Can a denomination that’s dedicated to personal responsibility formulate a collective response to structural inequalities in America?
“Racial reconciliation is not something that white people do for other people,” proclaimed Russell Moore in March. Moore, a white man from Mississippi, was opening a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, with an eminently tweetable, infinitely complicated call to end racial division within the church.
As membership in the Southern Baptist church stagnates and baptisms decline, and as America’s younger generations are becoming more diverse and less religious, this kind of rhetoric could seem like a straightforward bid for survival. Millennials care deeply about race and racial justice, so the church has to care, too. Moore’s calls for reconciliation seemed heartfelt, though, as did those of many of the pastors and leaders who met at the Southern Baptists’ conference on race. And they are part of a consistent, longstanding effort. Since at least 1995, the church has been publicly repenting for its history of racial discrimination. Arguably, it has made progress; minority participation in Southern Baptist congregations has blossomed. Yet after two decades, the public-policy arm of the church is still focused almost exclusively on conservative social issues, rather than topics like poverty and mass incarceration, which have a significant impact on racial disparities in America. As the demographics of the church change, the Southern Baptists will have to reckon with these issues—or, perhaps, face future decades of division within their churches.
In 2013, Moore was elected the head of the Southern Baptists’ public-policy organization, called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC. He is full of pithy zingers; he’s a Christian leader suited for the social-media age. Moore has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform, sometimes out of keeping with the Republican Party; in July, he wrote that, “As Christians … our response ought to be, first, one of compassion for those penned up in detention centers on the border.” Many the ERLC’s policy priorities have remained the same, though, keeping a focus on conservative social issues, including opposition to pornography, gay marriage, and abortion; support for two-parent families; and a broad interpretation of “religious freedom,” defending vendors who refuse to provide services for gay weddings and businesses that won’t cover employees’ birth control under the Affordable Care Act.
But the most important change Moore has made since taking office has also been among the most subtle: shifting how Southern Baptists talk about race. For 25 years, Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, was the face of the Southern Baptists in American politics. In the 90s, he led the denomination’s hard-right shift; years later, he became an appointee in the George W. Bush administration. Until 2012, he had his own talk-radio program, Richard Land Live! That show eventually proved his undoing: In a 2012 segment about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Land said that black political leaders were using Martin’s death to “gin up the black vote.” He also said that a black man is “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” His timing was particularly bad—he spoke just a few months before Fred Luter, a pastor from New Orleans, was slated to become the first-ever black president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Leaders in the church called for Land to be fired, arguing that his continued presence would undermine the meaningfulness of Luter’s election. Eight weeks later, following a review by the ERLC’s trustees, his radio show was cancelled, and the following month, he announced his retirement.
His replacement, on the other hand, has made a point of speaking with empathy and open anger during recent moments of racial tension and violence. “It’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem,” Moore said in response to the death of Eric Garner via police chokehold in New York City. When a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Moore took to Twitter and the blogosphere with stats about how the criminal-justice system disproportionately penalizes black men.
But even as Moore presses for racial reconciliation, his framing remains complicated: Racism, church leaders say, is a result of the sinful nature of man.
That is a distinctively Christian casual claim, one that defines how the Southern Baptists are thinking about racial reconciliation within the church. To a certain extent, it also shapes how the church’s leaders are—and aren’t—thinking about racial disparities as a public-policy issue: Notably absent from the ERLC’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and the decades of Jim Crow that followed. For Southern Baptists, it’s ironic to embrace the former but ignore the latter, for a simple reason: Their denomination helped define the history of American racism.
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