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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, finished its annual meeting awkwardly. Vice President Mike Pence was the featured speaker and delivered a speech befitting a campaign rally.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I think there's only one way you can sum up this administration. It's been 500 days of action, 500 days of accomplishment. It's been 500 days of promises made and promises kept.
INSKEEP: OK. If it had been a campaign rally, that would all be normal, but some people at this religious event expected something a little more nonpartisan from their country's vice president. NPR's Tom Gjelten covers religion. He's in our studios. Good morning, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: I do have to wonder, though, given that many Southern Baptists have so strongly backed President Trump, did they really mind this speech?
GJELTEN: Well, I think precisely because so many Southern Baptists have backed President Trump, the Trump administration, there's been some feeling in the movement that maybe they've become a little too closely identified with the Republican Party, with the Trump administration. And one of the people that feel that way is J. D. Greear. He's the pastor who this week was elected president of the Southern Baptists. He made known before he was elected that he thought the movement should be less partisan, focused more on the Gospel message. Listen to this excerpt from a speech he gave to the convention on Monday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
J D GREEAR: 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 in cradled in a manger.
GJELTEN: So that's what Pastor Greear said on Monday. The next day, the Southern Baptists elected him their president. And then yesterday, Vice President Pence showed up and delivered that political speech.
INSKEEP: I want to underline for people that the vice president, of course, he's a politician. He runs for office, but he's also got this office. He's been hired by all of us to perform this civic function. Was Pence aware that the Baptists wanted him to be performing that function rather than being a partisan?
GJELTEN: Well, it didn't sound like it. He may have been, but, I mean, he did lavish praise on the Southern Baptists, but he spent most of his time talking about the Trump administration's accomplishments, from the outreach to North Korea to the achievements in tax reform and growing the economy.
INSKEEP: How did people respond?
GJELTEN: There was a standing ovation at the end of his speech. I mean, Southern Baptists are conservative. They still like the Trump administration. But there was also some criticism and notably from Pastor Greear himself, the new president. Within minutes of Pence finishing his speech, this is what J. D. Greear tweeted - (reading) I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our convention. But make no mistake about it, our identity is in the Gospel. He said, we do missionaries, not political platforms.
INSKEEP: Quite a statement, which overshadowed, we should mention, some other news, something that might have been the major news from the Southern Baptist Convention had this not happened.
GJELTEN: That's right. There have been some pretty serious allegations about some of the male leaders as it is, of course, a male-dominated denomination. In the last few weeks, you've had a Southern Baptist seminary president forced out because of the way he handled abuse complaints by women. Another top officer resigned after acknowledging what he called a morally inappropriate relationship. Southern Baptist women have been quite outspoken about these issues. There was a lot of discussion at the convention about how those situations were handled and how things should change going forward.
INSKEEP: One other thing, Tom Gjelten - maybe they don't want to be as political anymore, the Southern Baptists, but they have views of policies. Did they make any policy suggestions?
GJELTEN: I think the one big news in that regard, Steve, was actually around immigration. This is probably the issue where you see the most distance between the evangelicals and the Trump administration. One of the resolutions passed at this convention called for more acceptance of immigrants. It passed overwhelmingly. It criticized the separation of families at the border. Another resolution called for a more generous treatment of refugees. It cited Bible verses to support that position.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much as always.
GJELTEN: Of course.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.