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The largest Protestant denomination just voted to stop displaying the Confederate flag

A supporter stands at a Confederate flag rally at the South Carolina Statehouse after the Charleston shooting.
A supporter stands at a Confederate flag rally at the South Carolina Statehouse after the Charleston shooting.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

The latest push against the Confederate flag is coming from the pulpit.

On Tuesday, the US Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the country, voted that members stop displaying the Confederate flag.

Black Texas pastor Dwight McKissic proposed the Confederate flag resolution to the SBC in April, to honor the nine black parishioners who were shot and killed at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina; it was passed on the eve of the tragedy’s one-year anniversary.

The SBC was created in 1845 after a group of churches, unwilling to remain neutral on the moral standing of slavery, created their own association that allowed them to both praise God and support the institution.

"The SBC supported the Confederacy and was emotionally and philosophically attached to the Confederacy," McKissic wrote. "The Dylann Roof love affair with the Confederate [flag] and his murdering of nine innocent Black Kingdom-citizens (Christians) has brought this matter back to the forefront."

According to the Washington Post, the SBC leadership was skeptical about how the proposal would be received, but when they brought the resolution the floor, members demonstrated their commitment to the proposal’s ideals. Voters proposed their own changes to the original proposal, eliminating references to family history — one of the reasons used to justify the flag is as a symbol of Southern pride — and called for outright removal rather than limited displays.

"We call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters," said the final draft of the resolution.

The SBC shows Southern heritage needs to recognize black people, too

The SBC joins other Christian institutions that are reconsidering the ties between the flag and the pulpit. Last week, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, announced that it will remove images of the flag on its stained glass windows.

But the vote also demonstrates that evaluating the Confederate flag as either a symbol of Southern roots or an emblem of racism born from the South’s historical ties to slavery is a false dichotomy rooted in erasing the flag's tie to racism.

The flag is inextricably tied to white supremacy. Confederates fought for states’ rights during the Civil War because they wanted the federal government to respect a state’s wish to own slaves. This continued when the rebel flag gained prominence in the 1950s explicitly as a symbol for Southern whites as African Americans gained civil rights advances.

"[The flag] means the Southern cause," Roy Harris, a noted segregationist in Georgia politics, said in 1951. "It is becoming ... the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people."

Over time, this story has been retold as a matter of Southern pride and heritage. But the Charleston shooting showed that was neither innocuous, nor would it suffice, because racism, even in the 21st century, persists.

When investigators looked into Roof’s background, they found he had written an online racist manifesto and was seen in pictures posing with the Confederate flag. Another picture surfaced of Roof wearing a jacket with other racist flags — an homage to apartheid South Africa and the former racist colonial state of Rhodesia that is now contemporary Zimbabwe.

In the wake of the attack at Mother Emanuel, activist Bree Newsome scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse to take down the Confederate flag in protest to the whitewashing of the flag's legacy after the shooting.

"You see, I know my history and my heritage," Newsome said last year. "The Confederacy is neither the only legacy of the south nor an admirable one. The southern heritage I embrace is the legacy of a people unbowed by racial oppression."

Watch Bree Newsome take down the Confederate flag

After Newsome's action sparked massive discussion, states also condemned the flag, removing it from public buildings and license plates in a gesture toward transparency about the painful history woven into the rebel flag. The SBC vote is an attempt to do the same.

But the Charleston shooting and the diversity of the SBC’s membership no longer allows the organization to absolve itself of taking responsibility for its own history.

The network of churches apologized for its position on slavery in 1995. In 2011, the SBC elected Fred Luter, a senior minister from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, as its first black SBC president, and he served from 2012 to 2014. Today, 20 percent of SBC member churches do not have predominantly white congregations.

"As I’ve said before, the Cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire," Russell Moore, the leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a blog post. "Today, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, including many white Anglo southerners, decided the cross was more important than the flag. They decided our African-American brothers and sisters are more important than family heritage."

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