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What a unanimous Southern Baptist condemnation of the alt-right says about evangelicals in America

81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Now one of their biggest blocs has just condemned the alt-right.

A group of concerned pastors deliberates and prays over the alt-right resolution at SBC 2017
A group of concerned pastors deliberates and prays over the alt-right resolution at SBC 2017
Dave Gass

When it comes to mainstream media coverage of religion, “evangelical Protestants” and “social justice movements” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. But today in Phoenix, representatives of the second-largest religious group in America, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — after two fraught days of internal debate — seemingly unanimously passed a fraught resolution condemning the alt-right and “all forms of racism.”

From the outside, this might seem like a stunning about-face for the SBC. After all, white evangelicals famously voted four to one to put Donald Trump in the White House.

But the tensions in play during the SBC annual meeting this week — tensions that transcend the fact of the resolution itself — tell a far more complicated story about age, race, and the changing face of religious leadership in evangelical America.

This year’s meeting involved a resolution condemning the alt-right — and a bureaucratic nightmare

As the first meeting since Donald Trump’s inauguration, this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention — especially with the presence of controversial SBC figurehead and sometime Trump opponent Russell Moore (more on him below) — was always going to be politically tricky to navigate. But a non-binding resolution proposed by Texas pastor William Dwight McKissic thrust the SBC’s divisions into the spotlight.

McKissic asked the SBC to affirm as a body that “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing … toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right,’ must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.”

On Tuesday, the resolution — which had been sent to the resolutions committee months prior — died in committee before being put to a public vote, on the formal grounds that the wording used was unclear and could lead to confusion. (In a later interview with the Atlantic’s Emma Green, the committee’s chair, Barrett Duke, said “We just weren’t certain we could craft a resolution that would enable us to measure our strong convictions with the grace of love.”)

Attendee David Gass, pastor at the Grace Family Fellowship in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and a supporter of McKissic’s resolution, said that supporters of the resolution found such an explanation inadequate; in the past, he said, it wasn’t unusual for the resolution committee to work closely with members on ambiguous or unclear messaging before making the decision to throw it out. A floor vote to bring the resolution to the floor anyway, which would have required a two-thirds majority, failed.

Messengers’ reactions to the committee’s decision, both on Twitter and in person, was swift, immediate, and strong. Almost immediately, “messengers” (church representatives present at the conference), began lobbying for the chance for SBC messengers to weigh in publicly: Gass and others immediately convened to start working on an amended form of the resolution, while, according to Gass, “big names” worked in parallel behind the scenes (Gass declined to name them publicly, saying only that it was “big names ... who you’d see onstage”).

Moore himself took a strong position, with his public stance indicating that he may well have been one of those “big names” in question. He tweeted last night, “Racial unity and justice is a hill on which to die. If you're at #SBC17, get in the convention hall and stay till last gavel” and calling racial injustice “satanism.” (Earlier today, he condemned the alt-right even more directly, tweeting: “The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so..”)

After hours of debate and discussion, as well as varied floor votes on the issue, Dr. Steve Gaines, the SBC president, took the stage with strong words. The resolutions committee had unanimously decided to revisit the matter and hold a vote, subject to a floor affirmation by the messengers, which passed.

Yet no less significant than the vote itself was the language Gaines used to frame it. He referred to the alt-right using even stronger language than the original resolution had used, terming them the “anti-gospel alt-right white supremacists.”

That language, however, was mild compared to the blistering tone of Tuesday afternoon. Barrett Duke, chair of the 2017 resolutions committee, apologized unreservedly on behalf of the committee — both to the SBC messengers and “the watching world” for throwing out the original motion, referring to racism as “abhorrent” and to the alt-right in particular as “particularly vicious.”

A proposed amendment from the floor — from Georgia messenger David Mills — motioning for a report on the alt-left in addition to the alt-right for the 2018 meeting was met with stony silence, and immediately rejected on procedural grounds. Meanwhile, Russell Moore, speaking not from the stage but from the floor like other messengers, excoriated the alt-right in his strongest rhetoric yet: the resolution’s formal number in the docket was #10, he said, “but white supremacy also has a number on it: 666”: the number associated in Christian tradition with the devil.

According to Missouri pastor James K. Forbis, who attended the meeting, the vote, taken by a show of ballots, was unanimous. "I am once again proud to be a Southern Baptist because we have put one more nail now in the coffin of racism,” Forbis told Vox. “We have condemned the satanic cult of the alt-right and have told the world how Christians do act, not just Southern Baptist, but all true Christians denounce all forms of racism, white supremacy, and every kind of form of ethnic hatred. This is a historic moment and I am proud to have voted on this resolution."

Still, Forbis warned against the SBC resting on its laurels. As Southern Baptist we cannot assume a posture of patting ourselves on the back, but continue the conversation. We must continue our efforts and continue to reconcile with one another and stand in spiritual unity around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

That said, some members of the SBC remain dubious, seeing a vocal condemnation of the alt-right as an unwelcome incursion of contemporary partisan identity politics onto an eternal faith.

Kelly Finley Nebiolini, a lawyer from California and lifelong SBC member, expressed concern before the final vote about the “marginalization of groups based on whatever criteria is fashionable [at] the moment. Today it’s the alt-right ... tomorrow it’s the alt-left. ... This is fluid, subjective postmodernism at its worst. In the meantime, people are alienated from the gospel. If SBC wants to say that racism is a sin, then I say good. Say it. But don't call out the sinner.” She opposes the resolution, and says she may not be a member of the SBC much longer; she’s strongly considering leaving traditional church life all together and participating in a “home church.”

The SBC is an umbrella organization, not a single “church,” but its resolutions are still symbolically important — and echo the voices of its changing demographic

Unlike some denominations of Christianity (say, Roman Catholicism) the SBC is emphatically not a single church. Rather, it functions as an umbrella organization for a number of autonomously run Protestant churches that identify as Southern Baptist. Today, Southern Baptists can be found all over America and the world, and with 15 million American members, it’s the second-largest religious body in the country, right after the Catholic Church.

Because of the emphasis on autonomy in the Southern Baptist tradition, there is no single leader or body with full authority over all Baptist churches. There is, however, a looser organization in the form of the SBC, which takes donations from churches under its “umbrella” and administers finances, and which also may vote on non-binding resolutions (like this one on the alt-right) that function as generally accepted statements of faith or values.

SBC representatives meet every June to elect a president, attend to bureaucratic business, pass resolutions, and more. While each church is run autonomously on a parochial level, and the SBC doesn’t necessarily speak for all its members, the stances it takes publicly can be enormously symbolically important for many Baptists.

SBC members have historically been white, non-immigrant, and politically conservative, but in recent years, the demographics of member churches have shifted. According to the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, half of the SBC’s new churches are non-white. In recent years, a generational divide between older pastors and members — many of whom identified strongly with the Republican establishment — and the Convention’s younger and more politically independent wing, has been the topic of much internal discussion and controversy. The overwhelming support for the alt-right resolution, therefore, represents a powerful developing voice in SBC politics.

Their most public leadership figure already represents a sometimes-controversial challenge to stereotypes of “red” and “blue” religious America.

The president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), charged with engaging with questions of culture and policy, is Russell Moore, a pastor and former dean at the Southern Baptist Theology Seminary. He’s known for advocating more-robust, less-partisan cultural engagement among Christians. In his book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, he decries the “red-blue” divide in politics and the localized, partisan nature of the way Christians engage with faith.

“The Bible Belt is teetering toward collapse,” he says, “and I say let it fall.” His own policies reflect this philosophy: while Moore is — like the vast majority of evangelical Christians — fiercely pro-life, his public stances on prison reform and climate change are more in line with what we typically consider leftist outlooks.

Moore’s priority is ultimately a vision of Christianity that, while theologically conservative, focuses on culture and interpersonal engagement, rather than what he calls a “siege mentality”: a vision that requires him to walk an often-fine line between disparate communities and ideologies.

During his time at the ERLC, he led an outreach event connecting LGBTQ and SBC community leaders. Although Moore’s stance on homosexuality reflected the wider SBC belief that gay sex is a sin, his outreach focused on how best to ensure LGBTQ teens in Christian families maintained links to their home and community, and how Christian churches could welcome its gay members without condoning what he saw as sinful actions.

Still, for some in the SBC fold, this was seen as a dangerous step toward political correctness.

Moore’s desire to move beyond partisan lines on hot-button issues also manifested itself in his decision to have the ERLC join other varied faith groups in filing an amicus brief in defense of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who sued the township for the right to build a mosque on religious liberty grounds.

This, too, proved controversial. At last year’s SBC annual meeting, a church “messenger” called for a formal motion to fire anyone supporting the building of mosques, while another proposed a (non-binding) resolution to remove the ERLC’s name from the amicus brief on the grounds that “God's Word, the Holy Bible, states not to be unequally yoked to an unbeliever.” Both motions were ruled out of order on technical grounds.

However, the biggest controversy of Moore’s career to date has been his pugnacious approach to Donald Trump. In May 2016, when Trump was the clear front-runner in the Republican primaries, Moore (who’s also vocal on Twitter) published a blistering op-ed in the New York Times, decrying not just Trump himself but the whole culture of racism and white nostalgia he saw as endemic in white evangelical Christianity.

“This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country,” he wrote. “The thriving churches of American Christianity are multigenerational, theologically robust, ethnically diverse and connected to the global church. If Jesus is alive — and I believe that he is — he will keep his promise and build his church. But he never promises to do that solely with white, suburban institutional evangelicalism. The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking “foreigner” who is probably not all that impressed by chants of “Make America great again.”

Perhaps predictably, then-candidate Trump hit back on Twitter, calling Moore “truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”

Since the election, in which 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, Moore’s position has become more precarious. Several wealthy SBC megachurches threatened to withdraw their donations to the SBC as a result of Moore’s comments, prompting speculation that he could lose his job. And although plenty of religious representatives from evangelical Protestant communities surrounded Trump on May 3 when he signed his “religious freedom” executive order, Moore was conspicuously absent.

All this makes Moore a particularly polarizing figure within an already-divided SBC, where growing questions about changing demographics and the church’s growing generational divide have already fomented internal dissent about how political — and how overtly Republican — the SBC should be. The resolution, and Moore’s response, has only intensified that debate.

Why does all of this matter outside the SBC?

Outside of religious circles, there is a stereotype that all Christians, particularly of the evangelical Protestant bent, are a political monolith, something the demographics of the 2017 election did little to assuage. But, as Gass points out, there’s been a growing trend in the SBC toward progressivism on some issues. In 2015, the SBC passed a resolution for racial reconciliation; a year later, they condemned the use of the Confederate flag: Neither gesture a small thing, given the SBC’s historical associations with slave-owners.

For pastors like Gass, “we have to keep moving down the field” when it comes to an anti-racism message he sees not as a statement of political correctness but rather as integral to the heart of the gospel and his faith: “Jesus Christ comes to break down barriers, not build barriers.”

As a pastor, Gass sees the SBC’s resolution as having a concrete example on his church life: “It trickles down to a small [pastoral] level, where we need to be able to clear with our people and our community that we need to be able to love everybody.”

That the SBC has condemned the alt-right specifically this year may well represent a pivot for many evangelicals fed up with the toxic racialized rhetoric around Trump and some of his supporters, but we should be careful not to overstate its significance: It’s part of a wider trend, particularly among younger members of the SBC, not an unprecedented turning point.

It’s also a reminder that the wider political left — and anti-Trump activists — may have the opportunity to make allies among people of faith when it comes to some issues of social justice, but only if they’re willing to accept that their evangelical brethren may diverge from the Democratic party line on other hot-button issues. It’s far less likely that evangelical Christians and secular leftists will see eye-to-eye on abortion, and while Moore’s stance on LGBTQ rights is more welcoming than many in the SBC, issues of gender and sexuality may likewise prove thorny.

It’s unlikely that, say, Bernie Sanders — who recently expressed shock that Trump transport nominee Russell Vought believed non-Christians were going to hell (not a particularly surprising thing for a Christian to believe) — would immediately warm to the idea of collaborating with Russell Moore. But if the left wants to engage as many voters as possible in the Trump resistance, it cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Update: this article has been updated to reflect the results of Wednesday’s vote.