Vice President Mike Pence pledged to continue prioritizing issues that matter to evangelical Christians during his address at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Texas on Wednesday morning.
Speaking to an estimated crowd of more than 11,000 delegates from America’s largest Protestant denomination, Pence boasted about President Donald Trump’s accomplishments and promised Southern Baptists that the current administration “will always stand with you.”
“I know, with your strong support in prayers ... with Donald Trump in the White House and God’s help, we will make America safe again, we will make America prosperous again, and to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again,” Pence said.
During the wide-ranging speech, Pence touted actions the president has taken that were seen as victories by evangelical Christians ― securing the release of three Korean-American evangelicals who were detained in North Korea, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and taking steps to defund Planned Parenthood. These mentions were greeted with raucous applause and standing ovations from the gathered crowd. At one point, an audience member yelled, “Four more years!”
According to the SBC, the White House had reached out about Pence addressing its meeting. Pence, an evangelical Christian, is part of a long line of Republican politicians to speak at the Southern Baptist’s annual meeting. Gerald Ford addressed the meeting in 1976. President George W. Bush delivered a speech via satellite during the convention’s 2004 meeting. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) spoke on Tuesday.
But news of Pence’s speech provoked a considerable amount of dissent among attendees, revealing a fissure in the denomination over associating with President Donald Trump. A few attendees of the meeting planned to skip the vice president’s speech and instead hold prayer sessions in other parts of the convention center, The Washington Post reports.
Leaders claimed the speech was not meant to show allegiance to a specific political party, but rather an opportunity for Pence to “express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.” Pence did in fact spend time praising the faith and charitable works carried out by Southern Baptists, calling the denomination “one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.” He also spoke about how he was inspired by the resilience of members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The church community, a member of the SBC, was torn apart by a mass shooting that killed 26 people there last November.
But some Southern Baptists couldn’t help but notice that a substantial part of Pence’s speech was devoted to stumping for the president. Several attendees took to social media to voice their continued opposition to the invite. Even the denomination’s newly elected president, J.D. Greear, appeared to be uncomfortable with the speech. The 45-year-old megachurch pastor from North Carolina, seen by many to represent a younger generation of evangelicals, acknowledged on Twitter that the speech “sent a terribly mixed signal.”
“We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention—but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission,” Greear wrote. “Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
Others chimed in:
Trump is highly supported by white evangelicals across denominations: 75 percent said they hold a favorable view of the president, according to an April poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. On the other hand, Christians of color hold significantly less favorable views of the president.
Pence’s appearance at the SBC meeting comes at a time when the denomination is grappling with racial and sexual misconduct issues. The vice president’s selection was controversial because the Trump administration’s stance on racial justice could hurt Southern Baptists’ attempts to distance themselves from white supremacy and the Republican party. The denomination was formed in 1845 by Baptists in the South who split from their northern counterparts in defense of slavery, and the group has been striving in recent years to atone for that racist history.
The church has also been reckoning with the Me Too movement, including the removal of Southern Baptist seminary president Paige Patterson after allegations that he mishandled a student’s rape complaint. Pence is the second-in-command to a president who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women.
Virginia-based pastor Garrett Kell proposed an amendment on Tuesday calling for the conference to replace Pence’s speech with prayer time. About 30 to 40 percent of delegates supported his measure, but the overwhelming majority approved of Pence being invited to speak.
“Many of our minority brothers and sisters will be especially hurt by this invitation and I fear that it would communicate that our political associations are more important than our association with them,” Kell said.
On Tuesday, delegates to the meeting passed resolutions denouncing all forms of abuse, affirming women’s dignity, and calling for “sexual purity” among pastors. The resolutions were a response to the Me Too movement that stayed within the boundaries of the conservative group’s views on gender ― assuring, for example, that women should only serve in “biblically appropriate ways,” which usually signals that women can’t become senior pastors.
About two dozen protesters from within and outside the SBC gathered outside the Dallas convention center on Tuesday to push for increased transparency on the issue of sexual abuse. The organizers called for a clergy sex offender database for the SBC and mandatory training for seminarians on how to handle abuse allegations.
Ashley Easter, an advocate for abuse survivors and a rally spokesperson, told HuffPost that Tuesday’s resolutions fail to take into account the role that “patriarchal theology” has in the abuse of women. Allowing men to have authority and power over women “opens the door wide” for abuse, she said in an email.
Easter, who is not Southern Baptist, added that she fears the resolution on the sexual purity of pastors won’t be effective if the denomination doesn’t take steps to hold predators accountable.
“To my knowledge, the SBC has still failed to implement a clergy sex offender database or call for mandatory abuse prevention and response training for SBC clergy that the [rally] called for,” Easter said. “If words are not accompanied by action I fear the resolution will be rendered meaningless.”
The issue continued to be on delegates’ minds on Wednesday. During a question-and-answer session with the presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries, delegates from around the country stood up and questioned leaders about the steps they’ve taken to prevent abuse in their schools.
Many attendees are hoping that the election of SBC’s new president signals change. Greear, who was elected on Tuesday, is the denomination’s youngest president in decades. Seen by many as the voice for the younger generation, Greear ran on a platform focused on church planting, renewing personal evangelization efforts, increasing racial and cultural diversity in leadership, and engaging with young people.
More than 68 percent of delegates chose Greear over the second candidate, 70-year-old former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Ken Hemphill.
On his website, Greear said he is approaching his new position with humility and hope.
“God is stirring in the SBC. He has exposed a startling amount of sin in our midst. He has shaken many of our foundations. And I actually think that’s good news, because whom the Lord loves, he chastens,” Greear wrote. “He is inviting us, I believe, into an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the Great Commission, if we repent.”