Guest editorial: On race, SBC must move from gestures to action

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., from left; K. Marshall Williams, president of the National African American Fellowship; and Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, pray during the National Call to Prayer for Spiritual Leadership, Revived Churches and Nationwide and Global Awakening during the Southern Baptist Convention this summer in St. Louis. (Photo by Matt Miller, courtesy of Baptist Press)

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

This summer messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in St. Louis overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging Christians to “discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag.”

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.”

Add it to the growing list of important SBC gestures.

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

Relief, not self-congratulation

When I suggested a denomination founded in 1845 over slavery should not now pat itself on the back for opposing the Confederate flag, 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.

“Gospel issues”

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 admittedly have 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 Southern Baptists could join, giving cover to conservative white legislators who know in their hearts it’s wrong to play politics with race.

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.

Oppose structural racism

Whereas race was a blind spot for conservatives, they now increasingly understand 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 Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University.


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