For most of their annual meeting this week in Dallas, Southern Baptists have talked about spiritual matters, particularly their keen focus on gaining new converts.
But the gathering of the nation's largest evangelical group took a political turn on Wednesday morning, when Vice President Mike Pence addressed the nearly 10,000 delegates, known as messengers. And some weren't happy about it.
"I know that sent a terribly mixed signal," tweeted J.D. Greear, a North Carolina pastor who was elected to be the denomination's new president on Tuesday.
"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." The Great Commission is Jesus' call in the Bible for Christians to "go and make disciples of all nations."
In introducing Pence, Steve Gaines, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, as the denomination is officially known, noted the Vice President is a conservative Christian who "loves the Lord Jesus Christ." Gaines said he appreciated Pence's appearance last November at a memorial service for the victims of a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
When Pence took the stage, he spoke at times about the church shooting, singling out the church's pastor, Frank Pomeroy, for special applause. He also told a poignant story about a man who was shot eight times but didn't miss a session of his men's Bible study. The group came to his hospital room.
Pence also praised the Southern Baptist Convention. The denomination has confronted scandals in recent months, ranging from pastors who admitted to improper sexual relationships to a prominent seminary president who was ousted over his mishandling of two separate rape cases, according to the seminary's board of trustees.
But much of Pence's speech was dedicated to praising the accomplishments of his boss, President Donald Trump. "It's been 500 days of promises made and promises kept," he said.
Pence touted the newly signed deal with North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un, the tax cuts passed by Congress and the "efforts to secure our borders." He credited Trump with crumbling ISIS's so-called caliphate and praised him for withdrawing from the Iran deal. The Vice President earned his loudest applause when noting the United States had moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an issue close to the hearts of some evangelicals.
He said Trump has "deep respect" for people of faith and mentioned the administration's efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations, including churches, from endorsing partisan political candidates if they want to keep their tax exemptions.
Pence closed his speech by echoing Trump's mantra to "make America great again," and many of the delegates in the vast room of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center applauded. "Four more years!" shouted a man in a red "Make America Great Again" hat.
But others said they were disturbed by the overtly political tone of Pence's speech.
"Thank you @VP for hijacking our united religious meeting with you(r) partisan political campaign speech," wrote Todd Benkert on Twitter. "You had an opportunity to offer a unifying non-partisan message but no."
Before Pence's speech, several Southern Baptists proposed removing it from the meeting's program and replacing it with a time for prayer or sermon. Those proposals were soundly defeated, but it became clear that many Southern Baptists, particularly people of color and younger members, were put off by the decision to allow Pence a platform at what's supposed to be a nonpolitical event.
"By associating publicly with any administration," Garrett Kell, lead pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Virginia, told his fellow delegates Tuesday morning on the convention floor, "we send a mixed message to our members that to be faithful to the Gospel is to also align with that administration."
Kell and others said they are also concerned that Pence's speech could endanger Southern Baptist missionaries and aid workers serving in countries that oppose the Trump administration. It could also harm the denomination's fragile relationship with racial minorities, he said.
It's not unusual for national politicians to address church meetings. Barack Obama spoke at national meetings for the United Church of Christ, his own denomination, and a gathering of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Southern Baptists have hosted several presidents at their annual gatherings, according to historian Thomas Kidd, including George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who was himself a Southern Baptist before leaving the denomination for a more liberal one.
But in a hyperpartisan age, and as the Southern Baptist Convention strives to become more diverse, particularly reaching out to racial minorities, some say it's time to rethink allowing politicians to use their denomination as a platform. The denomination's executive committee will consider a motion to cease inviting elected officials to speak at national conventions.
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