The Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) political spokesperson Richard Land recently incited controversy with comments regarding the Trayvon Martin case. On his March 31 radio show, he called African-American leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton "race mongers" and "racial ambulance chasers" who are politicizing Trayvon's murder. He added that seeing young black men as threatening is "understandable" since they are "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man."
Land's comments caused understandable consternation among black Southern Baptist leaders, prompting him to issue an open letter of apology. We must tip our hats to Land for issuing the statement, but we should not simply move on and miss the significance of this situation. As Land's comments illustrate, the denomination still struggles with matters of race.
The SBC drags behind it a shameful history on matters of race. The first Southern Baptist churches were birthed out of a desire to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Preachers in the denomination vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws. In 1956, Texas pastor W.A. Criswell, still considered a paragon among contemporary Southern Baptists, argued before a joint session of the South Carolina legislature that de-segregation was un-Christian.
In the last 30 years or so, however, the SBC has made progress. Criswell apologized for his position before he died, and the convention passed a Johnny-come-lately "Resolution on Racism" in 1989 stating, "Southern Baptists have not always clearly stood for racial justice and equality." Better late than never.
Additionally, the denomination is expected to elect their first African-American President in Fred Luter at the upcoming annual convention in June. And a top-level task force will recommend an alternate name, "Great Commission Baptists," in part because of the racial baggage their historic name holds.
But below the surface, the largest Protestant denomination in North America still has serious race problems, proving once again that old paradigms die hard.
A few years ago, the publishing arm of the SBC released Vacation Bible School curriculum largely thought to be racist toward Asians. Titled "Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally," the resources drew heavily on Asian stereotypes. The materials included chopsticks, karate uniforms, takeout boxes and images of rickshaws, a recognized symbol of injustice. Despite passionate outcries from Asian-American Christians, the curriculum was distributed to an estimated 20,000 American churches.
Seeing such racial insensitivity from Christians in the 21st century -- an era that was supposed to usher in a post-racial reality, according to some -- is maddening. It is, in the words of Anne Lamott, "enough to make Jesus drink gin straight out of the cat dish."
Just this week, Southern Baptist seminary professor, Nathan Finn tweeted, "I know 3 SBC pastors in the same southern state who've resigned pastorates in the past 5 years because of racist membership policies." He added that he had spoken with an SBC pastor whose former church wouldn't allow African-Americans to become members as late as 2009.
One must add to these examples the palpable silence from ordinarily outspoken SBC leaders in response to Land's comments. Had Land's comments smacked of theological liberalism, prominent white Southern Baptist leaders would have surely spoken out. So why was there no such response here? One can only conclude that racial unity still isn't enough of a priority among these leaders to warrant a public rejoinder.
Like some other conservatives, Land seems to believe that racism is a myth or at least a problem of the past. On his radio show he said, "the nation has changed," and that Americans have entered "a new era" and "a new age." If Land's comments are any indication, however, this new era looks a lot like the old one. And that is something Southern Baptists' cannot afford.
As our nation grows increasingly multiethnic, race is no longer just a theological issue for Christians; it's a matter of survival. And the only way to survive is to demand a radical change among Southern Baptists from the top down. An alternate name and the election of a president of color -- both laudable steps forward in the pursuit of racial harmony -- will not ultimately solve the Southern Baptist Convention's race problem. Southern Baptists need a change of heart.
As Professor Finn tweeted, "We've passed a resolution repenting of our racist past, but some churches haven't gotten the memo." Southern Baptist leaders and pastors will have to distribute such a memorandum, and quickly, or else they may find themselves wrestling both with race and irrelevance for decades to come.
Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of 'A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.' He's published more than 350 columns in outlets such as USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.