Winning several standing ovations, Vice President Mike Pence gave an often laudatory campaign-style speech Wednesday to the closing session of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling it “one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America.”
Pence, an evangelical Christian, repeatedly made clear that the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. is viewed by him and President Trump as a vital part of their conservative base heading into the midterm elections.
“Today on behalf of the president, I want to say thank you. Thank you to the Southern Baptist Convention for the essential and irreplaceable role you play in America,” Pence said, according to The Washington Post. “I’ll make you a promise: This president, this vice president and our administration will always stand with you.”
Pence devoted much of his speech to touting the Trump administration’s achievements since taking office.
“It’s been 500 days of action, 500 days of accomplishment (and) 500 days of promises made and promises kept,” he said to the crowd of roughly 10,000 at the convention in Dallas.
He received a big ovation by mentioning the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a longstanding goal of many U.S. evangelicals — and he enthused about Trump’s meeting this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“While strong American leadership has accomplished much,” Pence said, according to The Post, “(Trump) and I both know that the righteous and fervent prayers … can accomplish much more. So let’s all pray. Let’s pray for peace for the Korean people and the world.”
Pence drew more loud applause when he declared Trump “the most pro-life president in American history” and noted that he has appointed many conservatives to federal judgeships.
While many seemed pleased with Pence’s speech, some audience members could be seen sitting with their arms folded during the ovations, upset by its partisanship.
The Post reported that J.D. Greear, the North Carolina pastor elected president of the denomination Tuesday in a decisive vote, had misgivings about the tone of the vice president’s speech. “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal,” he tweeted. “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 and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
On Tuesday, as the annual meeting opened, one delegate from Virginia introduced a motion asking that the invitation to Pence be withdrawn and replaced by a time for prayer. Other delegates proposed that the SBC adopt a new policy to avoid speeches by politicians at future annual meetings. But those proposals were defeated or sidetracked.
The Rev. Wade Burleson, an outspoken Baptist pastor from Enid, Oklahoma, alluded to those concerns in a tweet.
“The SBC is changing,” Burleson tweeted. “More than a few voiced their objections to politicians, even strong Christians like Mike Pence, speaking to the SBC. It’s always wise to keep the Gospel a priority.”
There also was strong criticism from Michael Wear, a Washington-based consultant who led evangelical outreach while in President Barack Obama’s White House office of faith-based initiatives.
“I am saddened Pence would be so triumphalistic, so unabashed, so jingoistic,” Wear tweeted. “I’m more saddened that there would be people in the audience, messengers of the gospel (unless they’re outside guests), who would so revel in rubbing their politics in the faces of their brothers & sisters.”
Aside from Pence’s speech, the most sensitive issue confronting the annual meeting related to multiple recent cases of alleged sexual misconduct within the SBC community — and ensuing discussion about the role of women in a denomination with a doctrine of male leadership in the church and in the home.
On Tuesday, with little opposition, delegates adopted resolutions condemning any sexual misconduct by SBC ministers, urging more action to prevent “all forms of abuse,” and encouraging victims to contact civil authorities to seek protection and support.
On Wednesday, the issue resurfaced when Jeffrey Bingham, interim president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the seminary’s annual report, including an update on events surrounding the termination of former President Paige Patterson.
One of the SBC’s most prominent figures, Patterson was ousted because of his response to two rape allegations made years apart by students. He also was accused of making improper remarks about a teenage girl’s body and contending that women who are in abusive relationships should almost always stay with their husbands.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.