On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence took the stage at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas and was welcomed by a rousing standing ovation from the 11,000 delegates in attendance. He began his remarks to the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with his trademark line, calling himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” But his speech suggested a much different ranking of priorities.
Just minutes earlier, the convention hall was filled with voices lifted heavenward in songs of worship. But in a long and wide-ranging address, Pence brought the attention of the crowd back down to earth toward a president who craves constant adoration, rattling off the accomplishments of Donald Trump’s first 500 days in office.
The bald and unabashed politics of Pence’s address — which some Christians on Twitter disapprovingly called a “full-blown campaign speech” and “a veritable Trump rally” — was exactly what a small group of Southern Baptists in the days before his appearance in Dallas feared would happen. Worried about how any association with the Trump administration would damage the SBC’s standing with racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. and harm its mission work abroad, these Southern Baptists argued that their annual meeting was no place for politics and even brought up a series of votes to block Pence and any future political figures from speaking.
That’s an understandable sentiment, especially in the age of Trump, but it doesn’t track with history. As Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd pointed out, Southern Baptists have long hosted politicians at their annual meeting. Almost all of them — like Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush — have been Republicans.
You would have to go back to 1978 to find the last time a significant Democrat spoke at an SBC meeting, when fellow Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter addressed the convention. Notably, neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore — also Southern Baptists — delivered remarks to the SBC. Southern Baptists can insist their denomination has no political agenda or partisan allegiance, but the truth is that the SBC and the Republican Party have enjoyed close connections for nearly 40 years.
This year the vice president’s trip to Dallas is noteworthy because the SBC, like so many other institutions in the past year, has had to grapple with the repercussions of the Me Too movement in its own ranks. This spring the controversy grew acute when it was revealed that Paige Patterson, the president of an SBC seminary and a major figure in the denomination, lied about how he handled a student’s rape allegation and had a history of counseling women in domestic abuse situations to stay with their husbands. In the fallout, Patterson lost his seminary job, but until last week, he was still scheduled to deliver a sermon at this year’s SBC meeting. Bowing to pressure, he removed himself from the lineup on Friday.
Around the same time, the White House reached out to see if Pence could speak at the convention. Given the Patterson controversy, it might have seemed prudent for the denomination to pass on an appearance from someone associated with Trump. Instead, SBC President Steve Gaines announced that Pence was going to Dallas to “express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
Rather than help weave a moral fabric, Pence in the Trump White House and now in Dallas has blanketed over the sins brought to light in the Me Too era. (It should be noted that SBC delegates passed resolutions this week affirming the dignity of women and denouncing abuse.)
That work has kept the vice president especially busy, given his boss’ unsavory habits. From the “Access Hollywood” scandal to the Stormy Daniels affair, Pence has dutifully provided cover, brushing off the stories as baseless while feigning offense that the news media would dare to suggest such things.
Trump picked Pence as his running mate in large part to help guarantee his support from religious conservatives in the election — a successful strategy, given that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. But even Trump couldn’t have imagined how gamely Pence would embrace the job of diverting attention from the president’s immorality with his own exaggerated moralism.
Yet that’s a task perfectly suited to the self-satisfied Pence, a man who has long cultivated a sort of performative piety for political gain. His smug righteousness provides the perfect counterpoint to Trump’s unbounded narcissism, not that one cancels out the other so much as they work together to create the theater of the absurd that has won the president so many followers.
Of course, nothing is more absurd than touting Trump’s moral leadership to an auditorium of religious conservatives. So far, Southern Baptists and other white evangelicals have been all too willing to participate in the charade.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”