The Southern Baptist blowup over white supremacy, explained

Racism is hard to condemn, apparently.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York
CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) found itself embroiled in unexpected controversy this week, with delegates at its annual convention fighting over a resolution condemning white supremacy.

The kerfuffle went down in Phoenix, Arizona, where SBC leaders convened to discuss, debate, and vote on resolutions for the denomination. Hand-wringing over the issue garnered national headlines for days until attendees finally voted to rebuke new white nationalist movements and “every form of racism” late Wednesday evening.

Major media outlets usually ignore internal church politics, but the SBC is a different beast: It is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, boasting around 15 million members attending more than 46,000 churches nationwide. More importantly, it has long sought to play an influential role in politics, and several prominent GOP leaders, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), are affiliated with the community. They’re also especially relevant at the moment: the overwhelmingly white denomination is considered part of the evangelical Christian tradition, which means its members were part of the 80 percent of white evangelicals who backed Donald Trump in November.

So when the gathering suddenly descended into a back-and-forth over the legacy of white supremacy and white supremacist theology, people took notice.

Just what is all the fuss about? Here’s a quick rundown.

A black pastor introduced a resolution condemning white supremacy

Dwight McKissic, a black SBC pastor from Texas, introduced a resolution to the convening on Tuesday entitled “Condemning the [white nationalist movement sometimes called the] ‘Alt-right’ & White Nationalism.” Among other things, McKissic’s proposal — which he posted on his blog weeks before — declared that the “growing menace” of white nationalism in the U.S. must be “opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.”

McKissic told the Washington Post he was inspired to introduce the proposal partly because he has witnessed SBC members aligning themselves with the hateful movement.

“I saw people identifying themselves as Southern Baptist and members of the alt-right, so this is horrifying to me,” McKissic said. “I wanted the Southern Baptist Convention to make it very clear we have no relationship to them.”

It’s worth noting that while only six percent of the SBC is black according to Pew, the denomination has worked to increase the diversity of their leadership: from 2012 to 2014, the SBC president was Fred Luter, an African American pastor.

He zeroed in on the “Curse of Ham”

In addition to white supremacy writ large, McKissic’s resolution called on attendees to condemn a very specific theological argument known as the “curse of Ham.”

WHEREAS, the roots of White Supremacy within a “Christian context” is based on the so-called “curse of Ham” theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years — echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos — which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation. The SBC officially renounces the “curse of Ham” theory in this Resolution…

While it may seem like an obscure reference, the “curse of Ham” was once a primary religious justification for slavery. Technically, the term is something of a misnomer: it refers to a story from the biblical book of Genesis in which Noah is seen naked by his son Ham. Noah took deep offense to this, and subsequently cursed Ham’s son Canaan — and, by extension, his descendants the Canaanites — to become a “servant of servants,” or slaves.

Several millennia later, European Christians used this passage — for seemingly arbitrary reasons — to argue that African people are the “sons of Ham” who are supposedly “darkened” by their sins.

David Goldenberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has published two books on the curse of Ham, explained to ThinkProgress that this interpretation was pervasive in early America.

“Over time, this story was understood to say that black skin was part of the curse,” Goldenberg said, quoting from his most recent book, Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham. “The idea that blackness and slavery are inescapably joined and that the Bible thus consigned blacks to everlasting servitude had its most notorious manifestation in antebellum America, where it provided biblical validation for sustaining the slave system.”

Fast forward to the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was forged using racist ideals. Like many Christian denominations in the United States, baptists split over the issue of slavery, bifurcating into northern and southern branches — meaning SBC was, by its very nature, founded in support of slavery.

The SBC has worked to atone for this historical legacy for years, and McKissic’s resolution was designed to be yet another step forward in that process.

But then things got ugly.

Richard Spencer gets involved

Proposals at the SBC have to pass through committees before they can be voted on by the larger assembly. Despite moderate buzz about McKissic’s proposal, however, the resolutions committee decided not to move forward with his resolution on Tuesday. Undaunted, the pastor stepped up to the mic at the assembly and asked the convention to allot time for his resolution to be heard. That, too, failed.

The body’s refusal to even vote on the resolution incensed several observers including Trillia Newbell, a black staffer on the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Commission, who tweeted, “I’m seriously in tears. What’s going on?!”

The subsequent social media firestorm was rancorous enough on its own, but things took an unexpected turn when prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted approvingly of the SBC’s decision.

Spencer’s interest in theological matters is somewhat unexpected, as he rarely mixes religious ideas with his own hateful ideology. In fact, Spencer has publicly described himself as a “cultural Christian” in the past — as opposed to a confessing believer — and reportedly claimed to be an atheist in a conversation with a Friendly Atheist writer.

Regardless, if Spencer’s goal was the celebrate the SBC’s refusal to take up the resolution, his influence ultimately had the exact opposite effect.

Backlash, then a new resolution

After Spencer’s tweet, a group of pastors began furiously lobbying for the body to take up the resolution to condemn white nationalism. By Wednesday, prominent leaders such as Russell Moore — head of the SBC’s political arm and a staunch critic of Trump — were offering public support for a resolution.

Indeed, a new resolution was introduced — but not without its own controversy. For starters, the committee that penned it did not consult with McKissic, and the head of the resolutions committee told The Atlantic that “This is the committee’s resolution…This is not Brother McKissic’s resolution.” Worse, only one member of the 10-person drafting committee was African American.

For his part, McKissic said the he supports the resolution “100 percent,” but bemoaned one omission: the committee cut the reference to the “curse of Ham,” calling it “redundant.”

Regardless, the condemnation of white nationalist movements eventually stoked the ire of Spencer, who referred to the SBC as “cucked out.”

The final vote, but then what?

Despite the drama, the SBC gathering finally voted—seemingly unanimouslyin favor of the resolution on Wednesday night, hoping to put the issue to rest. Its passage was immediately lauded by many, and Barrett Duke, the resolutions chair, even offered a public apology to McKissic for the hubbub.

McKissic tweeted his own satisfaction.

But caveats remain. For one, the SBC does not use a top-down hierarchical structure, meaning its members aren’t bound by resolutions passed at the assembly in the traditional sense. The SBC ascribes to “congregationalist” polity, meaning that most of the power is decentralized and focused within individual churches, not a singular body.

As such, it’s unclear what, if any, lasting influence the resolution will have on SBC member churches, much less the broader swath of white evangelicals.

Meanwhile, questions remain as to why the controversy was necessary in the first place, and whether the SBC will ever be able to shake its racist past.

For now, though, at least the SBC leadership publicly agrees on one thing: white nationalism should be condemned. Well, eventually.