Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Twitter Hashstorm: The Alt-Right Controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention

from: http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc17/photo/271/
"Southern Baptists overwhelmingly pass a resolution June 14 condemning
the racism of the alt-right movement. Photo by Adam Covington"


The Southern Baptist Convention first rejected then resurrected a resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy. This occurred at their annual meeting held in Phoenix, AZ, a couple weeks ago in June, 2017. Click here for a sequence of events. There are many different ways to understand this process, and it stirred quite a controversy.

An Outsiders Perspective

It was a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. I stand not as a member of the SBC but as a very interested observer from the Catholic Church who cares deeply about race. My colleague (a Roman Catholic priest) and I attended the Convention as representatives of the US Catholic Bishops in Christian friendship.

I spent much of the Convention glued to my Twitter feed, and I'm not typically an avid Twitter user.

News of the proposed resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy broke before the Convention. Twitter was chock full of some of the nastiest, most vile messages against it. Yet, I sensed something was awry. SBC pastors and leaders, as well as most church folks, are some of the most polite people I have ever met. They have a very Southern way of being indirect about grievances and disagreement. While they are also not shy about engaging in debate, what I saw on Twitter did not match the tone or timbre of what I have come to know as the SBC.

I suspect the #sbc17 hashtag was being rigorously trolled by alt-right activists. The vile, pornographic language and level of aggressiveness in the tweets signaled the work of outsiders. The language was so consistent in these tweets, actually, that it could have been the work of just a few (or even a single individual) using continuously new, anonymous accounts making it seems like the outcry was bigger than it really was. 

However, there were also few voices competing with these, before the Convention started. The glaring silence of others in the SBC worried me. Were there no contrary opinions? Were feelings against racism too weak or afraid of the alt-right to speak out? Was the SBC so weary from backlash against repudiating the Confederate Flag last year that it no longer had will to stand up to white supremacy this year? I wondered.

A lot has happened in one year. The campaign of Donald Trump has been associated with a significant increase in violent actions and rhetoric along racial lines. Trump received 81% of the white Evangelical Christian vote--which would soundly describe most SBC members. In the wake of Trump, many in our culture--like myself--were left wondering where do white Evangelicals--like many in the SBC--really stand on racism? Were all the apologies in the past just lip service? Most Americans understand that voters had only a couple choices for president and complex political issues had to be boiled down to a single vote. We get that. But what has been noticeably absent is  white Evangelicals holding Trump accountable since the election. They could be saying to Trump: "Yes, we voted for you, but that was in spite of--and not because of--the racist rhetoric, and we condemn that rhetoric." That outcry has been pretty minimal from the white Evangelical community, which comes across as an endorsement.

When the alt-right resolution failed to be brought to the floor on Day one of the two-day Convention, and when the messengers failed to keep any semblance of it alive after that, Twitter just blew up. It blew up in a way that raised my spirits.

I was so wound up I could barely sleep that night as tweets poured in.

I was so encouraged by the groundswell of support. SBC members simply did not want to leave Phoenix with the world unsure about where their denomination stands on the alt-right and white supremacy. It wasn’t just one Twitter account leading the charge, although there were key leaders in this effort. It was dozens and dozens of formerly silent Twitter accounts erupting all at once. At least one group organized a meeting to draft a new resolution with the resolution's original author, Texas pastor Rev. Dwight McKissic. The Resolutions Committee itself sought to find a way to remedy this. Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, had a hand in drafting the revised version.

I was grateful to witness this.  It was a pure blessing to see both the Twitter messages appearing one after the other in rapid succession and being part of conversations in the convention center hallways. Dozens and dozens of pastors and SBC members entered the fray.

It will be hard to walk away from SBC 2017 without at least a shadow of a doubt as to where the membership stands. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, remarked that the SBC has indeed gotten a "black eye."  

Yes, the SBC stumbled and fell here. It may be hard to wash all the dirt off.  But the stumble created a moment that allowed the SBC to mobilize to make it right.  That movement was pure blessing to watch. I am not a voting member, but as a fellow Christian who cares deeply about what happens here, my heart was with the SBC every step of the way. I am optimistic about the health of the SBC after this.


My assessment: Those who want to put racism behind them are sincere and passionate. There is also a gap between SBC leadership and the membership as well as a generational gap among pastors. When the SBC messengers voted last year to repudiate the Confederate Flag, once person spoke on the Convention floor that it was a fine resolution for pastors but it may be difficult to explain to churchgoers back home. A lot of people want to believe that the SBC has put its racist past behind it, but its rank-and-file membership seems divided as to the necessity of these resolutions and the relevance of symbols like the Confederate Flag.

Some members of the SBC were upset with the headlines coming out the Convention. Those headlines may--or may not--have been unfair. Still, I would urge the SBC not to spend a lot of energy feeling like victims of sensationalistic journalists trying to exploit a controversy for juicy headlines. The hesitation of the SBC over this issue opens real wounds and makes real people wonder where the SBC really stands.  I saw African-American pastors and families shed tears on the Convention floor in shock over what they thought would be a routine denouncement of racism that was instead killed in committee--at a time when our nation cannot afford to be neutral on race.  These are sincere questions that deserve answers.

While I believe SBC senior leaders are sincere in wanting to put racism behind them, they may be guilty of tone deafness here. They underestimated what message it would send by avoiding this topic. Case in point: Alt-right groups were initially declaring this a victory for white supremacy. Perhaps SBC leaders simply wanted to avoid a difficult topic, but sometimes the best way to attract controversy is by attempting to avoid it. Still, those fighting passionately for racial equality and reconciliation are an impressive bunch, and they give the SBC a bright future.

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