The Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution against the Confederate battle flag on Tuesday as part of a move toward racial unity for the nation's largest Protestant sect.
The resolution sparked debate, but despite concerns about being too political, it bypassed a more neutral statement proposed as a compromise and called on Christians to stop using the Confederate battle flag, according to a release on the convention.
"This is not a matter of political correctness. It is a matter of spiritual conviction and biblical compassion," former convention President James Merritt said. "We have a golden opportunity to say to every person of every race, ethnicity and nationality that Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag."
The convention ultimately removed a sentence suggesting that for some, the Confederate emblem represents "a memorial to their loved ones who died in the Civil War." In his argument for the stronger resolution, Mr. Merritt denied the move was too political and said using the flag hurts evangelism among American black communities.
"All the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race," he said.
Kevin Smith, an African-American serving as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, told the Baptist Press he was "pleasantly surprised" by the strengthened language in the resolution.
Churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded on an antebellum disagreement with northern Baptists over slavery, are 80 to 90 percent white, but the sect has seen slow declines for the past nine years among its white congregations and is responding with increased evangelism among minorities in particular, The Christian Science Monitor reported:
The continuing ability of nondenominational churches and Pentecostals to resist the overall decline and even attract members of other denominations is a mark of successful evangelism, says R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. The SBC will likely try the same model and emphasize outreach to immigrants, especially Latin Americans.
The convention's chief executive officer and executive committee president Frank Page has already set this tone, calling the flock to repentance in response to a decline in baptisms: down 3.3 percent, to 295,212.
The convention's president, Ronnie Floyd, prioritized racial unity after the race-related protests in Ferguson, Mo. Along with a multiracial group of fellow ministers, he has convened several events on racial unity, including a panel at the convention itself.
"I believe the issue of racism is from Satan and his demonic forces of hell. It is an assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ," the convention president told the crowd in St. Louis.
The convention's strong vote for resolution against the battle flag marked a culmination of these efforts, despite criticism from some delegates.
"We watched a denomination founded by slaveholders vote to repudiate the display of the Confederate battle flag in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ," Russell Moore, president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told the Baptist Press. "I can't recall ever seeing anything like it."
These resolutions are not technically binding on individual Southern Baptist churches, but delegates from the various churches attend and vote.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.