The Southern Baptist Convention met this week in Phoenix, and the big news was going to be, I thought, how the newest Holman Christian Standard translation of the Bible incorporated more gender-inclusive language. Turns out that that was the least of the SBC’s troubles.
Instead, attention focused on the difficulty that the SBC had passing a resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right. You might think that condemning racism would be an easy decision, but it took a denomination founded to defend slavery an actual century and a half to prioritize racial healing within its organization, so let’s not be pretend to be shocked.
Above, more than two dozen Klansman pose in their robes around the pulpit of an unnamed Baptist (denominational affiliation unknown) church in Portland in 1922. Church leaders join them for the photo.
And, to be far, as anyone who has ever participated in a church convention can likely attest to, making movement on any issue can be hard. Rules abound for how such conversations are to proceed, and while the expressed purpose of rigid processes is to insure fairness and slow down a rush to change, these bureaucratic measures are also a form of violence. As Hannah Arendt writes in On Violence:
Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.
This is as true in federal governments as in meetings of boards of the tiniest churches.
The problem with the resolution condemning white supremacy, it seems, was that the language was too harsh. The original text, posted at the blog of Dwight McKissic, Sr., the black pastor who proposed it, calls on the SBC to “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system; and be finally.”
That was considered overly broad and could apply to Christians who aren’t part of the alt-right.
Yes, that was the problem.
Sure, maybe it is also the case, as Barrett Duke, head of the resolutions committee said, that they didn’t want to pass a resolution that suggested that they hate their enemy, but it’s also clear that they weren’t going to move on this at all until their was a social media backlash against the failure to condemn racism.
But also: the SBC didn’t want to throw out conservative Christians who aren’t part of the alt-right but who might be xenophobic racists trying to roll back civil rights gains. These are fine lines to draw.
To summarize: white Southern Baptists felt that a resolution condemning white supremacy was, as written by a black man, too harsh and might reflect poorly on them as Christians and might alienate white conservatives who actually do oppose civil right but would prefer not to be lumped into the “white supremacist” category.
But, notably, no white people (as far as I know) suggested that the SBC condemn rising white supremacy.
Somehow the silence of whites was less offensive than the leadership of African Americans; not condemning white supremacy at all was less offensive to the principle of “love your enemy” than was the language of the original resolution. The risk of throwing out old fashioned nativists and racists with the alt-right was too high.
A version of the resolution that demanded less of white Southern Baptists passed easily once it got to the vote.
PS. The SBC has lost 1 million members in the last 10 years.