Does a Southern Baptist leader’s call for the Confederate battle flag to come down mark a sea change in the views of evangelicals about a symbol long wrapped in both support for slavery and regional pride?
Or will conservative white Christians in the South resist change even as a growing number of Republican leaders—Including S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley— from the region call for the flag to go?
“The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a widely noted blog post on June 19.
The column touched a chord because it landed in the midst of the national anguish, and debate, over racism in the U.S. following the massacre of nine parishioners by a white gunman inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, espoused white supremacist views and proudly displayed the Confederate flag, which continues to be flown full-mast on the South Carolina State House grounds.
“Let’s take down that flag,” Moore concluded.
Some say Moore’s call is a marker of a changing ethos within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as conservative Christians join in mourning the “Emanuel Nine.” Others wonder if the divide over the flag remains.
“Russell Moore articulated publicly and brilliantly what many of us have been saying for many years,” said Alan Cross, a white Montgomery, Ala., Southern Baptist pastor, who last week successfully requested that the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention report on its progress on racial reconciliation.
“That sentiment is just becoming more vocal and accepted now. Eyes are opening.”
Church historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University Divinity School agreed that Moore’s sentiments could “prevail given the pain of the current situation.”
But he said it’s doubtful all Southern Baptists will back him, despite the June 17 killings.
“I think that his constituency in the SBC will be divided, particularly in South Carolina and Georgia, where those flag issues still create energy,” Leonard said.
Moore said that he has received an overwhelmingly positive response to his blog post. “I’m surprised by how positive the reaction has been, probably 98 or 99 percent” in favor generally, he told Religion News Service. “Southern Baptists have been overwhelmingly positive in their responses. The Lord is doing amazing things in bringing Southern Baptists together across ethnic and racial divisions.”
Leaders from African-American clergy to Sikh officials have called for South Carolina legislators to halt the flying of the controversial flag, especially at South Carolina’s State House. Some SBC executives affirmed Moore’s call for taking down the Confederate flag.
“Gospel-minded Christians should support taking down the flag,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said in a statement to RNS. “Love of neighbor outweighs even love of region, and it certainly requires that we disassociate ourselves from any hint of racism, now or in the past.”