Opinion

On issue of race, Southern Baptists must move from gestures to action

Left to right, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), K. Marshall Williams, president of the National African American Fellowship, and Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, pray together during the National Call to Prayer for Spiritual Leadership, Revived Churches and Nationwide and Global Awakening at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday, June 14 in St. Louis. Photo by Matt Miller, courtesy of Baptist Press

(RNS) In recent years, Southern Baptists have made racial reconciliation a top priority.

This week, delegates (called “messengers”) to the SBC’s annual meeting in St. Louis overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging Christians to “discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag.”

The Rev. James Merritt, a prominent pastor and SBC past president, hopes the resolution “will begin to mend broken bridges and tear down barriers of division in our nation.”


RELATED: Confederate flag resolution a historic opportunity to correct the past


Add it to the growing list of important SBC gestures.

But do blog posts, op-eds and resolutions constitute racial reconciliation?

When I suggested that a denomination founded in 1845 over slavery should not pat itself on the back for opposing the Confederate flag in 2016, the Rev. Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor in Montgomery, Ala., and author of a book about evangelicals and race, told me: “It is symbolic of a large-scale shift in Southern Baptist life. It is relief, not self-congratulation.”

In my assessment of Southern Baptists two years ago, I noted their heightened sensitivity and well-formed perspectives on race. I have repeatedly praised their efforts.

Still, without moral clarity and leadership on substantive issues that matter deeply to African-Americans and other minorities, the SBC’s awakened conscience will start to ring hollow.

Today’s SBC is very good about deploring racist speech and symbols. But will it use its stature as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to vigorously oppose racist systems and policies?

I am not suggesting that unless Southern Baptists endorse affirmative action or reparations for slavery their words are meaningless. They are still mostly white and conservative, after all.

Their political priorities are abortion, marriage and religious freedom. These are what they call “gospel issues” on which they cannot remain silent, even as they speak less often and less certainly about economic, ecological or foreign-policy issues.

In elevating race to a “gospel issue,” the SBC must broaden its ethical portfolio to include advocacy for racial equality and justice.

Southern Baptists could start with something easy such as voter ID laws, which Republicans have admittedly pursued for electoral advantage and without concern for disproportionately disenfranchising nonwhite voters.

Southern Baptists could oppose the dilution of black political power in the old Confederacy. They could lament the evisceration of federal voting-rights protections.

There is an ecumenical Christian consensus on race and civil rights that Southern Baptists could join, giving cover to conservative white legislators who know in their hearts it’s wrong to play politics with race.

Much more than a decade ago, today’s SBC leaders bring a moral seriousness to the public square. Long castigated for rubber-stamping GOP policies, SBC elites have made it clear they will not be chaplains or cheerleaders for race-baiting politicians or white-nativist populism.

Whereas race was a blind spot for conservatives, they now increasingly understand that conservatism benefits from moral rigor about race. Religious conservatives’ talk about the relationship between family breakdown and poverty will be more credible when they acknowledge and oppose structural racism.

Some Southern Baptist leaders have displayed conviction and integrity in opposing Donald Trump’s obnoxious, divisive politics. But if they are going to move beyond gestures and really join the fight against racist systems, they must risk ruffling the feathers of conservative allies and ideologues.

Gospel boldness requires nothing less. But will Southern Baptists become champions for racial justice?

Added Cross, the Alabama minister and author: “I am all over the fight against racist systems. Now, let’s keep it going.”

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

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Jacob Lupfer

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  • One of the things that strikes me about the SBC’s racial reconciliation project is it’s sexism. Apparently women have nothing say about racial reconciliation that men need respect.

    And that’s probably because women aren’t allowed ordination, which automatically removes them from positions of leadership in conferences, panels and such.

    And when a token woman or two is invited to the stage…well…you know what they’re going to say because they have been chosen to say it.

    And, this discrimination, segregation and condescending tokenism is justified with the same proof texting hermeneutic that was used by earlier generations of Southern Baptists to justify slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

    It’s also the same as that being used to condescendingly keep LGBT people in “their place.”

    So the SBC racial reconciliation is working from whitewashed patriarchal white theology which still discriminates and segregates people for what they are, women and minorities which might challenge the concept of unearned patriarchal privilege and power..

  • WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” and committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry”… 1995?? And their next action on the matter wasn’t until 2016?? If the SBC really wants to deal tangibly with racism, then commit to ending the death penalty in the US, make prison ministry a priority and don’t wait another 21 years to address this institutional sin. I was fascinated when I read a May article in Christianity Today regarding a March 2016 poll compiled by SBC’s LifeWay Research on reasons Pastors are not involved in Prison Ministry. http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/may/why-most-pastors-dont-do-prison-ministry.html. Bottom line – they don’t get it. US Prisons in general and the death penalty specifically are the worst systemic and most blatant forms of racism in our society. AND the problem is most heinous in states with the highest concentration of, you guessed it, Southern Baptists. While it’s important to – after 21 years of being ‘racism-free’ – remove a symbol of that racism from your properties, the real work has yet to begin. I am truly glad that the SBC will no longer wave the flag of racism – it was just a very long time in coming.

  • It only took them 140 years to repudiate slavery, give or take a few. It’s only been 20 years since they apologized for racism. Give ’em time.

  • Outstanding Gregory. I am especially caught by this phrase: “whitewashed patriarchal white theology .”
    I am caught because it so accurately describes the SBC.

    While I applaud the beginning steps taken by the SBC, I agree with Mr. Lupfer’s contention that action must be taken and, as Gregory says, for that action to be truly effective, it must come from a different, truly inclusive, core perspective.

  • WHEREAS, In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention repudiated “historic acts of evil, such as slavery,” and committed “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry”… 1995?? And their next action on the matter wasn’t until 2016?? If the SBC really wants to deal tangibly with racism, then commit to ending the death penalty in the US, make prison ministry a priority and don’t wait another 21 years to address this institutional sin. I was fascinated when I read a May article in Christianity Today regarding a March 2016 poll compiled by SBC’s LifeWay Research on reasons Pastors are not involved in Prison Ministry. http://www.christianitytoday.c…. Bottom line – they don’t get it. US Prisons in general and the death penalty specifically are the worst systemic and most blatant forms of racism in our society. AND the problem is most heinous in states with the highest concentration of, you guessed it, Southern Baptists. While it’s important to – after 21 years of being ‘racism-free’ – remove a symbol of that racism from your properties, the real work has yet to begin. I am truly glad that the SBC will no longer wave the flag of racism – it was just a very long time in coming.

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