The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, voted on Tuesday to discourage the display of the Confederate battle flag. The decision comes after an annual meeting held this year in St. Louis, where, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, leaders held candid discussions about race and the church’s role in racial unity.
Founded in 1845, the SBC was the result of a split in the Baptist church over slavery. The “Southern” in the SBC’s name denotes a historical, if clear, affiliation with the pro-slavery South. The SBC split again after the Civil War, when free blacks left the SBC to form their own competing groups less defined by segregation. Indeed, the SBC’s history of racial division continued well into the 20th century, with many in the church supporting segregation. “The church was the last bastion of segregation,” historian Wayne Flynt told the Economist in 2015.
But the SBC called for “racial unity” at their most recent convention; leaders addressed Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, as well as the murder of nine parishioners at the First Baptist Church of Charleston by a white supremacist.
Marshall Blalock, the pastor of First Baptist, told the crowd: “Are we willing to build a bridge? Are you willing to start this in your church? And are you willing to start it now?”
Blalock’s words were echoed by Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC, who told the group that, “Racism is a major sin and stronghold in America.” Though it should be noted that Floyd also wondered why there hasn’t been a national conversation about race—speaking, perhaps, to one of the many reasons that the SBC has seen its membership numbers drastically decline in the past decade. But an acknowledgement is likely a good place to start.
In what was a historical shift for the SBC, the group also voted to discourage the display of the Confederate flag, which has a long visual history with the group. The resolution, proposed by William Dwight McKissic Sr., a black pastor from Texas, told the Washington Post that it was “imperative” for the SBC to make a statement after the murder of nine in Charleston nearly a year ago. McKissic said:
“You can’t take something that is contaminated and make it innocent. I think to honor those nine people in Charleston that were killed, surely you can repudiate what drove Dylann Roof to kill those folks. You say to the black community, we identify with your pain. We share your pain.”
Delegates also removed language that indicated that the flag can serve as a memorial rather than a symbol of racism (a fatuous description that was used in South Carolina’s resolution to remove the flag from the state capitol). The SBC’s full, passed resolution reads:
“We call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Though the resolution is nonbinding, member churches generally abide.
Image via AP