Take down that Confederate flag: Southern Baptist Convention rejects a symbol of the past

You may not have noticed, but there are actually two mass shooting stories in the news this week. One is the ghastly murder of 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

The other is the startling news that the Southern Baptist Convention has denounced the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and bigotry.

Shooting story? The latter hearkens back to June 2015, when Dylann Roof shot nine people dead at a church in Charleston, S.C. As one result of the public revulsion at the act, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley took down the Confederate flag taken down at the Capitol.

Now the Southern Baptists, convening in St. Louis, are following suit -- though not without some opposition, as the Religion News Service reports. Veteran RNS writer Adelle M. Banks ably captures the striking symbolism:

The Southern Baptist Convention, born in 1845 in a split over its support for slavery, passed a resolution calling for Christians to quit using the Confederate flag.
"We call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters," reads the resolution adopted Tuesday (June 14) at the convention’s annual meeting in St. Louis.
Former Southern Baptist President James Merritt, who said he was the great-great-grandson of two Confederate Army members, helped draft that language, which included striking a paragraph that linked the flag to Southern heritage: "We recognize that the Confederate battle flag serves for some not as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, but as a memorial to their loved ones who died in the Civil War, and an emblem to honor their loved ones’ valor."

As a longtime specialist on evangelical Christianity, Banks also quotes one of the most-qualified Southern Baptists: Russell Moore, president of the its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore says the convention "made history in the right way," and that it's "well past time."

Banks collects other eager quotes. An Alabama minister and author calls the action "the most wonderful surprise." A spokesman for the denomination’s executive committee says the convention delegates decided to "take one bold step."

Even more vivid prose ran in the Washington Post:

“It’s not often that I find myself wiping away tears in a denominational meeting, but I just did,” Russell Moore, the prominent evangelical writer who leads the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a blog post after the vote. “Does this change the game as it applies to the crushing issues of racial injustice around us? Of course, it does not. But at the same time, we cannot dismiss this as just about symbols. Symbols matter.”

The Post follows with the Rev. William Dwight McKissic, a black pastor who proposed the resolution. “You can’t take something that is contaminated and make it innocent," he tells the newspaper. "I think to honor those nine people in Charleston that were killed, surely you can repudiate what drove Dylann Roof to kill those folks."

And the Dallas Morning News has SBC President Ronnie Floyd saying, "I believe the issue of racism is from Satan and his demonic forces of hell. It is an assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Dallas moderates the froth, however, with some background (or from the Associated Press version):

The nation's largest Protestant denomination, founded in a split with northern Baptists over slavery, has a history of complicity with Jim Crow laws. Eighty to 90 percent of its members are white. But with 15.3 million members, that translates to at least 1.5 million non-white members in the Nashville-based denomination. And while membership at white churches is decreasing, membership at churches that Southern Baptists identify as predominantly "non-Anglo" is on the rise.

That's a hat tip for DMN. Many newspaper accounts don’t note the growing ethnic diversity in SBC ranks, a topic our own tmatt has stressed here for several years.

What Dallas and The Washington Post don’t add is anyone who disagrees with the resolution. Yes, they were there. Back to Banks at RNS:

Jason Lupo, pastor of a Tallulah, La., church, said he wasn’t speaking against the resolution but he thought it should be removed from consideration.
"This is a political issue, not a kingdom issue," he said. "And so I think the resolution needs to be removed completely and doesn’t even need to be dealt with."
Another, who urged rejection of the resolution, wondered if it could lead to support for other moves of "political correctness" such as rejecting the U.S. flag that flew over slave ships or Southern Baptist heroes who were "avid supporters of the Confederacy."

What's impressive is that Banks avoids making them sound like racist yahoos. She adds that Judge Paul Presser, "an architect of the conservative resurgence in the denomination more than 30 years ago, complained that he was not allowed to speak. Officials said time ran out before he could." (But why didn’t she get a quote from him directly on why he opposed the measure?)

Fortunately, RNS wasn't alone in balanced reporting. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes dissenters saying the resolution was an "ill-conceived attempt at political correctness that misses the true meaning behind the banner."

One of them is predictable: head of a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He says most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves and fought for several reasons, including the economy and "the fact that they were invaded."

Less expected is Winston Taylor, an African-American from West Atlanta:

Pressuring people to take down something comes too close to censorship for him, he said.
“I’m not into covering up things,” he said.
He worried that repressing people’s feelings might lead to even more trouble later.
“When they’re flying the flag, at least you know where they stand,” Taylor said. “When you repress it, somebody can become so frustrated that they go and kill a room full of people.”

But all the above stories leave out something, I think: Exactly what is the resolution supposed to accomplish? How many Southern Baptists actually fly the Confederate flag? Is it seen on church grounds? Perhaps at Baptist schools? Or is the vote aimed at the five remaining states that keep some version of the Confederate flag?

The resolution may have been more a symbolic statement. As the Southern Baptist Convention broadens its membership, it naturally wants to break from its past. The Journal-Constitution hints at this, saying the measure "represented a significant step for a group struggling to reach minorities and escape its roots in the racism of the Civil War South."

But wait a minute: Are Southern Baptists STRUGGLING to reach minorities, in comparison with other predominantly white Protestant flocks (think Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.)? That would be a good statement to back with a strong statistic or expert voice.

Thumbnail photo: Confederate flag image, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain license.

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