The Southern Baptist Convention meeting added even more controversy to its agenda this week with the announcement that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would address the gathering. The decision generated much debate and consternation on social media, but a motion to stop Pence’s appearance was defeated.
Baptists have a long tradition of church-state separation, so you might think that they would be especially careful about not signaling an alliance with a political party or politician. But it turns out that Baptists have a long track record of courting politicians, and being courted by them.
One of the most remarkable Baptist political speeches ever came in 1802, when the evangelist John Leland addressed President Thomas Jefferson and members of Congress. Leland was a huge fan of Jefferson, even though he and Jefferson were not on the same page doctrinally. Leland saw Jefferson as the great champion of religious liberty, so he gave a somewhat fawning sermon on Matthew 12:42(b), “Behold a greater [one] than Solomon is here.”
Although leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (founded in 1845) were historically sensitive to the risks of platforming politicians, it became increasingly common to do so starting in the 1950s. Billy Graham, in particular, was eager to get Southern Baptists to drop their traditional attachment to the Democratic Party and to become supporters of the GOP. Thus, in 1956 Graham arranged for Richard Nixon, quickly becoming one of Graham’s closest political allies, to speak at a meeting of the SBC’s Home Mission Board.
During the same era, Foy Valentine of the Christian Life Commission (the predecessor to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) was one of the most influential political progressives in the denomination. Valentine routinely had politicians speak at CLC events, including Democratic senators and sometime presidential candidates such as Ted Kennedy and George McGovern.
It was not unheard of for politicians to address the SBC annual meeting. In 1967, U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican and devout Conservative Baptist, addressed the annual meeting on the topic of poverty and the need for effective welfare policy.
The SBC made a significant turn in 1972 when it invited Nixon to address the annual meeting. With Graham’s assistance, Nixon had continued to cultivate support from the SBC, especially as Americans became disenchanted with the war in Vietnam. SBC officials extended a formal invitation to Nixon, who assured them that he would come if his schedule allowed. Some SBC leaders were outraged at the prospect of Nixon’s appearance, and Nixon thought better of it and decided to withdraw, citing scheduling problems. But a key precedent had been set: the SBC became a destination for major politicians in election years.
In 1976 Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to address the annual meeting. Jimmy Carter did likewise in 1978—in a sense, his was the most expected appearance since Carter was, at the time, still a Southern Baptist. But after his appearance, Democrats at the SBC annual meeting would become an endangered species. Ronald Reagan’s most important address to religious leaders—including SBC luminaries such as W. A. Criswell, Charles Stanley, and Adrian Rogers—came at the August 1980 National Affairs Briefing in Dallas. Reagan famously told the evangelical assembly, “I know you can‘t endorse me . . . but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.“
The SBC connection to the Republican Party—fueled by trends associated with the Conservative Resurgence that began in 1979—became nearly uniform once Reagan was elected. George H. W. Bush spoke at the SBC in 1991, and his Vice President, Dan Quayle, did so in 1992. In spite of his Baptist background, Bill Clinton never addressed the SBC. George W. Bush addressed the SBC in 2002. President Obama never addressed the SBC. It was not hard to see a pattern that had developed. In spite of SBC leaders’ routine insistence that the convention was and is not affiliated with any political party, the SBC had become firmly aligned with the GOP. (Russell Moore did invite Hillary Clinton to speak at an ERLC forum in 2015, but she declined.)
The GOP’s stated support for the right to life and religious liberty make the connection between the Republican Party and the SBC understandable. But that connection can quickly become a liability when it attaches the denomination to politicians such as Nixon, who would never ultimately speak to the SBC again after he resigned in disgrace in 1974.
Southern Baptist leaders who arranged for Mike Pence’s address are following a well-established playbook for the annual meeting. They might want to ask, however, how closely they want the SBC to continue to affiliate with a Republican Party headed by Donald Trump. Access to political power remains enticing. But is the damage to the SBC’s public image, the continued alienation of non-Republicans in the SBC, or the political muddying of the gospel message worth it?
Sign up for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers weekly unique content only to subscribers.