Southern Baptists wrestle with tensions over Trump election

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The Southern Baptist Convention, home to prominent evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump, adopted a statement on moral leadership at the group's annual meeting Tuesday that avoided pointed criticism of current political officeholders.

The denomination also rejected a proposal to condemn the "alt-right," the political movement that came to the forefront during the presidential election that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism. Barrett Duke, a Southern Baptist executive who shepherded the statements through the meeting, said the resolution contained inflammatory and broad language "potentially implicating" conservatives who do not support the "alt-right" movement.

The event in Phoenix is the first Southern Baptist annual meeting since the U.S. presidential election, which riled the denomination's leadership over whether Trump, a thrice-married casino and real estate mogul, was morally fit for office.

The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which serves as the Southern Baptist's public policy arm, was among the candidate's most vocal evangelical critics. In late 2015, Moore called evangelical support for the Republican "illogical" and a repudiation of everything Christian conservatives believe. On Twitter, Trump called Moore a "nasty guy."

At the same time, several prominent Southern Baptists became evangelical advisers to Trump's campaign, including the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas, and the Revs. Jack Graham and Ronnie Floyd, who were both former presidents of the denomination. Evangelicals who backed Trump generally saw him as a flawed but potentially effective leader who could deliver a conservative nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court and religious exemptions for opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage.

When Trump won last November with 80 percent of the white evangelical vote, Moore faced a backlash within the denomination. At a news conference in Phoenix, Moore insisted, "the denomination's leadership is unified. Probably we're more unified than I have seen for a long time. We love each other. We work together." He is scheduled to speak to the Phoenix meeting late Wednesday.

In voting Tuesday, the resolution on moral leadership urged church, government and business leaders to set a positive example and thanked public officials who "displayed consistent moral character and uncompromising commitment to biblical principles."

A pastor had asked the convention to essentially reaffirm a resolution on morality for public officials that Southern Baptists adopted in 1998, as President Bill Clinton was under investigation for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Quoting the 1998 document, the pastor, Micah Fries of Chattanooga, Tennessee, proposed restating that "serious allegations continue to be made about moral and legal misconduct by certain public officials" and "character does count in public office." That language was not included in the statement adopted Tuesday.

Instead, the resolution decried how leaders "in every walk of life" had "destroyed their careers" and "brought shame" through poor moral choices. The statement also commended leaders who won't meet alone with members of the opposite sex other than their spouses to avoid temptation. Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian, has said he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, which caused an online uproar among liberals and conservatives last March when a story in The Washington Post drew attention to the practice.

The resolution against the "alt-right" had been proposed by a prominent African-American pastor, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas. After his measure was rejected, some Southern Baptists defended the outcome in part by pointing to their repeated condemnations of racism over the years. The 15.2 million-member denomination, the nation's largest Protestant group, has been working to overcome its founding in the 19th century in defense of slaveholders.

The convention approved a different resolution re-stating the Southern Baptist's long-standing opposition to gambling and condemning the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for its role as the leading abortion provider in the U.S.

That resolution urged Congress, as well as state and local governments, to halt all taxpayer funding that supports Planned Parenthood. Citing a series of controversial undercover videos, the resolution also urged the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges related to the handling of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood has denounced those videos as deceptive and denies profiting from a handful of programs that supply fetal tissue to medical researchers.


Wang reported from Phoenix. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York.