(RNS) What happens when frenzied news cycles, a culture of perpetual outrage, social media and political intrigue infect a religious event?
We get a mess: Truth is distorted, intentions are impugned, and energy is wasted — all in the pursuit of self-reinforcing narratives that bolster our unhealthy tribalisms.
Predictably, this sad spectacle repeated itself at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, which ended Wednesday (June 14) in Phoenix.
Endless articles and op-eds spewed forth on the question of how the nation’s largest Protestant denomination will engage politically in the Age of Trump.
Since the proceedings of denominational meetings are so boring, we in the media ignore reports about growth and decline, missions and evangelism in order to find controversial items that will feed an insatiable hunger for political news.
We usually accomplish this by over-hyping denominations’ resolutions, brief statements often about current affairs that are voted on, reported on and summarily forgotten.
This year, the Southern Baptists approved a resolution “On the Importance of Moral Leadership,” repackaging language from a 1998 resolution condemning President Clinton.
The resolution targeting President Trump, aside from being true and important, was likely satisfying for the subset of Southern Baptists who declined to vote for the obnoxious, unqualified demagogue.
Trump’s Baptist disciples could not vote against the resolution, and maybe felt a tinge of cognitive dissonance as they pondered their support for the New York billionaire.
But there was to be more resolution intrigue and drama: A resolution condemning the racial prejudices and white nationalism that undergirded Trumpism failed in committee.
Suddenly, a media narrative emerged that Southern Baptist Convention delegates (called messengers) had declined to condemn the “alt-right.”
This was very exciting for a group of mostly anonymous internet racists.
It also animated many well-intentioned clergy and laypeople within and beyond the SBC who lament the strands of white supremacy and blindness to racial inequity that still persist in churches.
But there’s just one problem: “Southern Baptists do not vote to deplore white nationalism” is neither fair nor accurate.
It is, to use one of the president’s favorite terms, “fake news.”
The truth is that no one spoke in defense of conservatism’s racist faction. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist missiologist, announced: “No one has come to the mic to defend white nationalism, white supremacy, or the alt-right. Not a one.”
As it turns out, the Resolutions Committee, an appointed body that considers hundreds of resolutions and sends a handful to the floor each year, did not like the provocative resolution’s strong but perhaps imprecise wording.
One function of the committee is to avoid redundancy, and the SBC overwhelmingly approved resolutions deploring racism as part of its continuing emphasis on racial reconciliation.
Maybe the committee underestimated the degree to which the 2016 election and some prominent SBC leaders’ roles in it disappointed nonwhite Baptists and their white brethren who support racial justice.
In any case, a flurry of procedure on the convention floor and a flood of social-media posts Tuesday and Wednesday elevated the resolution into a national story.
It must be said, however, that the committee’s chairman, Barrett Duke of Montana, is one of the denomination’s best statesmen. Duke, who worked for the SBC’s public-policy arm in Washington for two decades until his retirement last year, was personally involved in many of the convention’s efforts on racial equity.
Duke apologized to the resolution’s author, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas, for his committee’s misread.
Here’s the truth: Baptists, like every faith tradition, have their fair share of racists. The resolution condemning white nationalism passed easily in the convention’s closing session, to thunderous applause from the floor.
The SBC, its entities and its leaders actively speak out against racism, even as they struggle with how much of their cultural clout or political successes they owe to racially aggrieved whites who propelled Trump to power.
In my view, they have said enough but there is still work to be done.
Actions speak louder than words. Or, as Bible-believing Baptists might prefer, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
By fast-tracking a strong resolution after a procedural failure, Southern Baptists have done something important.
They need to do more.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)