(RNS) The news out of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix earlier this week took some by surprise: The conference ended with a near-unanimous vote condemning the so-called “alt-right,” the political movement that gained notoriety last year for injecting racism and anti-Semitism into the presidential campaign.
Despite the outcome, some in the media sensationalized the vote. Much was made of the fact that the resolution initially failed in committee — even though it hadn’t failed on the merits, but rather, over disagreements about language.
And by the time it had reached the floor, confusion reigned, with delegates questioning the lack of clarity around the process and a failure to communicate clearly what the resolution was meant to do.
Despite the temporary confusion over process and intent, however, as outside observers with a vested interest in seeing anti-Semitism and racism pushed to the far fringes of society, we believe adopting the resolution was the right, principled and moral thing to do. The vote was significant, and not surprising.
It is remarkable that the leaders of the SBC, which was founded by pro-slavery Southerners and didn’t formally condemn its past defenses of human bondage until 1995, have now put their church in the vanguard as one of America’s largest Christian denominations taking a step to clearly define and condemn the bigotry of the alt-right.
At a time when nooses and racist flyers are cropping up with shocking regularity on college campuses, and when swastikas and other graffiti have appeared at Jewish institutions and cemeteries, when Jewish journalists and others are being targeted on social media, and when Muslims and immigrants are harassed, it is imperative that major religious denominations step up and denounce this insidious and hateful movement, which is encouraging this activity.
The alt-right couches its hatred in the language of an alternative political movement, and has pretenses of being part of the political mainstream.
Alt-right is a vague term that actually encompasses a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy.
Though not every person who identifies with the alt-right is a white supremacist, most are, and “white identity” is central to their beliefs. In fact, alt-righters reject modern conservatism because they believe that mainstream conservatives are not advocating for the interests of white people as a group.
Although the alt-right is not a large movement, the number of people who identify with it is growing. It includes a number of young people who espouse racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. It has a loud presence online. The intellectual racists who identify as part of it also run a growing number of publications and publishing houses that promote white supremacist ideas.
The good news is they haven’t been entirely successful and people are waking up to what they represent.
Steps like those of the SBC to clearly repudiate the movement go a long way toward raising awareness of the danger of the alt-right and making clear that their brand of hatred has no place in religion, politics or society. This is particularly important in light of recent polls that show a large majority of Americans are still unaware of the movement or what it truly represents.
We haven’t always agreed with the Southern Baptists. While they’ve approved resolutions supporting Israel and rejecting racism and anti-Semitism, the denomination’s leadership has for years promoted the active proselytization of Jews.
We have been pained by public remarks, such as when the president of a seminary in Louisville, Ky., pointed to Scripture as mandating Jewish conversion and compared Judaism to a “deadly tumor;” or when, in 2002, a Southern Baptist leader said the Catholic Church had expressed anti-Semitism by adopting a declaration against proselytizing Jews.
We still disagree on some issues, and agree on others. But the alt-right is one on which we are in total agreement. It is important for society to see that people across the political and religious spectrum are united in rejecting racism in general and white supremacy in particular.
The SBC resolution states clearly that church leaders “denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society.”
We couldn’t agree more.
(Rabbi David Sandmel is director of interreligious engagement at the Anti-Defamation League)