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Mike Pence will address Southern Baptists — just as they’re reckoning with race and sexual misconduct

The vice president is a controversial speaker choice.

National Rifle Association Holds Its Annual Conference In Dallas, Texas Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This year was always going to be a controversial one for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, which takes place Tuesday and Wednesday in Dallas. From the public outcry surrounding former president Paige Patterson, who was fired from his post as head of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after making a series of remarks that appeared to justify spousal abuse, to the numerous clashes within the evangelical community centered on the Trump presidency, the 2018 meeting of America’s largest evangelical denomination was already set to be fraught.

Now, Vice President Mike Pence is planning to speak at the event.

Pence will speak on Wednesday, the second day of the conference, the SBC announced on Monday.

“We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation,” said current SBC president Steve Gaines.

Pence is the highest-ranking government official to attend an SBC convention in person. (George W. Bush gave a speech via video link in 2005.) Attending and endorsing explicitly religious organizations is, however, something Pence has a history of doing. He spoke at last year’s Focus on the Family anniversary and attended the anti-abortion March for Life.

His presence at the annual meeting, furthermore, strengthens the existing bonds between the evangelical community and the White House, which has increasingly focused on white evangelicals as its support base. (Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, and 75 percent continue to support him as of spring 2018.) Symbolic Trump administration moves like transferring the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and working to repeal the Johnson Amendment have served to bolster and support that evangelical base.

In return, members of the evangelical “old guard” — from Jerry Falwell Jr. to Tony Perkins — have continued to vociferously support Trump, even going so far as to suggest his presidency was preordained by God, despite the protestations of an increasingly vocal evangelical minority.

(Meanwhile, some younger evangelical leaders, like Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s public policy outreach arm, have been longstanding and vocal Trump opponents.)

Within that context, Pence’s decision to speak at the SBC convention seems like yet another conflation of Christianity and Trumpism: a political alliance between the GOP apparatus and the evangelical old guard that may overshadow the wider story of the SBC. When an entire religious community is dealing with the fallout of #MeToo, what does it mean to give a platform to the second-in-command of one of the most unrepentant “pussy grabbers” of all?

Likewise, the Trump administration stance on racial justice, particularly in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, attacks, makes a Trump administration representative an uncomfortable choice. In recent years, the SBC has been actively moving away from its historic association with white supremacy. (The denomination has historic links with slaveholders.)

In 2015, it passed a resolution for racial reconciliation; in 2016, it condemned the Confederate flag; and in 2017 it condemned the “alt-right.” Pence’s role may appear to re-cement the historic, deeply politicized affiliation between white evangelicalism and the GOP, what the Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins called “Christian Nationalism.”

As Baptist pastor and blogger Brent Hobbs wrote for SBC Voices: “I can’t see any way for a member of a President’s administration to address the convention without our convention being seen as supportive and politically tied.

“When Mike Pence enters, he’ll receive a standing ovation from a (likely vast) majority of the messengers. This will alienate those in our own family who by conviction do not or cannot support this administration. Instead of standing together in unity over the gospel, our political differences will be put on display for an extended ovation.”

John Fea, a historian of religion at Messiah College and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, echoed Hobbs’s sentiments, telling me in an email:

At a time when the Southern Baptist Convention needs to come together to repent of its past misogynistic behavior it has chosen instead to welcome the chief surrogate of one of the most divisive presidential administrations in recent memory with a well-documented track record of degrading women in public. Can the SBC think of any more ways to shoot itself in the foot?

Updated to include a quote from John Fea.