June 15 (Reuters) - The outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) railed against racism and the influence of politics within the conservative U.S. evangelical movement in a Tuesday speech, which appeared aimed at quelling a hard move to the right among some leaders.
J.D. Greear, a North Carolina pastor who has worked to diversify the denomination's leadership, spoke at the annual meeting of the largest U.S. Protestant denomination during this week's convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
"We ought not make it hard for our Black friends to find God," said Greear, who heads the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, and was elected to his post in June 2018. "Don't make it hard for Democrats. Don't make it hard for public school teachers and police officers," he said in a speech that drew a standing ovation.
His words come at a time of deep division among many pastors and members over such issues as racism, the role of women and controversy over the church's response to a sex abuse scandal.
The Southern Baptist Convention is trying to increase membership and diversify its ranks as the denomination faces a decline.
The wing more allied with Greear prevailed narrowly in the denomination's leadership elections on Tuesday, electing as president Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who has worked on issues of racial reconciliation. Litton won with 52% of the votes, compared with 48% for Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who had won support from the politically active Conservative Baptist Network, which has called some social justice theories "unbiblical."
Numerous Black leaders have left the church in recent months after six SBC seminary presidents, all white men, denounced critical race theory, a framework of ideas developed by academics of color for understanding the history of systemic racism, which has become a flashpoint for the far right.
Former Republican President Donald Trump put the spotlight on critical race theory in September when he issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to cease diversity training among employees, just months after the country experienced nationwide protests against racism and policing following the murder of George Floyd.
Of the approximately 47,500 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, about 38,700 are Anglo churches and 3,400 are African-American churches, according to the denomination's data. The convention's total membership includes 14.5 million people across the United States.
On Tuesday, the denomination's resolutions committee revealed a series of resolutions for consideration at the meeting. One, which was ultimately adopted, addressed race but pointedly avoided mentioning critical race theory, in an apparent effort to craft a compromise that would not alienate members of color.
Instead of condemning critical race theory, which the denomination two years ago said could provide valuable insight if used in a subordinate way to the Bible, the new resolution called for unity and reaffirmed opposition to racism.
The nod to opponents of critical race theory can be found in some language, such as the statement, "We...reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic."
Attendees, called Messengers, voted on that resolution and several others during this week's convention in Nashville.
Greear and predecessors including Fred Luter, the denomination's first Black president, have emphasized outreach to diverse communities as the denomination faced a drop of about 2 million members over the past several years, said Barry Hankins, a religious historian at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
The divisions highlighted at this year's convention are part of a broader divide over whether or not the denomination should continue a close association with the Republican Party that began in the 1980s, Hankins said.
The close vote for president and support for the resolution condemning racism without mentioning critical race theory show that for now, the wing of the denomination that wants more independence from party politics remains in control, Hankins said.
"They’ve won this round," Hankins said. "But I wouldn't say it’s a rousing victory. I wouldn’t say it’s over."
Other divisive issues, including a decision by the denomination's executive board not to expand an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders, also will come before the group.
Attendees also voted to ban anyone who commits sexual abuse while in a position of authority or trust from being a pastor, and condemned efforts in Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortions, as well as the Equality Act, which would add to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protections for LGBTQ people.
The convention also will consider resolutions condemning the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and opposing the use of misinformation to elevate a political candidate.
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