News about Vice President Mike Pence’s address during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas last week has been widely publicized at this point.
His campaign-style speech asked for the “strong support” of the SBC messengers in attendance and reiterated a pledge to “make America great again.”
Criticism of the SBC’s decision to invite an emissary from the Trump administration to speak at this year’s meeting – all while the conservative denomination faces its own #MeToo moment and the White House has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border – was fierce.
Newly elected SBC President J.D. Greear acknowledged it’s a “terribly mixed signal” while another SBC pastor captured my own thoughts on the debacle, tweeting, “I love America. I like Mike Pence. I hate this.”
I am no longer a Southern Baptist, but, as one Christian speaker who grew up in the SBC tradition recently put it, the denomination still feels “like a great uncle in a state I used to live in.”
So many of us care about the SBC’s faithful witness and mission, even as we find ourselves in disagreement with the convention over some of the particulars, so the handling of this speech at an otherwise encouraging annual meeting is something we lament.
I would submit that the problem was not the vice president’s presence at the convention’s annual meeting in and of itself, but rather the missed opportunity to speak truth to power while he was in the room.
Consider if the SBC had asked its ERLC President Russell Moore – who has offered pointed, fair criticisms of the Trump administration in the past – to instead interview the vice president.
The discussion would have, no doubt, allowed Pence an opportunity to tout the administration’s victories for pro-life and religious liberty causes while sharing about the foundations of his personal faith.
Moore would have also been able to press the self-proclaimed evangelical on how he squares the administration’s labeling of gang members as “animals” with the gospel principle of “Imago Dei,” or whether he believes that things like personal character and fidelity in marriage are still important qualities in those who seek to serve our highest office.
Similarly, an interview would have allowed the SBC to confront the administration’s unjust immigration policies by directing the vice president’s attention to the convention’s newly adopted resolution, which calls for treating immigrants “with the same respect and dignity as those native born” and “maintaining the priority of family unity” in any federal immigration policy while also declaring nativism of any form to be inconsistent with the gospel.
But none of this happened.
The truth is, Southern Baptists aren’t the only ones to allow politicians a stage and a photo-op without the tough questions that should follow.
While the SBC met in Dallas, the Christian publication, Sojourners, hosted the “Summit for Change” in Washington D.C., where progressive Christian speakers discussed matters of faith and social justice.
An exclusively Democratic lineup of members of Congress spoke at the event, shaking hands, highlighting their accomplishments and working in a few jabs at the current administration – some deserved and some not.
At one point, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered a stirring reminder in his speech that, “We are all made in God’s image … we each have a God-given dignity that no one can take away.”
The congressman’s words – and those of his colleagues – ring a little hollow, however, when you consider that each member of Congress appearing at the event has voted against the “God-given dignity” of their most vulnerable constituents: the unborn.
Indeed, legislators in attendance like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Texas) have gone so far as to call for repealing a modest, bipartisan pro-life protection that already exists in law today: the Hyde Amendment.
The 42-year-old policy, long added to annual spending bills in Washington, prohibits taxpayer funding of elective abortions and is estimated to have saved some 2 million preborn babies’ lives.
Sojourners is led by a professing pro-life supporter who has, for decades, been a tireless and gifted advocate of justice for those on the margins.
Yet when this slate of lawmakers appeared at his event, they were not asked about their repeated denials of justice to the most innocent among us.
We should recognize that it is easy for conservatives to talk about matters of unborn life and religious liberty; I pray they never stop and that more would join them.
It sometimes takes courage, however, to talk about compassionate immigration reform that keeps families together or protecting the social safety net for our neighbors most in need.
It is easy for progressives to talk about the dignity of refugees, immigrants and the poor – and thank God they do.
It’s less easy to talk about the dignity of innocent babies in the womb created with divine purpose who deserve to see the light of day.
In both cases, may we as Christ-followers be the ones to insist on having the conversation anyway.
Let us exhort people of faith in the political arena to speak to the vast array of concerns that are close to the heart of God – not just those that poll well with their particular tribe.
Writer Kaitlyn Scheiss, who contributes regularly to Christ & Pop Culture, took to social media last week to sum things up thusly. “Both parties should feel a little uneasy addressing a group of Christians because our convictions don’t conform to a party platform. We have to stop making one party so dang comfortable.”
May God grant us the will to get out of our comfort zones so we can spur our civic leaders to get out of theirs.
Jonathan Frank is a communications professional and former congressional aide living in Washington, D.C. He attends First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.