Race, Faith, and Politics in the Southern Baptist Convention

After the 2015 slaying of nine congregants at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist who previously posed with a Confederate flag, the majority-white Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest evangelical denominations in the US, passed a resolution the following year to stop members from displaying the flag. The statement entitled “On Sensitivity And Unity Regarding The Confederate Battle Flag” commended South Carolina leaders who, with the cooperation of the SBC ministry, supported the removal of the Confederate flag from in front of the state house.

The resolution goes on to challenge members of the SBC, “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.” But not every member of the Southern Baptist Convention seems to agree with the denomination’s declarations regarding the signs and symbols of white supremacy. One such individual is Republican State Senator Brandon Creighton of Texas, who introduced Senate Bill 1663 or “the Texas Monument Protection Act” on May 7. Creigton introduced the bill saying, “We've seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed and destroyed.

” In a party-line vote, the Texas state Senate passed a bill making it more difficult to remove Confederate monuments by city and state agencies. The new bill requires a two-thirds, supermajority vote from local governments in order to remove or alter a monument that is 25 years old or more. The bill also requires the same two-thirds majority in both the state Senate and the House to alter monuments located on state property.

Without ever explicitly naming Confederate monuments in the bill, the legislation effectively requires a supermajority to remove or change such iconography.

In Creighton’s estimation the removal of these monuments, widely seen as symbols of white supremacy, is akin to erasing history. "I fear that we'll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it," he said.

The senator’s stance is not atypical of other Republican lawmakers, but Creighton is a lifetime member of First Baptist Church in Conroe, Texas, a denomination that is affiliated with the SBC and has made several public declarations that appear at odds with efforts to preserve Confederate monuments in public spaces. The SBC, which has over 15 million members, was founded in May 1845, almost 175 years ago, after a split with its northern counterpart over the issue of slavery. Northern Baptists insisted that slaveholders could not be commissioned as missionarie to spread the Christian message abroad. Baptists in the South disagreed and established a denomination where its members could enslave people and still serve in church offices without censure.

In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the SBC’s founding, delegates passed a resolution on racial reconciliation repudiating their proslavery roots and acknowledging the harm their forebears had caused. The statement apologized to African Americans “for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism.” And vowed to change its behavior: “We commit ourselves to be doers of the Word (James 1:22) by pursuing racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:6), to the end that our light would so shine before others, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).”

Twelve years later, on the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision that denied people of African descent citizenship rights, the SBC issued another statement on race: “Resolved, That we pray for and eagerly await the day that the scourge and blight of racism is totally eradicated from the Body of Christ so that the world may see the love of Christ incarnated in and through us.” The 2016 resolution on “sensitivity and unity” explained that “while the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public display is not going to solve the most severe racial tensions that plague our nation and our churches, those professing Christ are called to extend grace and put the consciences of others ahead of their own interests and actions.”

In spite of the SBC’s statements on racial reconciliation, Senator Creighton introduced a bill to protect symbols of a failed rebellion initiated to preserve the enslavement of African Americans.

Creighton did so despite the impassioned pleas of his African American colleagues. Senator Royce West from Dallas, who is Black, stood up and read from the 1861 Texas “Declaration of Causes” written to explain the state’s secession from the Union. “The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind” West read. “Listen to this part, ‘And the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations,'” he continued. "The state back then used Almighty God — Almighty God — as a reason in order to secede and to maintain slavery of African Americans," West said. In an unusually strong display of protest and solidarity, more than a dozen members of the Texas House of Representatives, many of them members of the Legislative Black Caucus, left their session to stand in the Senate chamber while their associates deliberated on the bill.

Creighton's stance falls in line most of the other elected representatives in his party; but as a self-identified Southern Baptist, his own faith community has made statements contradicting such positions. The statements cited here are just a few of the many that Southern Baptist leaders have passed in recent decades. But when Southern Baptist lawmakers, as well as the everyday people in the pews, disregard their denomination’s resolutions about racism, then the impotence of these statements is revealed.

One reason why white evangelicals in denominations such as the SBC issue so many resolutions about racial reconciliation is because their members so often ignore them.

In critical times when anti-Black and anti-racist action is required, many white evangelicals shrink away from the commitments their own denominations and fellowships have made. While the intentionally decentralized SBC church structure means that none of these resolutions are actually binding on any individual congregation, they should outline a pattern for churches to follow. Senator Creighton and those in the SBC who support his legislation have contradicted their faith-based commitment to racial reconciliation. They continue to pass laws that make it more difficult to remove public symbols of white supremacy. In so doing, they show their true allegiance to power, electability, and the Old South rather than to Christian unity and racial progress.

About the Author

Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Mississippi, and the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Follow him on Twitter: @JemarTisby.