PHOENIX — A national meeting of Southern Baptists will consider condemning the political movement known as the "alt-right" amid an uproar over the denomination's commitment to confronting prejudice.
Leaders of the faith group initially refused to take up a proposal that they repudiate the political group that emerged dramatically during the U.S. presidential election, mixing racism, white nationalism and populism. Barrett Duke, a Southern Baptist leader who led a committee that decided which resolutions should be considered for a vote, said the resolution as originally written contained inflammatory and broad language "potentially implicating" conservatives who do not support the "alt-right" movement.
But the decision caused a backlash online and at the gathering in Phoenix from Southern Baptists and other Christians, especially African-American evangelicals. The denomination has been striving to overcome its founding in the 19th century in defense of slaveholders. Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Southern Baptist pastor, tweeted that "any 'church' that cannot denounce white supremacy without hesitancy and equivocation is a dead, Jesus denying assembly. No 2 ways about it".
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. It 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. 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 Rev. 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 new resolution that will be debated Wednesday states racism and white supremacy endure "in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as 'white nationalism' or 'alt-right.'" Southern Baptists "decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and "denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil," the proposed new resolution states.
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.
Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist speaker and executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois, said the committee in charge of resolutions should have revised the initial proposal and brought it to a vote.
"Southern Baptists need to speak to this issue," Stetzer wrote Wednesday in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. He pointed to the denomination's history in the civil rights movement. "Too many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the fire hoses in Birmingham. They need to get on the correct side of the rising tide of racism," Stetzer wrote.