By Aaron Earls and Lisa Cannon Green
DALLAS — Vice President Mike Pence lauded the accomplishments of the Trump administration Wednesday to Southern Baptists who a day earlier disputed whether to allow him to speak.
The speech, peppered with biblical references, drew standing ovations when Pence mentioned Trump’s pro-life policies and the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
However, after his surprise visit to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting was announced Monday, some messengers—voting delegates from local SBC churches—called for removing politics from the SBC’s gatherings.
On Tuesday morning, Garrett Kell, a Virginia pastor, asked that Pence’s speech be replaced with a time of prayer to avoid giving the impression Southern Baptists are linked to a political party.
“We must do all that we can to preserve the purity of the gospel, and this invitation works against it,” Kell said.
Grant Ethridge, chairman of the committee on order of business, responded by saying he recognized it was a sensitive issue. But “to not show hospitality to those in authority would be a bad testimony for Southern Baptists,” he said.
“I believe we respect the position regardless of whether or not you supported or voted for the person.”
Kell’s motion failed to garner a majority, but reports indicate the vote was around 60 percent in favor of Pence continuing to speak and 40 percent opposed.
The SBC’s executive committee will consider a separate motion that the convention stop inviting elected officials to speak at future annual meetings.
While most of Pence’s half-hour speech focused on the successes of the Trump administration, he also shared a brief account of his salvation and praised Southern Baptists for extending the gospel across the country and around the world.
“At this very hour you’re planting churches and planting seeds of faith in countless hearts, in America and to the very ends of the earth,” he said.
“Your faith has moved mountains and your witness changes lives every day…. Thank you for carrying that timeless message every day with such faithfulness to the American people.”
Pence also told of visiting Sutherland Springs, Texas, in the aftermath of a November 2017 church shooting. A gunman killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
“We met the injured. We met families of the fallen, still shattered by the evil of that morning. And what we saw beyond the pain was extraordinary,” Pence said.
“Through all the tears and in the midst of such loss, the light, the faith, and the hope of the people of that church shone through. Theirs was a small church—but their faith was not small.”
Southern Baptists and other people of faith make an extraordinary difference in times of disaster, Pence said.
“When disaster strikes, it’s faith communities just like yours that are often there almost immediately with the first responders with an outstretched hand to bind up the brokenhearted,” he said.
“On behalf of the president I want to say thank you to the Southern Baptist Convention for the essential and irreplaceable role you play.”
Pence’s talk to SBC messengers came after the White House inquired about speaking at the annual meeting, said Sing Oldham, vice president of communications at the SBC.
Steve Gaines, president of the SBC, and Ethridge felt it would be an appropriate way to “honor those in authority” and contacted the White House to say Pence would be welcome to speak, pending his availability and the approval of the convention messengers on Tuesday.
Baptists in America have a complicated history of political involvement. Early Baptist leaders fought for separation between church and state due to other Christian groups functioning as official state religions.
Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University, said SBC leaders were aware of the risks of allowing politicians to speak at their meetings, but “it became increasingly common to do so starting in the 1950s.”
In 1972, President Richard Nixon was invited to speak at the annual meeting, according to Kidd. He said he would if his schedule allowed. But after controversy broke out within the denomination, Nixon withdrew.
Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to address the SBC in 1976. Jimmy Carter did the same in 1978. George H.W. Bush spoke in 1991 and Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992. Later, George W. Bush addressed the SBC in 2002.
No Democratic president or vice president has delivered an address to the annual SBC gathering since Carter, who was then a Southern Baptist himself.
Current SBC leaders recognized the divide within the denomination over Pence’s speech.
After his election as SBC president, J.D. Greear said there were many different views within the denomination on having Pence speaking to the annual meeting and “there’s a difference of opinion on how to interpret the event.”
He said Southern Baptists should ask how the event will be interpreted by everyone in attendance and those on the outside.
At an event the night before Pence spoke, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, said he would not have invited Pence nor did he think it was wise to have him speak at the annual meeting. “But we should be careful not to assume the worst and darkest motives of those involved,” he said.
Charity and empathy should “shape the conversation going forward on these types of things,” said Greear.
Those who were in favor of having Pence speak, according to Greear, saw the invitation as a way to honor those in authority and not as a partisan endorsement. “We owe it to them to be charitable enough to believe they are having Pence speak for the reasons they say they are having him speak,” he said.
At the same time, however, Greear said the convention should recognize many feel differently. “We need to show empathy to those who hear a different story and see a different narrative,” he said, “and understand why they see this as an endorsement.”
Greear said the scope of authority for Southern Baptist leaders must be the Bible itself and it should not extend to areas where Scripture is not clear. “We might have strong political opinions and even what we believe to be biblically informed political opinions, but we need to limit ourselves to proclaiming what the Bible says.”
He said the SBC should be clear on issues like the sanctity of life and God’s love for the refugee, but other political topics do not have similarly clear biblical mandates.
“In our convention, we are going to have godly people who are walking with God on both sides of the aisle,” Greear said. “We don’t want to do anything that implies that all Christians should be Republicans or all Christians should be Democrats.”
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