Vice President Mike Pence pledged to prioritize issues that matter to evangelical Christians during his address at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Texas on Wednesday morning.
Speaking to an estimated crowd of more than 11,000 delegates from America’s largest Protestant denomination, Pence boasted about President Donald Trump’s accomplishments and promised Southern Baptists that the current administration “will always stand with you.”
“I know, with your strong support in prayers … with Donald Trump in the White House and God’s help, we will make America safe again, we will make America prosperous again, and to borrow a phrase, we will make America great again,” Pence said.
During the wide-ranging speech, Pence touted actions the president has taken that were seen as victories by evangelical Christians ― securing the release of three Korean-American evangelicals who were detained in North Korea, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and taking steps to defund Planned Parenthood. These mentions were greeted with raucous applause and standing ovations from the gathered crowd. At one point, an audience member yelled, “Four more years!”
According to the SBC, the White House had reached out about Pence addressing its meeting. Pence, an evangelical Christian, is part of a long line of Republican politicians to speak at the Southern Baptist’s annual meeting. Gerald Ford addressed the meeting in 1976. President George W. Bush delivered a speech via satellite during the convention’s 2004 meeting. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) spoke on Tuesday.
But news of Pence’s speech had provoked a considerable amount of dissent among attendees, revealing a fissure in the denomination over associating with President Donald Trump. Some attendees of the meeting planned to skip the vice president’s speech on Wednesday and instead hold prayer sessions in other parts of the convention center, The Washington Post reports.
Pence’s appearance at the SBC meeting comes at a time when America’s largest Protestant denomination is grappling with racial and sexual misconduct issues. The vice president’s selection was controversial because the Trump administration’s stance on racial justice could hurt Southern Baptists’ attempts to distance themselves from white supremacy and the Republican party. The denomination was formed in 1845 by Baptists in the South who split from their northern counterparts in defense of slavery, and the group has been striving in recent years to atone for that racist history.
Trump is highly supported by white evangelicals across denominations: 75 percent said they hold a favorable view of the president, according to an April poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. On the other hand, Christians of color hold significantly less favorable views of the president.
The church has also been reckoning with the Me Too movement, including the removal of Southern Baptist seminary president Paige Patterson after allegations that he mishandled a student’s rape complaint. Pence is the second-in-command to a president who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women.
Virginia-based pastor Garrett Kell proposed an amendment on Tuesday calling for the conference to replace Pence’s speech with prayer time. About 30 to 40 percent of delegates supported his measure, but the overwhelming majority approved of Pence being invited to speak.
“Many of our minority brothers and sisters will be especially hurt by this invitation and I fear that it would communicate that our political associations are more important than our association with them,” Kell said.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram via Getty Images Messengers pray and worship on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, at the 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas.
Southern Baptists also elected a new president for their denomination on Tuesday. J.D. Greear, a 45-year-old megachurch pastor from North Carolina, is the denomination’s youngest president in decades and is seen by many to represent a younger generation of evangelicals. Greear ran on a platform focused on church planting, renewing personal evangelization efforts, increasing racial and cultural diversity in leadership, and engaging with young people.
More than 68 percent of delegates chose Greear over the second candidate, 70-year-old former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Ken Hemphill.
On his website, Greear said he is approaching his new position with humility and hope.
“God is stirring in the SBC. He has exposed a startling amount of sin in our midst. He has shaken many of our foundations. And I actually think that’s good news, because whom the Lord loves, he chastens,” Greear wrote. “He is inviting us, I believe, into an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the Great Commission, if we repent.”