Commentary
By John Fea 6-21-2018

In the last several months, the #MeToo movement has found its way to one of the largest Protestant denominations in America — the Southern Baptist Convention. While this year’s annual meeting did address issues related to Paige Patterson, the former SBC Theological Seminary president, and how women are treated in the church, the SBC leadership also decided to welcome Mike Pence, who represents a presidential administration with a long track record of degrading women in public, to their meeting. 

In May, over 3000 SBC women sent an open letter to the Board of Trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary demanding the firing of Paige Patterson.

As one of the primary architects of the denomination’s “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s, Patterson is a living legend in the SBC. But over the course of the last few months, the world that Paige Patterson created collapsed around him. 

Patterson’s indiscretions are now widely known. He made inappropriate comments about teenage girls, he told a female victim of sexual assault not to report the incident to the police, and in 2015, when a Southwestern student told Patterson that she had been raped, he said he would meet with the student alone, so he could “break her down.”

The Board of Trustees at Southwestern eventually removed Patterson from his post. He is now gone, but the problem of authoritarian and misogynistic Southern Baptist leaders remains. The Patterson case exposed the dark side of the SBC and its conservative resurgence, prompting one seminary president to declare that the “wrath of God” is now being poured out on the convention. 

On June 6, Former SBC president Ronnie Floyd, fearful that his beloved denomination was falling apart over the Patterson affair, pleaded with his people on Twitter, saying, “Southern Baptists: Refuse disunity within our ranks! There is nothing biblical or godly relating to creating disunity.”

Apparently, no one was listening to Floyd, one of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals. If they were, they would not have invited Mike Pence to their convention last week.

By all reports, the SBC messengers and leaders in Dallas made efforts to respond to the concerns of its women. Kie Bowman, the minister who replaced Patterson as the convention preacher, called his fellow Baptists to prayer and repentance. It was a powerful moment for those watching.

But despite sincere moments like this one, the Pence visit made unity in the convention more difficult and sent a message to the rest of the country that the Southern Baptist Convention can’t shake itself from the powerful grip of politics.

Politics divides Christians — it always has. Southern Baptists should know this better than most. The convention was founded in 1845 when Baptists in the South split with Northern Baptists over the most contentious political issue of the age — slavery.

Anyone who watched SBC leaders bickering and fighting in 2016 over whether to support Donald Trump or not can testify to the divisive power of politics. Just ask Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He almost lost his job for opposing Donald Trump.

Pence’s speech turned the SBC annual meeting into a Trump rally. According to Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan Burge, the vice president used the word “president” 61 times in his speech and “Trump” 12 times. He used the word “God” 9 times and “Christ” only twice.

Pence dabbled in the triumphalist language of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” before evangelicals who claim to follow a Savior who taught humility and self-sacrificial love. Jesus asked his followers to extend these virtues to all people, not just the people of the United States. And it is unseemly for the Southern Baptist Church, with its long history of racism and segregation, to invite a speaker who wants America to be great again.. 

Even the newly elected SBC president J.D. Greaar tweeted after Pence’s speech: “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal.”

This leads me to wonder, can the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination concerned about declines in baptism and church attendance, find any other ways to shoot itself in the foot?

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College. He is the author, most recently, of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (April 2016, Oxford University Press) and blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com.

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