Vice President Mike Pence gave an often boastful campaign-style speech Wednesday to the closing session of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, winning several standing ovations even as some evangelicals criticized his appearance.
Pence repeatedly made clear that the SBC — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. — is viewed by him and President Donald Trump as a vital part of their conservative base heading into the midterm elections. He called the SBC "one of the greatest forces for good anywhere in America."
Pence devoted much of his speech to touting the Trump's administration's achievements since taking office.
"It's been 500 days of action ... 500 days of promises made and promises kept," he said.
He enthused about Trump's meeting this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and received a big ovation by mentioning the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a longstanding goal of many U.S. evangelicals.
Pence drew more loud applause when he declared Trump "the most pro-life president in American history" and noted that he has appointed many conservatives to federal judgeships.
While most of the crowd of roughly 10,000 at the convention in Dallas seemed pleased with Pence's speech, some audience members could be seen sitting with their arms folded during the ovations.
On Tuesday, as the annual meeting opened, one delegate from Virginia introduced a motion asking that the invitation to Pence be withdrawn and replaced by a time for prayer. Other delegates proposed that the SBC adopt a new policy to avoid speeches by politicians at future annual meetings. But those proposals were defeated or sidetracked.
The Rev. Wade Burleson, an outspoken Baptist pastor from Enid, Oklahoma, alluded to those concerns in a tweet.
"The SBC is changing," Burleson tweeted . "More than a few voiced their objections to politicians, even strong Christians like Mike Pence, speaking to the SBC. It's always wise to keep the Gospel a priority."
There was strong criticism from Michael Wear, a Washington-based consultant who led evangelical outreach while in President Barack Obama's White House office of faith-based initiatives.
"I am saddened Pence wld be so triumphalistic, so unabashed, so jingoistic," Wear tweeted . "I'm more saddened that there would be people in the audience, messengers of the gospel (unless they're outside guests), who would so revel in rubbing their politics in the faces of their brothers & sisters."
Aside from Pence's speech, the most sensitive issue confronting the annual meeting related to multiple recent cases of sexual misconduct within the SBC community — and ensuing discussion about the role of women in a denomination with a doctrine of male leadership in the church and in the home.
On Tuesday, with little opposition, delegates adopted resolutions condemning any sexual misconduct by SBC ministers, urging more action to prevent "all forms of abuse," and encouraging victims to contact civil authorities to seek protection and support.
On Wednesday, the issue resurfaced when Jeffrey Bingham, interim president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the seminary's annual report, including an update on events surrounding the termination of former President Paige Patterson.
One of the SBC's most prominent figures, Patterson was ousted because of his response to two rape allegations made years apart by students. He also was accused of making improper remarks about a teenage girl's body and contending that women who are in abusive relationships should almost always stay with their husbands.
Bingham said his goal is "to create a safe environment and a campus culture that protects and cares for the victims of abuse" As a step in that direction, he said all staff and faculty will have retaken and completed a course on sexual harassment over the next six weeks.
He indicated that the decision to oust Patterson was difficult for the board of trustees' executive committee.
The committee "is made up of 12 godly men and women," Bingham said. "I have seen the agony on their faces. I have seen the tears in their eyes as they have had to make decisions."
As the annual meeting drew to a close, delegates rejected a motion calling for those executive committee members to be dismissed from the seminary's board. Thomas Hatley, who introduced the motion, contended that the committee acted hastily and unfairly in firing Patterson after he had been granted the status of president emeritus.
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