Southern Baptist leaders have joined politicians and corporations who have suddenly changed course this week by publicly opposing the Confederate battle flag.
The shift against the flag comes in the aftermath of a white supremacist executing nine African-Americans during a church service last week in Charleston, South Carolina.
Immediately after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, most white Southern leaders remained timid in criticizing the flag’s presence.
Southern politicians who have challenged the flag in the past saw their political careers hurt or even ended.
Republican South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Southern Baptist, lost re-election in 1998 in part due to his decision to remove the Confederate flag from atop the state’s Capitol building to its current location on the grounds.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, jumped ahead of most presidential candidates, politicians and corporate leaders by penning a widely circulated column last Friday called “The Cross and the Confederate Flag.”
A native of Mississippi, whose state flag includes the Confederate battle flag on it, Moore offered a strong voice against his own prevailing southern culture.
“[T]hat battle flag makes me wince – even though I’m the descendant of Confederate veterans,” Moore wrote. “The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.”
“The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire,” he added. “Let’s take down that flag.”
Other Southern Baptist leaders applauded Moore’s stand, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin.
Yet, even as multiple media outlets reprinted Moore’s column, the fate of the Confederate flag at South Carolina’s Capitol appeared secure. Republican presidential candidates mostly avoided taking a stance on the flag.
The scene shifted quickly on Monday afternoon. Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her earlier stance and called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican running for president, spent the weekend defending the flag as “part of who we are” and insisted “it works here.”
Graham, a Southern Baptist, then joined Haley and others on Monday in calling for its removal from the Capitol grounds.
Only after Haley’s speech – five days after the shooting – did most Republican presidential candidates call for removing the flag.
Moore called the issue “a leadership opportunity for candidates” and criticized “candidates who are skittish” for “demonstrating that they’re not aware of where the country is right now.”
After Haley’s speech, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist pastor, voiced his support for removing the flag. He previously defended the state flying the flag.
Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist, sidestepped questions about the Confederate flag even as some of his staffers fight for it staying at the statehouse.
On the heels of Haley’s speech, several corporations announced they would stop sales of Confederate flags. Wal-Mart made the announcement Monday night, followed on Tuesday by Sears, eBay, Amazon, Target, Etsy and others.
Politicians in other states also started calling for the removal of Confederate flags and symbols.
On Monday evening, Mississippi’s House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican and a Southern Baptist who graduated from Baylor University, issued a statement urging the state to change its flag to remove the battle flag from the design.
“As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed,” Gunn said. “We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”
On Wednesday, Republican Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Southern Baptist, ordered the battle flag removed from the state Capitol grounds.
Perhaps the most significant sign of changing Southern Baptist attitudes about the Confederate flag can be seen in Missouri.
Don Hinkle, director of public policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention and editor of the Convention’s publication, The Pathway, wrote a book defending the Confederate battle flag.
EthicsDaily.com reported in 2008 that in his book, “Embattled Banner: A Reasonable Defense of the Confederate Battle Flag,” Hinkle called himself “an unReconstructed Confederate” and dismissed critics of the flag as “a small group of malcontents and bigots.”
He also compared the NAACP to the KKK and called African-Americans peacefully protesting to remove the Confederate flag “[r]adical blacks” and a “mob.”
EthicsDaily.com asked Hinkle for comment earlier this week. He did not respond but offered a stark change in position the next day on Facebook.
“I think there were a lot of Americans – mostly Southerners – who felt 20 years ago that the mischaracterizations concerning the meaning of the flag that the Confederate Army flew on the battlefield (not the same as the Confederate national flag) could be overcome,” Hinkle wrote. “This effort was valiantly led by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a strictly historical organization much like the Daughters of the American Revolution.”
“But I think time has proven that such efforts have become even more problematic because at least two generations have come to believe it is a symbol of racism. For this reason it should be displayed in historical contexts only,” he added.
Hinkle grounded his change in heart in language similar to that used by Moore.
“For those of us who follow Christ, we cannot allow any stumbling blocks or barriers to arise as we love all people and share the gospel with all,” Hinkle argued. “Love never fails and our Christian witness – before a lost and hurting world – is critical, especially at this national hour of mourning for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering because of a heinous crime committed against their loved ones in Charleston, S.C.”
“I have very strong feelings about the battleflag, but my Christian witness takes priority,” Hinkle added in a comment on his post.