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Pence Speech Riles Some As Southern Baptists' Moderates Gain Strength

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting on Wednesday in Dallas.
Rodger Mallison
Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting on Wednesday in Dallas.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, wrapped up its annual meeting Wednesday on a partisan tone. The featured speaker was Vice President Pence, who spoke of the day he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and of the importance of prayer, but mostly delivered a speech fit for a campaign rally.

"Let me begin by bringing greetings from a good friend of mine who just got back to the White House this morning — a man who, I can tell you, has been delivering every day to protect faith and restore freedom across this country," Pence said. "I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump!"

Evangelical Christians have been dogged in their support for the administration, polls have shown, and the Southern Baptist Convention reaction was generally enthusiastic. Pence got his biggest standing ovation when he highlighted Trump moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But for some meeting attendees, Pence's speech was a little too political. J.D. Greear, the group's newly elected president, tweeted minutes later that it "sent a terribly mixed signal ... commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do."

One could call the somewhat mixed reaction foreordained: On Tuesday, a resolution calling to replace Pence as speaker in the interests of showing a more nonpartisan face was defeated, but 3 in 10 attendees favored it.

Greear in particular had urged the denomination to step back from politics, including this passage in his speech to the meeting on Monday, prior to his election:

"We believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. He is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger."

In general the meeting showed moderates within the denomination in ascendancy, particularly on immigration issues. Resolutions were passed that called for more acceptance of immigrants, criticized the separation of families at the border and urged more generous treatment of refugees.

Pence's speech helped bring to a close a gathering that was convened Monday under a cloud of sexual misconduct allegations. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told NPR's Michel Martin the day before that the volume of allegations coming out was overwhelming.

"We're a fairly loose confederation of churches. And it just didn't seem likely that there could be the same kind of conspiracy of silence," Mohler said. "What we've learned is that this kind of silence can be just as dangerous if unorganized. ... Things have not come to light that should have long ago come to light."

That has included the firing and ejection of a prominent seminary's president after it was alleged that he'd been dismissive of harassment and encouraged spousal abuse and rape victims to pray and forgive rather than report crimes to the police.

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.