In 1863, with the Civil War raging, the Southern Baptist Convention cast its lot in with the southern states, writing in a resolution that it "[would] render a hearty support to the Confederate Government in all constitutional measures to secure our independence."
At the group's annual meeting in St. Louis, MO this week, over 150 years after that Confederate declaration, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a measure urging its members to "discontinue" the use of the battle flag used by General Robert. E. Lee in Northern Virginia, commonly considered the Confederate Flag.
The resolution was introduced by Dr. James Merrit—a pastor with Duluth, GA's Cross Pointe Church, a former president of the SBC, and a descendant of Confederate soldiers, Religion News Service reported on Tuesday. The resolution acknowledges the flag's historical and emotional resonance with communities across the South, but ultimately "call[s] 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." It urges "fellow Christians to exercise sensitivity," as well.
"This is not a matter of political correctness," Merrit explained, while addressing his proposed amendment to the gathered convention. "It is a matter of spiritual conviction, and biblical compassion."
Merrit's introduction of the amendment, and his accompanying remarks can be seen below.
The Associated Press reported that an earlier, more strongly worded draft of the resolution was first proposed by Rev. Dwight McKissic. And even its final iteration proved controversial for some SBC members, including Tallulah, LA pastor Jason Lupo.
"This is a political issue, not a kingdom issue,” Lupo explained to RNS. “And so I think the resolution needs to be removed completely and doesn’t even need to be dealt with."
The flag has long been a contentious symbol associated with racism. In the year since the shooting deaths of nine people at Charlestown, SC's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, there has been a renewed effort to remove the flag from public spaces. The subsequent removal of the flag from South Carolina's state house grounds was explicitly cited in the SBS resolution, as was the recent decision by Oklahoma Baptist University to remove the flag's image from its school.
For Merrit, the political and religious significance of the flag's removal seemed to be inextricably connected.
"Today, we can say loudly and clearly to a world filled with racial strife and division that Southern Baptists are not in the business of building barriers and burning bridges," he proclaimed to the Convention. "We are about building bridges and tearing down barriers."