At first glance, a Southern Baptist meeting might seem like a friendly audience for Vice President Mike Pence.
A conservative Christian and longtime culture warrior, Pence shares many of Southern Baptists’ faith commitments and some of their political views. With more than 15 million members, Southern Baptists are the country’s largest evangelical denomination, and more than 80% of white evangelicals voted for the Trump-Pence ticket.
But as Pence prepares to address nearly 10,000 delegates – called messengers – at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting here on Wednesday, a small but significant slice is opposing his appearance.
Younger Southern Baptists in particular – a rising force with the election on Tuesday of J.D. Greear, 45, as the new president of the denomination – are wary of appearing too close to the GOP and detracting from their main mission: winning souls for Jesus.
“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.
Kell said he “has nothing against Pence personally,” but he suggested Tuesday that Southern Baptists essentially disinvite Pence and replace his planned speech with time for prayer.
Kell’s motion was soundly defeated, but that didn’t stop other Southern Baptists from proposing several similar resolutions, none of which passed.
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.
A spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention said the White House made the first move on Pence’s speech, reaching out to ask if he could address the annual meeting. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Victor Pollido, a Southern Baptist pastor from California, said he believes God has placed officials such as Pence in office. He added that he is not bothered by the vice president’s planned speech.
“It’s OK with me,” Pollido said. “Christians need to participate in society, just like Jesus did.”
Mike Turner, pastor of Lexington Baptist Church in South Carolina and a delegate to the annual meeting, said he didn’t have a problem, either, with Pence’s speech: “Our conviction is that we should respect the people who are in positions of government leadership.”
But Turner said he knows many younger Southern Baptists don’t agree.
“Clearly, there’s a new generation coming up who are growing discontent with the Republican Party and are more sensitive to the racial ramifications of the decision.”
Indeed Alishah Nemieboka, a delegate to the meeting who lives in Randallstown, Maryland, said she is not pleased about Pence’s appearance and is considering skipping his speech.
“With the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, and with us trying to get over that history and unite, Pence coming is like one step forward, two steps back,” she said.
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, splitting with its Northern counterparts over slavery.
Nemieboka and other Southern Baptists said they have not heard Pence make harmful statements about race. But he is tainted, Nemieboka said, by his association with President Donald Trump, who has made racially charged statements about Mexicans and other minorities and said a white nationalist rally in Virginia included some “very fine people.”
Nate Akin, 37, director of the pastor-led network Baptist21 and the son of a Southern Baptist seminary president, said it’s too simplistic to paint all older Southern Baptists as pro-GOP and younger Southern Baptists as wary of partisan politics. But there is some truth to the generalization, he said.
“There is a perception that Southern Baptists are in the pocket of the Republican Party,” he said. “But to be a good Christian doesn’t mean you have to be a good Republican – or a good Democrat, for that matter.”
Akin looked around the crowded lobby of a hotel adjacent to the convention center where Southern Baptists are meeting.
“There’s people here who would disagree with me about that, but I think it’s true.”
Akin said Pence’s appearance is an unwelcome distraction from Southern Baptists’ main mission of spreading the Gospel. It also potentially makes people of color feel less at home in the Southern Baptist Convention, he said.
“I’m not sure what he could say, unless he comes out and disagrees with his boss publicly from the convention floor, that would help us with either of those missions,” Akin said.
This post has been updated.