Southern Baptists Grapple with Racist History

Ruth Graham, Al Jazeera, April 1, 2015

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, was established in 1845 because of a disagreement about slavery. Its founders, who wanted to allow slaveholders as missionaries, could not have imagined what transpired In Nashville last week.

“We are not the state church of the Confederate States of America,” the president of the denomination’s influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Russell Moore, proclaimed to an audience of about 500 people, most of them Baptist leaders. “The cross and the Confederate battle flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

Moore’s speech was the rousing opening salvo at a conference on “the gospel and racial reconciliation” hosted by the ERLC, which is devoted to public policy and culture. Initially, the event’s organizers planned a conference to discuss bioethics. But after protests erupted after a grand jury’s decision in December not to indict a police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) decided to shift course.

By many measures, it was a remarkable event for an organization better known for its interest in culture-war topics like sexuality and religious freedom. Talks and panels tackled white privilege, persistent poverty, immigration reform, the perils of gentrification and racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. (One African-American panelist said police officers had pulled guns on him, another said he was handcuffed while police searched for a suspect who looked nothing like him.) Several speakers respectfully mentioned the Department of Justice’s scathing report on law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed last summer by a white police officer. Eighty percent of the denomination’s congregations are majority white, but 45 percent of the speakers at the conference were nonwhite. They included young men and older black preachers, as well as an Iranian-American convert from Islam who chastised those who celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden.

But many still question whether social conservatives–with a long history of strong support for law enforcement and resistance to systemic critiques of racism–are in a position to lead on racial issues. Southern Baptists have a particularly rocky road, with their pro-slavery roots and, more than a century later, their leadership’s widespread failure to support the civil rights movement.

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The SBC has been wrestling with its ugly racial past for at least 20 years. In 1995 it passed a resolution on racial reconciliation that set out to “lament and repudiate” its roles in slavery and the civil rights movement. (The longtime ERLC president behind that document, Richard Land, was nudged into announcing his retirement in 2012 after making intemperate public remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Land was in the audience at the conference last week, but he did not speak publicly.) Also in 2012 the SBC elected its first black president, a Louisiana pastor, Fred Luter, whose speech at last week’s conference compared racism to more traditional scourges of adultery, pornography and abortion.

Moore, a white native of Mississippi, has become an outspoken advocate on racial issues since he took over from Land two years ago. He has spoken often about his goal to integrate his denomination’s 50,000 congregations. And after the grand jury decision in the Garner case, he quickly responded online, writing that “a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.” Moore told reporters on Friday, “One of the good things in a very bad year when it comes to racial tensions in America is there have been more conversations among Christians thinking these things through.”

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The final session of the ERLC conference belonged to Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor from Washington, D.C., who called for confession and accountability regarding racism. “When we come to racial reconciliation and the image of God, we not only have to take seriously what it means to be made in the image of God–we also have to take seriously the seriousness of sin,” he said. After the crowd sang a full-throated version of “Amazing Grace,” Moore took the stage for one final prayer. He ended with the words “Give us the power to fight.”

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