Mike Pence’s visit to the national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas highlights an identity crisis among members.
How do you turn a denominational meeting into a political campaign rally? Give Mike Pence the microphone.
The vice president spoke Wednesday at the annual national gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. Though he began by speaking of his own awakening to the Baptist faith 40 years ago, he quickly moved into stump-speech mode. Most of the nearly 10,000 messengers (Baptist parlance for delegates) responded with occasional cheers and several standing ovations.
That’s not a huge surprise: The SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, is a pillar of the religious right, home to Trump apologist and Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress. The convention boasts about 3.5 million members in Texas, making it the state’s second-largest religious group.
What’s more surprising — though not from a historical perspective — is that some in attendance were not at all happy that Pence had been given a speaking role. That divide highlights ongoing tensions among Baptists over whether and how the SBC should be involved in politics. Put simply, the way that one faction — represented by leaders like Jeffress — cozies up to the Trump administration dismays other Baptists, who can point to two centuries of Baptist teaching against entangling church and state.
But Pence’s speech sounded much more like something you’d hear at a political campaign stop than a church service: tax cuts, immigration, the North Korea nuclear summit, the fight against what he called “radical Islamic terrorism.” Describing the Trump administration as “500 days of promises made and promises kept,” Pence boasted that Trump’s policies were creating a “stronger America” and a “stronger economy.”
The vice president, who delivered a similar speech in Dallas last month at the NRA convention, did throw some religious red meat to the convention center audience. He attacked the Johnson Amendment, which restricts ministers from endorsing candidates. “Freedom of speech should not end at the threshold of the churches,” Pence said. He touted Trump’s anti-abortion policies, noting proudly the administration had “empowered states to defund abortion providers.” He called Israel the United States’ most important ally and trumpeted relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem, “the capital of the State of Israel.”
But the vice president ended the speech the same way he did on the campaign trail. “We will make America safe again,” he proclaimed. “We will make America prosperous again. And to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again.”
The lengthy standing ovation, however, concealed the fact that a sizeable minority of messengers were not at all happy that Pence was there.
When news of the Pence speech was announced on Monday, several Baptists tweeted their dismay. Virginia pastor Brent Hobbs wrote,“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.”
Others voiced similar sentiments once the convention got underway on Tuesday. Virginia messenger Garrett Kell made a motion that Pence’s speech be replaced with a time of prayer. Though acknowledging Pence as “a born-again Christian” and a Baptist, Kell said that for the SBC to feature any politician would “send a mixed message to our members, suggesting that to be faithful to the gospel we ought to align with a particular administration.”
Kell told the convention that a prospective member asked him whether “they need to vote Republican in order to join our church.” Kell’s remarks drew some applause, as did three other messengers who moved that the SBC refrain from allowing elected officials to speak at annual meetings.
Defending the Pence speech, Grant Ethridge, chair of the Committee on Order of Business, explained that the White House had reached out to SBC leadership. Ethridge said that SBC leaders had accepted the request to let Pence speak on the grounds of Christian hospitality and in line with the biblical command to honor one’s leaders, drawing enthusiastic applause from the audience. Ethridge added that SBC leaders would have responded in the same way if “President Obama’s White House” had contacted them.
The debate in the SBC this week highlights a longstanding tension in the Baptist tradition over state-supported religion. Early in the nation’s history, Baptists were a minority religious community and feared persecution by then-larger denominations, some of which had become the established churches in some states. Baptists pushed back against mixing church and state.
In fact, Baptists were involved in the creation of a famous religious freedom metaphor. In 1802, a group of Baptists in Connecticut, where Congregationalism was the established state church, wrote to then-President Thomas Jefferson. They complained that their religious freedom was up to the will of the legislature — making them subject to persecution. In his reply, Jefferson endorsed “building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Ever since, Baptists have been fierce defenders of religious liberty. It receives a whole section in the SBC’s 2000 statement of belief. “Church and state should be separate. … The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends.”
It’s hard to square this with the vice president’s extended political pep rally at the SBC meeting Wednesday. And that’s a question Southern Baptists will likely be struggling with for some time to come.