Politics in the religious arena: VP at Baptist meeting


Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention this morning.

The speech hit on some political themes. Newly elected SBC president J.D. Grear later took to Twitter and said: “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention—but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Some attempted to raise motions to block the speech. A Virginia pastor suggested cancelling the speech in favor of a prayer time. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in America. Over the last generation, Southern Baptists have overwhelmingly voted republican.

But it’s also a time of some turmoil within the denomination. One of the most influential Baptist leaders of the past generation, Paige Patterson, was recently removed from his role as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This was related to improperly handling rape allegations from a student when Patterson was president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson had also made various other statements about women which were extremely controversial, such as insensitive comments about a woman who remained in an abusive marriage, after counseling the woman to stay in the marriage, Patterson saw her with two black eyes:

“She said: ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because her husband had heard her prayers and come to church for the first time the next day.

These comments were met by an open letter from Baptist women, but Patterson did not issue any sort of apology until a similar letter by men within the SBC was sent. The treatment of women, how things like abuse and sexual assault are talked about and handled within the SBC have also been hot button issues at the meeting.

There’s a lot going on within the SBC.

It seems that another significant question among Baptists is the role of politics within the church.

Christian historian Thomas Kidd traces politicians addressing the meeting. There was a resurgence of American Protestants to the GOP in 1979. Richard Nixon addressed the Southern Baptists in 1956 when he was vice president. In 1976, Gerald Ford was the first sitting president to speak at the meeting. Jimmy Carter in 1978. Ronald Reagan while he was running for president in 1980. George H.W. Bush in 1991. His vice president Dan Quayle in 1992. George W. Bush in 2002.

There’s a history to it.

So it isn’t shocking that vice president Pence would address the meeting this year. And the fact that his speech delved into both faith and politics should not be a surprise. That’s always going to be the case with any politician.

I guess a question that I have would be, “what’s the purpose of a politician addressing the meeting?” It’s always going to be something that gets used for political purposes by the speaker. There are enough things that churches divide over. It seems unnecessary to add political viewpoints into that mix, especially in the current polarized climate. There are a lot of important gospel issues that the SBC is addressing. Having a political at this time seems like an unnecessary spectacle with respect to more pressing issues.

The fact that there was some opposition to Pence speaking, some look at as a political shift among some in the SBC. Perhaps, to a small extent. However, with he size of the denomination, given what we’ve seen in other American Protestant denominations, I think it’s more likely that some (relatively small number with respect to the size of the denomination) churches would start walking away from the SBC before there be a major political divide within the denomination.

I love the SBC, and I do hope and pray for what’s best for the denomination.

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.