Politicians on both sides speak to national church gatherings all the time. You know that, right? It’s not unusual for the Southern Baptist Convention to have invited Vice President Mike Pence to address their annual meeting today.
Some Baptists said in advance that it was a bad idea. For one, the role of Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, one of the biggest and most powerful church in the SBC, as a chief spiritual adviser for Donald Trump has been controversial within church circles. Many younger Southern Baptists — conservatives, not liberals — are tired of the denomination’s close association with the Republican Party. Plus, Trump’s history of treating women crudely does not sit well with many in the SBC, which has been stricken by a sex abuse scandal that has taken out its most accomplished conservative leader, Paige Patterson. (N.B., Patterson was not personally accused of abuse, but of handling it very badly.)
Nevertheless, Pence came. This would have been a perfect occasion for the vice president to deliver a policy speech on the importance of protecting religious liberty — an issue that matters to Southern Baptists more than just about anybody.
Nope. Most of the speech — which you can watch here — was pure political #MAGA. “Under President Donald Trump, America is back, and we’re just getting started!” he said, in a typical line.
When Pence did bring up religious liberty, he spoke passionately about how the administration is dedicated to getting rid of the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code forbidding non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing particular candidates.
“We will not rest until it is repealed!” Pence thundered. The tepid applause indicates how low on the priority list the Johnson Amendment is for most Christians, even those who are really engaged on the religious liberty issue. It only really matters to the machers of Conservative Christianity, Inc.
Pence mentioned abortion and persecuted Christians abroad, but explicitly in context of how Christians have never had it so good as they do under Trump. It was a repulsive speech, quite frankly, despite some good non-political material at the end, added almost as an afterthought.
The Southern Baptists are not theologically liberal, mind you. For Southern Baptists hoping to escape their “Republican Party At Prayer” image, and refocus their denomination on religious mission, the Pence speech was a huge setback.
UPDATE: I know these guys. They’re conservatives.
That it happened was bad enough. That it was essentially a stump speech was unbearable.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) June 13, 2018