Sunday, June 18, 2017

Southern Baptists and the Alt-Right: On Being in the Room Where it Happened (by Nathan Finn

In the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about a deal struck between political rivals Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison concerning where the permanent capital of the United States should be located. Burr laments that, “no one else was in the room where it happened.” Of course, Burr harbors some significant political ambitions himself, so before the song ends, he switches to singing, “I’ve gotta be in the room where it happens!” The message is that you have to actually be there to really understand what is going on.

Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution “On the Anti-Gospel of Alt-Right Supremacy.” It was not without some controversy. During its report on Tuesday afternoon, the resolutions committee declined to present the original resolution, which had been submitted by Texas pastor Dwight McKissic. The committee was concerned the original resolution didn’t adequately define the Alt-Right and included some language that was arguably inappropriate; they rejected McKissic’s resolution instead of revising it to make it more acceptable. However, it became clear fairly quickly that the resolutions committee had misjudged the desire of the convention and something needed to be said about the topic. Because the SBC follows Robert’s Rule of Order, parliamentary procedure dictated how the relevant committees, the chair, and ultimately the messengers should move forward. A revised resolution was prepared on Tuesday evening, it was presented to the convention on Wednesday morning, and that afternoon the SBC voted by a 99%+ margin to adopt the resolution.

What I just recounted is a condensed, but accurate account of what happened. I know exactly how it all went down because I was in the room where it happened. I was in the convention hall for all the relevant presentations and votes. I was in conversation with several individuals who were directly involved at every stage of the process. I publicly advocated that the SBC take a stand on the issue prior to the convention and during the meeting I worked to make sure messengers were in the hall at the appropriate times. I was there, and I was engaged. I know what I’m talking about. And so do many, many other people who were also in the room where it happened.

Because I was there, I’ve been disappointed at some of the musings, pontifications, and even insinuations of those who weren’t there, including both secular media and armchair quarterbacks who were offering misinformed assessments. At no point and in no way was the resolutions committee being “soft” on the Alt-Right or other forms of white supremacy. At no point were Southern Baptists debating whether or not we ought to denounce these demonic impulses. At no point did Steve Gaines or anyone else force Southern Baptists to do something they didn’t want to do. At no point were Southern Baptists wringing their hands over how we would look in the media if we didn’t do something. At no point were we trying not to offend Trump voters—or any other voters, for that matter. None of that happened, and folks who suggest it did are either speaking out of ignorance or out of malicious intent, period.

Ed Stetzer is absolutely correct: this issue played out over two days because we are bound to our parliamentary procedure, a necessary component to an efficient business meeting the size of the SBC annual meeting. Yes, the resolutions committee could have revised the original resolution and we could have avoided the controversy. But chairman Barrett Duke admitted as much and publicly apologized for making the wrong call. We should acknowledge and accept his apology. Also, there might well be an honest difference of opinion about whether the original or revised resolution was the best statement. But these sorts of differences are commonplace among Baptists, and they do not detract from the truth that virtually everyone at the convention was of the same opinion about the Alt-Right and white supremacy.

Some have complained that the revised resolution not only speaks against the Alt-Right and white supremacy in general, but also recounts recent advances Southern Baptists have made in speaking out against racism and for racial reconciliation. I would simply respond that every bit of that is true and worth noting. This resolution is consistent with many decisions and initiatives over the past twenty years because our recent track record on these matters is commendable, even as we should also acknowledge we still have a long way to go. If mentioning our recent track record in the resolution offends some readers, I would suggest it might be because they aren’t willing to give Southern Baptists the benefit of the doubt. Again, we no doubt have a long way to go—but we’ve also come a long way. And as Russell Moore so eloquently said at the convention, playing off of a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of history is toward Jesus.”

This is the bottom line: if you weren’t in the room where it happened, then you really don’t know. You are free to make whatever assumptions you wish, but please admit they are just that: assumptions, rather than informed commentary based on first-hand knowledge. And as you make those assumptions, give us the benefit of the doubt. It’s the Christ-like thing to do.

Nathan A. Finn is dean of the School of Theology and Missions and professor of theological studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.



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