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Here’s nearly everything you need to know about Mike Pence’s appearance at the Southern Bapist Convention‘s annual meeting, courtesy of the AP’s David Crary:
Vice President Mike Pence gave an often boastful campaign-style speech Wednesday to the closing session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, winning several standing ovations even as some evangelicals criticized his appearance. Pence repeatedly made clear that the SBC—the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.—is viewed by him and President Donald Trump as a vital part of their conservative base heading into the midterm elections. He called the SBC ‘one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.’
Emphasis added, but indeed it was campaign-style, according to Sarah Smith, another reporter in attendance:
Pence, in conclusion: “I know with your strong support in prayers…with Donald Trump in the White House and God’s help, we will make America safe again, we will make America prosperous again, and to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again.”
At the risk of editorializing (okay, totally editorializing), this does not sound very much like a public official who’s careful to observe the line between the church and the state, does it? No, no it does not:
Vice President Mike Pence shared his Christian testimony with the Southern Baptist Convention and commended the SBC as “one of the greatest forces for good” in the world. … Pence thanked Southern Baptists for carrying the “timeless message” of the Gospel “every day with such faithfulness to the American people.” No podium Trump or Pence stand behind, the vice president said, “will be of greater consequence than the pulpits you stand behind.”
When then-candidate for president Barack Obama addressed the United Church of Christ General Synod in 2007, he was careful to identify himself with the values of his denomination without implying that the delegates he spoke to were his partners in a quest to rewrite American history. The denomination made clear that the audience was not to demonstrate any kind of partisan display during the speech, which wasn’t enough to prevent some pissant from filing a complaint with the IRS. These days, of course, the IRS has largely been defanged, so it’s unlikely Pence will experience any negative consequences for his outright partisanship.
Trump’s Republican Party has been open about its desire to restore America to “one nation under God.” Making America Great Again in the context of the SBC means something like putting white conservative Christian men in charge again. Despite its relative success in racial integration compared to mainline Protestant denominations, the SBC remains overwhelmingly white and Southern. To their credit, the Convention disfellowshiped (kicked out) a congregation that demonstrated overt racism. To their demerit, the Convention had to kick that congregation out for demonstrating overt racism. And, as many reports note, the SBC leadership is proudly committed to keeping women out of ordained leadership in its congregations and seminaries.
They’ve got a long ways to go, in other words. But—and here I cannot believe that I am taking up for the SBC—don’t write them off too quickly. For one thing, the vote to invite Pence to speak was 60-40, hardly unanimous, and several audience members challenged his presence. Evangelicals may be overwhelmingly Trump’s base, but not all of them.
Perhaps more substantively, the Convention passed a resolution on immigration policy that affirmed the “value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status,” called for an end to separation of migrant families, called for a just and humane immigration system, and declared that “any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The resolution isn’t perfect: it calls for border security and ignores the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender immigrants, all of whom face oppression and violence in their home nations. But it’s a start, and it is a reminder to the Trump movement that are limits, even among evangelicals.
Now, if they would kindly get around to the question of sleeping with adult movie actresses, or public and flagrant corruption, or colluding with Russia to subvert an American election, or…well, Jesus is a very busy man, after all. Let’s take what we can get and hope for more.