Growing up Baptist in Oklahoma, Lawrence Ware said it was hard not to come into contact with the influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant Christian denomination. As a child, Ware attended youth camps organized by the SBC. His family members still attend Southern Baptist churches. And in 2009, Ware himself was ordained as a minister at a church in Oklahoma that is partly affiliated with the SBC.
Years later, the black scholar and minister refuses to be connected any longer to a denomination he says has not done enough to wrestle with its history of racism.
But instead of quietly announcing his intent to the church where he was ordained, which was all he needed to do to renounce his ordination, Ware decided to tell his story on a national stage.
On Monday, Ware, who works as co-director of the Center for Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University, announced that he’s renouncing his ties to the SBC in a New York Times op-ed. In it, he wrote, “As a black scholar of race and a minister who is committed to social justice, I can no longer be part of an organization that is complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right, whose members support the abhorrent policies of Donald Trump and whose troubling racial history and current actions reveal a deep commitment to white supremacy.”
In a conversation with HuffPost, Ware said that he’s spoken to a number of black members who have also felt frustrated by the way the SBC handles race. He says at least five black ministers he knows have left the denomination quietly over the past year. But Ware felt it was important to speak up about his views.
“For me, it’s important to articulate why I was leaving. Leaving quietly leaves the system unchanged and doesn’t force [the SBC] to address the voices of those who are marginalized,” he said.
The SBC is a national network of autonomous, predominantly white, evangelical Protestant churches. For more than a decade, the denomination has been confronting and repenting for its racist past ― the SBC was founded in 1845 by Baptists in the South who supported owning slaves. It wasn’t until 1995 that the SBC issued a formal apology for its defense of slavery, its failure to adequately support the civil rights movement and the fact that some of its congregations have excluded African-Americans from membership.
Despite its attempts at racial reconciliation, the SBC is still plagued with accusations that it hasn’t been doing enough to defend black lives.
The denomination attracted criticism in June when, at its annual meeting, its leaders initially refused to consider a resolution submitted by a black pastor that condemned white supremacy and the alt-right, a group that seeks to re-inject racism and anti-Semitism into the American conservative movement. After significant backlash from outraged black and progressive clergy members, the delegates approved another version of the resolution the next day. The revised version was passed near unanimously.
In another serious misstep, faculty members at a Southern Baptist seminary in Texas staged a photo mimicking stereotypes of black rappers ― posing with hoodies, bandanas, chain necklaces and even a gun. The university president later apologized for the photo.
Ware said what really helped him see the deep racial divisions in the SBC are surveys that show the extent to which white evangelical Protestants support Trump’s policies. A whopping 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the past election. In April, a Pew Research Center survey found that 8 in 10 white evangelicals who attend church at least once a month approve of how the president is leading the country.
“It’s hard to be a black man in this country right now and be comfortable with what Trump is up to. In the way he got there, the kind of rhetoric he used, and the kinds of policies related to health care, policies related to the criminal justice system that he supports,” Ware told HuffPost. “The way in which he emboldens those who are pushing back against Black Lives Matter, his comfortability with someone like [Steve] Bannon. That bothers me and it troubles me to see so many evangelicals supporting him.” (Bannon, a chief strategist for the Trump White House, is credited with helping the conservative Breitbart Media website become a platform for the alt-right.)
Ware said there are a number of individuals speaking out against Trump and speaking for black lives in the SBC, like Dr. Russell Moore, president of the network’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. And Ware emphasized that he in no way believed that all members of the SBC are racist.
Still, he said he’s been troubled for some time by the “culture of conservatism” within the denomination that he believes has “paved the way” for some members to be comfortable with Trump, homophobia and what he calls “casual white supremacy.”
Roger “Sing” Oldham, vice president for the SBC’s communications team, told HuffPost that the process of renouncing ordination is handled through individual churches within its network, and that SBC leaders were not aware of Ware’s decision prior to the New York Times op-ed.
Oldham said that the SBC has striven to increase diversity through committee appointments, trustee selections and officer elections. The SBC’s newly elected vice president, second vice president, and the president of its upcoming pastor’s conference are people of color.
“Though we can point to a succession of small steps of progress in this area, messengers to the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting also acknowledged our continuing need to root out ‘any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst,’” Oldham wrote to HuffPost.
In response to Ware’s decision, Oldham said, “We are always saddened when we hear that a minister or a church no longer wishes to cooperate with the Convention in our Great Commission ministries designed to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the peoples of our nation and world.”
Ware told HuffPost that he believes changing the culture of the SBC is going to be a long and hard process. For now, he says he’s going to remain a minister in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a liberal black Baptist organization.
“When I visit SBC churches, oftentimes I’m going to be the only person of color in the room, or one of very few others. And oftentimes when I go there, there are sometimes microaggressions communicated to me,” Ware said. “The SBC has to wrestle with equipping churches to be better with those kinds of issues, outside of putting one or two black faces in high places, they have to do work to change the culture.”
He said he’s thought often of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote from the Birmingham jail about white Southern ministers who refused to support the civil rights movement ― seeing black Americans’ concerns as social issues and not gospel issues. Ware sees parallels between those ministers’ attitudes toward social justice and the stances taken by many white evangelicals today.
″[Dr. King asked], ‘Who is the God that these people serve?’” Ware said. “That’s something that’s really been bothering me for quite a while.”