Well now. It appears we have a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention angle that will draw news coverage, maybe even from TV networks, since many newsroom managers weren't interested in America's largest Protestant flock wrestling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In other words, the Donald Trump angle has arrived -- with Vice President Mike Pence's appearance at the gathering in Dallas. And here is the shocker! It appears that not all Southern Baptists are united when it comes to baptizing their faith in partisan politics. You mean there are divisions among evangelicals in the age of Trump?
There must be, because I read it in The Washington Post. But hold that thought, because I have a bit of picky religion-beat business to handle first.
If you've covered SBC life for a couple of decades, you know that SBC leaders really need to post a sign over the press facilities at this event that screams: "HEY! The people at this convention are MESSENGERS, not DELEGATES! Please get that right."
Why does this particular burr under the journalism saddle bother Southern Baptists so much?
The bottom line: The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention, not a denomination. It exists when it's in session, with "messengers" from its rather freewheeling local congregations. In other words, this "convention" is not a formal "denomination" structured like those dang (Baptist speak there) Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and what not.
There's even a FAQ book to help reporters handle these kinds of questions, for sale right here. Item No. 1?
Who are the messengers? They are the folks who actually compose the convention when it meets. Why “messengers” and not “delegates”? Read the book.
A decade or so ago, Baptist Press published an "Understanding the SBC" piece that noted:
Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. ...
Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike.
Now, back to what really matters these days -- Trump-era political shouting. The headline on the relevant Washington Post piece proclaims: "Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform is so controversial."
Start with the fact that there's nothing new about Republicans speaking to Southern Baptists. Then the Post adds:
Which is why experts on conservative Christianity were wowed by the sight Tuesday of multiple Southern Baptist pastors trying -- through the meeting’s formal procedures — to block Pence’s talk, or at least to pass a ban on inviting politicians to future annual meetings. Video of the Dallas convention hall showed many hundreds of hands holding yellow ballots go up when a Virginia pastor argued that hosting a Trump Administration official hurts Southern Baptists of color and endangers soul-saving in general.
If you were following the live stream of the SBC meeting (available here and on YouTube over here) you heard several variations on this theme, in keeping with the realities of SBC polity. Some wanted the Pence address canceled, period. Others wanted a more formal action considered, creating a policy that active political leaders would not speak to the national convention (other than the mayor of the host city). Some probably wanted BOTH.
The Post report turned to an academic source with lots of credibility among several different kinds of Southern Baptist conservatives. Read this carefully (and check out this new Thomas Kidd think piece here):
None of the four separate measures passed (a few were referred for consideration in the coming year). But historians say the effort was the first real controversy in the convention about a GOP speaker since the late evangelist Billy Graham pushed for the invite of President Richard Nixon in 1972, and reveals the significant upheaval among conservative evangelicals about Trump and the mixing of partisan politics and religion.
“For 35 years you could expect the Southern Baptist Convention to be pro-Republican in a nearly unanimous way. But 2016 means the relationship with the Republican Party for the Southern Baptist Convention has become problematic,” said Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University who has written books about American evangelicalism.
Wait. You mean evangelicals are not standing united in worship of Trump? Also, note the degree to which Southern Baptists are focusing on the role of African Americans and Latinos -- whose ranks are growing -- in their local, state and national conventions.
This was a major theme last year at the SBC gathering in Phoenix, as a few journalists noted.
For the Post, this all leads to this editorial question:
The question is whether the divide within evangelicalism will lead to different religious affiliation patterns, or different voting patterns, or something else -- or nothing.
I would assume the answer is "something else." In other words, there is a chance that the next generation of Southern Baptists will be more careful when it comes to partisan politics, as opposed to speaking out on specific issues such as abortion, religious liberty and compassionate laws on immigration.
Back to the Post report:
“What makes this unique is the amount of turmoil around the present administration, which has heightened all the fault lines so many of us feel, around racial reconciliation, and clarity about what Christians are about, which is Jesus and him dying for sinners,” said Garrett Kell, of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va.
Kell proposed a measure Tuesday morning that didn’t pass that would have replaced Pence on the agenda with a time of prayer. No vote count was taken, but many in the convention hall estimated just by looking that 30 to 40 percent of attendees had voted for Kell’s measure.
“For many years we have been talking about loving and listening to our minority brothers and sisters. This invitation does nothing to suggest that we are actually listening,” Kell’s measure reads. It also talked about the need for “clarity of the gospel” and for protecting the reputation of Southern Baptists.
“What binds this convention together is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of that, this convention ought to be marked by things we share in common, not things about which faithful Christians can disagree,” he wrote. “We must do all we can to preserve the purity of the Gospel, and this invitation works against it.”
Now, can reporters assume that all of the Southern Baptists who were waving cards signaling support for Kell's measure taking a political stand against Pence and/or Trump, or both?
I think it's safe to say that the answer is "no." For a moment, let's flash back to an "evangelical voter" typology I created a few months ago, linked to Trump issues. This is long, but I stand by it even more today, than when I wrote it.
(1) Many evangelicals supported Trump from the get-go. For them, Trump is great and everything is going GREAT.
(2) Other evangelicals may have supported Trump early on, but they have always seen him as a flawed leader -- but the best available. They see him as complicated and evolving and are willing to keep their criticisms PRIVATE.
(3) There are evangelicals who moved into Trump's tent when it became obvious he would win the GOP nomination. They think he is flawed, but they trust him to – at least – protect their interests, primarily on First Amendment issues.
(4) Then there are the lesser-of-two-evils Trump evangelicals who went his way in the general election, because they could not back Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. They believe Trump's team has done some good, mixed with quite a bit of bad, especially on race and immigration. They think religious conservatives must be willing to criticize Trump -- in public.
(5) There are evangelicals who never backed Trump and they never will. Many voted for third-party candidates. They welcome seeing what will happen when Trump team people are put under oath and asked hard questions (and ditto for FBI officials). However, they are willing to admit that Trump has done some good, even if in their heart of hearts they'd rather be working with President Mike Pence.
(6) Folks on the evangelical left simply say, "No Trump, ever." Anything he touches is bad and must be rejected. Most voted for Clinton and may have yearned for Bernie Sanders.
Now, after the Pence speech today, I predict that reporters will be able to find SBC messengers in all of the first five camps, and maybe even a handful in that last one.
Please make that effort. Journalists will be stunned at the range of opinions they will find in this convention, even if they are almost completely united when it comes to conservative stances on moral, social and religious issues.
Please make that effort to find these voices.