Divisions over race, politics, gender and LGBTQ issues are roiling America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, ahead of a meeting of its executive committee next week.
On the agenda are two items reflecting those divisions: A recommendation that a church in Kennesaw, Georgia, be ousted from the SBC because it accepted LGBTQ people into its congregation, contravening Southern Baptist doctrine; and a report by an executive committee task force criticizing the widely respected leader of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Rev. Russell Moore. Among the grievances against Moore: His outspoken criticism of Donald Trump during Trump’s 2016 election campaign and his presidency.
Jim Conrad, the pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, said he’s at peace with the likelihood that his church will be “disfellowshipped” by the executive committee during its meeting Monday and Tuesday.
But Conrad sees broader challenges for the SBC as its stances on various sensitive issues are questioned from inside and outside.
“The problem the SBC is facing right now is this: In order to work with them, you’ve got to be in lockstep agreement with them on every point. Nine out of 10 won’t get you by,” Conrad said. “That’s just a shame. They’re going to limit themselves in terms of who’s able to work them.”
Some of the most volatile topics facing the SBC aren’t on the executive committee agenda but have fueled passionate blog posts and social media exchanges in recent weeks. Among the issues:
— Some Black pastors have left the SBC and others are voicing their dismay over pronouncements by the SBC’s six seminary presidents — all of them white — restricting how the subject of systemic racism can be taught at their schools.
— Several prominent SBC conservatives, citing church doctrine that bars women from being pastors, have questioned why the denomination’s North American Mission Board has supported a few churches where women hold titles such as children’s pastor and teaching pastor. The board says it seeks to persuade such churches to change those titles.
— The leadership continues to draw criticism from victims of church-related sexual abuse over promises made in 2019 to combat that problem. Activists say inquiries related to sex abuse should be handled by independent experts, not by the SBC’s credentials committee.
Moore has been president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC, since 2013. Though staunchly conservative on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he has gained an audience outside the SBC with his speeches and writings, including criticism of Trump, condemnation of Christian Nationalism and support for a more welcoming immigration policy.
After the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, Moore wrote on his blog, “This week we watched an insurrection of domestic terrorists, incited and fomented by the President of the United States.” If he were a member of Congress, Moore wrote, he would vote to remove Trump from office even if it cost him his seat.
The task force’s report on Moore doesn’t demand his ouster but urges him and other ERLC leaders to refrain from opposing specific candidates for political office and to limit their public comments to positions already established in SBC doctrine and resolutions.
The Rev. Mike Stone, the task force chairman, said the ERLC under Moore’s leadership has been a “significant source of division” jeopardizing contributions to the SBC from its 47,000 affiliated churches.
Moore, who has declined public comment on the report, is likely to retain his post, at least for the short term.
Conrad, however, expects his church to be ousted, based on a letter he received Feb. 8 from the credentials committee asserting that Towne View Baptist “is not in friendly co-operation” with the SBC.
Towne View began welcoming LGBTQ worshippers in October 2019 after a same-sex couple with three adopted children asked Conrad if they could attend, a decision he defends as the right thing to do.
“The alternative would have been to say, ‘We’re probably not ready for this,’ but I couldn’t do that,” said Conrad, pastor there since 1994.
Conrad has the option of appealing an expulsion, but he’s making plans to affiliate at least temporarily with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which allows its churches to set their own policies regarding LGBTQ inclusion.
Conrad says about 30% of his congregation — which now numbers about 125 — left his church over the issue, forcing some budget cutbacks, including a pay cut for Conrad.
“But we have had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community,“ he said. ”Letters, emails, Facebook messages, phone calls — people telling their own story of rejection by their church and how grateful they’d be to find a place where they’re welcome.”
The most recent disfellowship of an SBC church occurred a year ago when the executive committee ousted Ranchland Heights Baptist Church of Midland, Texas, because it employed a registered sex offender as pastor.
In 2019 the SBC leadership pledged strong action on sex abuse after news reports that hundreds of clergy and staff had been accused of misconduct over the previous 20 years. But critics remain dissatisfied.
Susan Codone, a professor who directs the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mercer University, was at the SBC’s national meeting in 2109 and shared her story of being abused as a teenager by the youth minister and pastor at her Southern Baptist church in Alabama. She now says the SBC’s credentials committee has failed in its response to allegations of abuse by pastors and staff.
“The chair of the committee, Mike Lawson, told me he is often worried about angering pastors with potential decisions,” Codone said via email. “His reversal of victimhood is unacceptable since the committee members are not the victims of this bureaucracy — those filing the reports are the real victims.”
Lawson, in comments also relayed by email, said many SBC churches were implementing anti-abuse policies, including staff training and victim-support programs,
“We know that in some cases, despite our best intentions or desires, we are unable to uncover all the answers, heal the hurts of those who’ve suffered unspeakable harm, or restore the dignity taken by those in trusted positions,” he wrote.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang
The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.
“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.
Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.
In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”
While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.
“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”
The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.
British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”
She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.
“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.
Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.
“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”
(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)
Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings
Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.
In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The charity later walked away from the contract.
Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.
Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.
Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.
No fines or penalties were levied.
Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.
Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.
In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.
In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”
The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.
($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)
EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June
The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.
Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.
Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.
The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.
Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.
Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.
EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.
“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.
The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.
Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.
“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.
More details were not immediately available.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)
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