The Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday formally condemned the political movement known as the "alt-right'' during a national meeting in Phoenix, amid an uproar over the denomination's commitment to confronting prejudice.
Leaders of the faith group had initially refused to take up a proposal that they repudiate the political group, which emerged dramatically during the U.S. presidential election and mixes racism, white nationalism and populism.
Barrett Duke, a Southern Baptist leader who led a committee that decided which resolutions should be considered for votes, said the resolution as originally written contained inflammatory and broad language "potentially implicating" conservatives who do not support the "alt-right" movement.
But that decision caused a backlash online and at the gathering in Phoenix from Southern Baptists and other Christians, especially African-American evangelicals. Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Southern Baptist pastor, had tweeted that "any 'church' that cannot denounce white supremacy without hesitancy and equivocation is a dead, Jesus denying assembly. No 2 ways about it."
Change of plans
Southern Baptist leaders responded late Tuesday night with a dramatic call for attendees to return to the assembly hall, then announced they would take up the proposal after all on Wednesday.
The resolution as approved decries every form of racism, including what the denomination called "alt-right white supremacy,'' as antithetical to the Gospel.
The turnabout was a highly unusual move for the denomination's tightly choreographed conventions, underscoring the sensitivity of the issue and the alarm among leaders that their initial rejection of the proposal would be viewed as an unwillingness to fight racism. The denomination has been striving to overcome its founding in the 19th century in defense of slaveholders.
In encouraging the meeting to reconsider, Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he wanted to send the message that "we love everybody on this planet."
The initial proposed resolution came from a prominent black Southern Baptist pastor, the Reverend Dwight McKissic, who had submitted the suggested statement to Duke's committee before this week's gathering.
When the proposal was not presented Tuesday, McKissic made a direct, unsuccessful plea for reconsideration from the floor of the Phoenix meeting. He called the "alt-right" a symptom of "social disease," "deceptive" and "antithetical to what we believe." His resolution condemned Christians who attempted to use biblical teachings to justify white supremacy.
The Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, has 15.2 million members and is the largest Protestant group in the country. Leaders have repeatedly condemned racism in formal resolutions from past meetings and built new relationships with black Baptists.
Billy Levengood, 32, a convention attendee from Oxford, Pennsylvania, said before the vote that he would back the resolution, in part to help the denomination move beyond its origins.
"We can't undo the slavery aspect, but we can do all we can to engage every person," Levengood said. "The Gospel is true for all of them."
Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist speaker and executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois, wrote in Wednesday's issue of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today that "Southern Baptists need to speak to this issue" and "get on the correct side of the rising tide of racism."