Argument by convention messengers over the last-minute addition of a speech by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence shunted discussion of Paige Patterson’s handling of sexual abuse allegations and subsequent firing. And Pence replaced Patterson as the most controversial figure on the schedule at the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas in June.
After his firing by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s trustees executive committee as president emeritus, Paige Patterson eventually withdrew as the scheduled preacher at the convention. Patterson was replaced by the alternate who was elected last year, Austin, Texas pastor Kie Bowman.
Patterson’s firing produced a string of motions and debate, but it was Pence’s appearance that ignited the most argument in the hall and online, and produced a small protest.
Efforts to “uninvite” Pence failed.
Pence told messengers who packed the hall Wednesday, after a lengthy pass through TSA security, that the SBC is “one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.” He shared a brief testimony of coming to Christ 40 years ago, before spending a half hour on the accomplishments of the Trump administration, including recent peace talks with North Korea. Pence received multiple standing ovations and even a few shouts of “four more years.”
Pence asked Baptists to “continue in your calling with renewed energy. Stand and go and speak. Stand in the gap. Because in these too-divided times, I believe that your voice, your compassion, your values, and your ministries are more needed than ever before.”
Most messengers in the hall gave Pence a warm reception, but outside the hall many other Baptists expressed dismay with the content and tone of his message.
“Have mercy on us,” tweeted Paul Cooper, pastor of Marshall Baptist Church in Marshall, Ill. “#SBC18AM just became a political rally. Not the place for election speeches. Nothing wrong with campaigning—but not here.”
North Carolina pastor Clint Pressley tweeted, “I love America. I like Mike Pence. I hate this.”
Newly elected SBC President J.D. Greear posted after Pence’s address, “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention—but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
But others supported the appearance by Pence. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted from a different perspective. “Vice President Mike Pence speaking to SBC! Why do things like this matter? It is good for people in power to know us. We may need them at some point. Also, we need to affirm evangelicals in politics. It is a tough calling.”
On Tuesday, a messenger brought a motion to replace Pence’s address with a time of prayer and reflection. The motion failed, but two other motions made on the floor asked SBC leaders to avoid inviting political figures to address future annual meetings.
Those opposed to Pence’s visit said it could give the appearance that the Convention was endorsing one political party over another, would be disrespectful to minorities who feel the current administration doesn’t represent them, and could put international Baptist workers at risk. A small group opposed to Pence’s appearance gathered in the convention center hallway for prayer.