest rhetoric yet: the resolution’s formal number in the docket was #10, he said, “but white supremacy also has a number on it: 666”: the number associated in Christian tradition with the devil.
According to Missouri pastor James K. Forbis, who attended the meeting, the vote, taken by a show of ballots, was unanimous. “I am once again proud to be a Southern Baptist because we have put one more nail now in the coffin of racism,” Forbis told Vox. “We have condemned the satanic cult of the alt-right and have told the world how Christians do act, not just Southern Baptist, but all true Christians denounce all forms of racism, white supremacy, and every kind of form of ethnic hatred. This is a historic moment and I am proud to have voted on this resolution.”
Still, Forbis warned against the SBC resting on its laurels. As Southern Baptist we cannot assume a posture of patting ourselves on the back, but continue the conversation. We must continue our efforts and continue to reconcile with one another and stand in spiritual unity around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”