Messengers reverse committee action to take a strong stand
The 2017 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will be remembered for actions it took that were not on the agenda—the condemnation of “alt-right racism”—rather than actions involving the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s leadership prompted by unpopular comments about presidential candidate Donald Trump.
One committee’s miscalculation set into motion dramatic actions over the two days of the meeting June 13-14 that drew national attention and emotional response.
The chairman of the 2017 Resolutions Committee, former ERLC Vice-President Barrett Duke, opened his final presentation of a resolution condemning “alt-right racism” with an apology: “We regret and apologize for the pain and confusion we created for you and the watching world when we chose not to report out the resolution on alt-right racism.”
After what the proponent of the original resolution called “a 24-hour roller coaster,” the committee brought for a vote a new statement on racism. Messengers to convention approved it, then gave their action a standing ovation.
“Today is a great day for all Southern Baptists,” said Byron Day, president of the SBC National African American Fellowship of 4,000 churches. “The resolution to denounce racism and white supremacy is in my view the strongest statement to date by the Southern Baptist Convention,” Day said.
How it happened
Dwight McKissic, an African American pastor from Arlington, Texas, first raised the issue of white supremacy and the “alt-right” movement in a resolution he submitted to the committee prior to the convention. But on Tuesday afternoon, the committee declined to present McKissic’s statement in the packet of resolutions offered for messengers’ approval. The committee said they felt his draft was unclear and who it considered racist could be misunderstood.
When the committee action was reported, McKissic objected. He wanted the SBC “to make it very clear that we have no relationship with (the alt-right). I thought it would be a slam dunk,” he said.
Two subsequent votes to bring the statement out of the committee failed to get a required two-thirds majority. But the floor discussion by messengers was so emotionally heightened that the resolutions committee began to rethink its position.
Although the vote to bring McKissic’s statement to the floor received only 58% of the vote, it was clear to committee chair Duke and others that a resolution of some kind was needed. They began a writing session that lasted until two o’clock in the morning, Duke said, drafting a statement to clearly condemn “alt-right racism.”
The Twitter effect
“We were certainly aware that there was a public discussion,” Duke said of the social media posts that questioned Southern Baptists’ position on racism early in the debate, when first efforts to bring a motion failed. “We were aware that this was a conversation that was taking place not only within Southern Baptist life, but outside Southern Baptist life—and that concerned us.
“We certainly don’t want a watching world to think that we harbor or sympathize with those absolutely vicious forms of racism represented in alt-right ideology,” Duke said. “We don’t.”
The “watching world” was brought to the convention’s attention in live time—during debate—when a messenger pleaded for McKissic’s statement to be brought for a vote. Southern Baptists were being characterized as racists in the Twitterverse, he said.
Another messenger urged President Steve Gaines to explain where Southern Baptists stand on the issue of race. Gaines, who because of the denomination’s polity and autonomy does not speak for all Southern Baptists any more than any other pastor, responded with his own church’s deep investment in race relations and ministry to ethnic peoples in racially troubled Memphis. “There is no white race, or black race—only the human race,” he said, declaring God’s love for everyone.
In the late-night writing process, the resolution went through ten editions, Duke said, “but we were glad to do it…. We believe we carried the heart of what Bro. McKissic wanted to do into the heart of this resolution,” Duke said, although not much of the actual language McKissic first submitted was included. The new resolution reviewed previous SBC actions on racism, including a 1995 resolution repudiating the role of slavery in the denomination’s founding and the more recent election of Fred Luter as the SBC’s first African American president.
And at the SBC Pastors Conference a day before the alt-right racism debate, African American pasor H.B. Charles was elected at Pastors Conference President. Charles, from Jacksonville, Florida, told the Washington Post, “I’m glad we picked up the fumble…It could have had a really bad effect on our witness.”
McKissic was in the audience at a news conference following the final vote. Afterward, Duke expressed a personal apology, and the men shook hands. “I’m glad things have developed as they have, for the kingdom of God’s sake. I think we’re back to a good place after a 24-hour roller coaster ride.” Although he was not pleased with the process, McKissic called the vote “a courageous stand.”