Before wagging self-righteous fingers at the Southern Baptist Convention for nearly failing to pass a no-brainer resolution denouncing the “alt-right,” we should consider carefully whether we are worthy of casting the first stone.
The story has been headline news for several days now: Texas pastor Dwight McKissic presented a resolution at the SBC annual meeting denouncing white supremacy, white nationalism and the “alt-right” movement as a “toxic menace” perpetuated by “violent disciples.” The SBC resolutions committee declined to present the resolution to convention messengers for a vote. The backlash from that decision was so profound that convention leaders took the extraordinary step of coming back the next day with a substitute resolution, which was adopted without apparent opposition.
Initial news reports out of the convention in Phoenix portrayed the failure of the resolutions committee as yet another indicator of the SBC’s inability to move past its founding sin of racism. And let’s be clear here: The initial failure was on the part of the resolutions committee, not the convention as a whole. But let’s also be clear that the second and third failures were committed by convention messengers who voted down McKissic’s appeal to bring his resolution directly to the floor.
The result? A public relations nightmare. Soon, white nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted approval of the SBC’s non-action on white supremacy. Black pastors, lay leaders and convention employees rallied in disbelief.
Speaking as someone who attended SBC annual meetings and reported on SBC matters for two decades, as someone who knows the inner workings of the machine, it seems obvious that this self-inflicted wound could have been avoided. But I also understand why it spun out of control.
McKissic, while well-intentioned, entered the fray with a reputation for sparking controversy. He has set off previous altercations with both the SBC and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, usually in an attempt to be provocative. And the 543-word resolution he presented to the SBC committee this year bore marks of such provocation. It should not be surprising that the resolutions committee did not want to forward McKissic’s potentially inflammatory language.
And that’s where the first failure of leadership occurred. In SBC life, the resolutions committee is not just a gatekeeper of ideas proposed by others; the committee has the authority to propose its own resolutions or to take submitted resolutions and rework them. If the committee didn’t like McKissic’s language, it should have realized the gravity of the moment and offered some different language — what it ultimately did after creating a firestorm first.
The question then becomes, “Why?” Why was the resolutions committee so blind to current cultural and political realities that it thought no one would protest setting aside McKissic’s resolution? Did they not know the Texas pastor’s history and reputation as a theological street fighter? Did they think no one would notice? Were they afraid of messengers thinking a denouncement of white nationalism might be construed as a denouncement of Donald Trump, who was elected with support from the “alt-right” as well as a likely majority of SBC messengers? Or did they just not understand the situation at all?
Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told Christianity Today that ignorance was a factor. “There were a lot of people who just weren’t familiar with what the alt-right is. And then there were others who assumed the alt-right was just a fringy group of people that they didn’t want to dignify by even mentioning them,” he said.
If messengers had been better educated, they would have known what to do more readily, he said: “When people recognize what it is that the alt-right believes, I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t immediately reject that.”
But there also was perhaps fear that McKissic’s resolution would spill over to label as “racists” people who don’t want to be called that, Ed Stetzer told Christianity Today. “It is, in part, a concern that alt-right will be a label applied to non-racist conservatives who, for example, simply voted for Donald Trump,” said Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College and a former SBC denominational leader. “However, I think that concern is past its time — the alt-right is the Klan without the robes, and Southern Baptists need to speak up on it.”
So let’s review: A fear of being wrongly labeled as “racists” caused leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention to be labeled as ignorant racists.
Again, before we smugly say, “That’s right,” let’s take a look in the mirror.
The first ingredient in the SBC’s problem was indeed ignorance. “Alt-right” is a relatively new term, and likely few Southern Baptist churches have talked or taught about it. Sadly, few Southern Baptist churches are likely to have preached against racism in all forms either, preferring to take the path of silence rather than foster meaningful dialogue that leads to understanding. So what are the difficult issues your congregation avoids for fear they are too divisive even to study or discuss? If you can think of even one such issue, put down that stone you’re ready to throw.
The second ingredient in the SBC’s problem was a fear of offending the political sensibilities of some in the room. There’s no denying that Donald Trump has coalesced a base of overwhelmingly white male voters, staffers and political appointees. And there’s no denying that Trump never has denounced the support he has received from white nationalists and other racist groups. Rather than owning up to that reality or seeking to call for more inclusion in the Trump administration, evangelical church folk are prone to label anyone who points out these inconvenient facts as “liberals” or “anti-Trump.” So, what are the effects of America’s current political divide that cause your church not to fully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ? If you can think of even one such accommodation you or your church have made, put down that stone you’re ready to throw.
The final ingredient in the SBC’s problem was a lack of leadership. Had the resolutions committee been wise enough to seek a third way and draft its own resolution on race, we likely would not have read about any of this in the national news. But it appears that no one was able or willing to offer creative leadership to nip this tempest while it was still in the teapot. So where’s the leadership in your faith community, and would you allow such leadership to function if they tried? If you can think of even one such barrier to creative leadership, put down that stone you’re ready to throw.
It’s easy for people like me — who have left behind the SBC for more progressive expressions of Christian theology and practice — to look at what happened in Phoenix last week and say, “There they go again; I’m so glad I’m not like them.” But in reality, most of us are like them. We just haven’t been caught.