Donald Trump vs. Mike Pence at the Southern Baptist Convention - Word&Way

Donald Trump vs. Mike Pence at the Southern Baptist Convention

Republican primary voters made their choice — overwhelmingly — about whether they wanted to continue supporting a twice-impeached president indicted (and now convicted) amid various scandals involving adultery, business fraud, national security violations, and trying to overturn a free and fair election he lost. Some lifelong traditional Republicans stepped up, hoping to help the party shake off the drama of Donald Trump. Like Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, who saw a MAGA mob want to hang him for disagreeing with Trump on just one day of his vice presidency. Yet, like the other presidential hopefuls, Pence proved no match for the cult of personality.

That divide between traditional conservativism and Trumpism will again be on display next week at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. Trump will speak virtually on Monday (June 10) during a side event promoted on the SBC’s website. Pence will appear the next day in person at another official side event. With these two appearances, we see the political fight for control of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination just months before a critical presidential election.

To appreciate the split between the Trump and Pence wings of the SBC, it’s worth revisiting the controversy that erupted when Pence spoke at the SBC annual meeting in 2018. Back then, the two politicians were still unified on a Trump-Pence ticket, so to invite Pence was to back Trump.

With the annual meeting that year occurring less than five months before the midterm elections, then-SBC President Steve Gaines announced on the eve of the meeting that Pence would speak two days later. When the meeting opened the day after the news, multiple messengers attempted to change the schedule to prevent Pence from speaking. The critics worried about how partisan it would make the SBC seem in an election year and particularly highlighted how it could hurt outreach to Black and Latino communities upset at the policies and rhetoric of the Trump-Pence administration. But most messengers rebuffed the calls and voted to keep Pence on the schedule.

After making a few remarks thanking Southern Baptists for their work in the country and around the world, Pence settled into a campaign-style speech that mentioned Trump much more than God. He went through a litany of things Trump had accomplished and noted it was “a pivotal year in the life of our nation” with the election coming up. Pence even invoked Trump’s campaign catchphrase: “We will make America great again.”

Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas, Texas, on June 13, 2018. (Van Payne/Baptist Press)

“It was so over-the-top partisan,” I told the Washington Post at the time, contrasting it with how other political figures like President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had spoken at previous SBC meetings. “This was all about Trump. Trump is the singular strong leader. Trump is the one doing this or that. I was surprised how strong he came down on the tone.”

Others, including some Southern Baptist pastors, agreed. But most SBC messengers cheered Pence and his praise of Trump. And some of them even created an organizing effort in part to help make sure the convention would remain on the side of Trump and Pence.

The Conservative Baptist Network launched in 2020 to push the SBC further rightward, especially in culture war politics. The group’s announcement of its launch articulated two key issues. First, they condemned “the apparent emphasis on social justice, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and the redefining of biblical gender roles” they saw among some in SBC life. Second, they complained about the criticism of Pence speaking at the SBC’s annual meeting. CBN made clear from the start they wanted the SBC fully engaged in Trumpian politics, as was also obvious from its steering council that included several political figures like former Republican National Committee faith director Chad Connelly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen, and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Before becoming Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson made a video offering support for CBN.

CBN presidential candidates haven’t fared well, losing each of the three annual campaigns they’ve contested — though Trumpian media figures like Charlie Kirk, Eric Metaxas, and Jenna Ellis (who’s not a fan of A Public Witness) helped elevate the effort to remake the SBC. But CBN individuals have gained some other positions and have also pushed issues during SBC meetings.

A key punching bag for CBN leaders has been Russell Moore because of his outspoken status as a “Never Trumper,” his push to do more to tackle clergy sexual abuse in Southern Baptist life, and his support for public health measures like masking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moore ultimately left his role as president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2021 (and now leads Christianity Today). Mike Stone, the CBN presidential candidate in two of the last three years, even sued Moore. But Moore’s departure didn’t end the attacks on the ERLC now led by a former Moore staffer (who was previously a Republican activist).

And this is where the Trump-Pence split plays out now in SBC life. Pence will speak at the ERLC’s luncheon, while Trump will speak at a luncheon cosponsored by CBN along with groups like the Family Research Council and Liberty University.

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The Trumpian wing of the SBC launched CBN in part with a defense of Pence speaking at the 2018 SBC annual meeting. Now some Baptists who back Trump are criticizing the ERLC for inviting “anti-Trump” Pence — a designation that is only true if one thinks Pence should have violated the Constitution to help the effort to overturn the presidential election. So CBN will instead cheer for Trump just weeks after his conviction on 34 felony counts for falsifying business documents to cover up his hush money payments to a porn star he had an affair with.

Others speaking in person at the event Trump will address virtually include former Trump administration Ambassador Sam Brownback, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (who’s not a fan of A Public Witness), a former pastor of Speaker Johnson, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler. Interestingly, CBN and Mohler were initially at odds as CBN formed while he was campaigning unsuccessfully for SBC president. But just as he flipped since CBN’s formation from being “Never Trump” to endorsing Trump and even defending him after the felony convictions, now Mohler’s joining hands with a group he originally criticized for even forming.

Another side event, which isn’t listed on the SBC website, is scheduled to compete with the ERLC Pence luncheon. This luncheon will be hosted by the Center for Baptist Leadership, a new group hoping to make the SBC even more conservative. It’s led by William Wolfe, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who served in the Trump administration. The keynote speaker will be Megan Basham, a writer for the Daily Wire conservative publication who’s been a strident critic of Moore, the ERLC, and Pence. Also speaking will be Dusty Deevers, a Southern Baptist pastor who’s made headlines for his Christian Nationalistic legislative proposals as a state senator in Oklahoma.

When Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler launched an effort in 1979 to push the SBC rightward, it changed the future not only of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination but also of U.S. politics. Pressler, a Republican political activist, saw the effort push out Baptists who supported Democrats and help steer evangelical voters toward Republicans. One of the early victims of this work was then-Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter, ousted the following year as SBC leaders in the Patterson-Pressler camp campaigned for Ronald Reagan.

Over four decades later, the SBC might be in the midst of another significant political shift, one that mirrors the transformation of the Republican Party. And just as Trump has faced legal troubles after allegations of sexual assault, Pressler has been accused in court by multiple men of unwanted sexual advances and even rape. And Patterson, who helped start CBN, was ousted from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 for mishandling allegations of student rapes. Perhaps the Trumpian turn in the SBC shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s fruit from the tree Patterson and Pressler planted.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor


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