RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Southern Baptist Convention has a new president. Pastor J.D. Greear was recently named the head of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. And he is taking over at a tough time. Southern Baptists are battling a #MeToo crisis inside their church. They're also struggling with an identity that has become closely linked to the Trump administration.
J D GREEAR: I think a lot of evangelical Christians have a sort of a restless conscience right now. Evangelical Christians can agree on a lot of things that the Bible teaches. Sometimes we disagree on the best strategies to accomplish things. We can agree that helping the poor and caring for the vulnerable is a biblical value. What the government's role in it, what the right strategy is - I mean, that's something that there's certainly room for disagreement among Christians.
I think one of the things that, you know, there's some concern over is, have evangelical Christians taken their central message - which is supposed to be the gospel of Jesus Christ - and have they encumbered that with too much specificity about, you know, political positions for, you know, which there really is room for people of faith to disagree? And so I think that's a concern.
We can agree that there have been things in Donald Trump's character that have been cause for concern. And, you know, I've been happy to hear a lot of evangelical Christians speak out and say, hey, even if I agree with this administration in these areas, it doesn't excuse his tone in these areas or the things that he's saying, the - whether it's talking about people of color or whether he's talking about people from other countries or even just his history with marriage and sexual fidelity.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this month in which you were elected president. And the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, spoke at that meeting.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I think there's only one way you could sum up this administration. It's been 500 days of action, 500 days of accomplishment. It's been 500 days of promises made and promises kept.
MARTIN: That address prompted you to send out a tweet afterwards saying that the vice president's appearance and his speech sent a, quote, "terribly mixed signal" about Southern Baptists. Can you explain what you meant? What was your concern?
GREEAR: The mixed signal is that to be a follower of Christ and to be unified around him means that we have agreement on various political platforms. I mean, for a long time I think the evangelical Christian message has been identified with a certain type of politics. But...
MARTIN: You're saying that traditionally evangelicals have aligned with Republican orthodoxy.
GREEAR: There are certain things in the Republican platform that Republicans have championed that evangelical Christians...
GREEAR: ...Have identified. However, we need to decouple the identity of the church from particular political platforms about which there can be disagreement. One of the examples, Rachel, that I often use at our church is when Jesus was calling his 12 disciples, it mentions that one was called Simon the Zealot and the other was called Matthew the tax collector. What you're realizing is that he's indicating that they stood on opposite sides of the most pressing political question of the day. And that was, what's the best approach toward Rome?
MARTIN: What did you make of the fact that the U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, made this argument justifying the administration's immigration policies at the border and the policy that led to the separation of families? He used the Bible to justify that policy.
GREEAR: Yeah. I mean, I'm always kind of grateful to at least hear people interacting, attempting to interact with the Bible. But, you know, just because somebody quotes it doesn't mean that they're giving the full context of it or representing the full Biblical message. I mean, yes - I mean, the Bible does teach submission to authority. And I've tried to be clear with this immigration question that we recognize that there is a certain charitable nature in passing laws and upholding them, and those include immigration laws.
At the same time, to separate families in the name of enforcing an immigration policy seems like a - you know, a - much too harsh a punishment for the crime that's being committed. So I've been very grateful to see just a lot of things that are happening that are going the other direction on that.
MARTIN: You are taking over leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in the country at a time when there's a lot of social change happening, in particular the #MeToo movement. A prominent Baptist leader, Paige Patterson, was recently fired for how he handled two allegations of rape. Do you think he is representative of a larger cultural problem within the church?
GREEAR: I don't know if I'd say it that way. I do - you know, it's broken my heart what's happened with Dr. Patterson and just the way that that's happened. But I do think that, you know, the #MeToo movement has helped raise awareness that sometimes there's been a hesitancy to listen to the victim when you should have listened to the victim. Some things are not just immoral. They're also illegal. And what we've learned and I think needed to learn is that abuse is the kind of thing that can never be handled internally. It can ever be minimized or brushed to the side.
And so if nothing else, I'm grateful that this has helped raise the awareness of the conversation that's helped, you know, pastors get educated on what you do when you have a situation where you have somebody coming and saying, I'm experiencing this. And maybe it's in regards to somebody else that you know and love and trust. There are wise ways to handle this.
MARTIN: The word - the very word evangelical has come to take on I think it's fair to say a political meaning in American culture over the last generation. What do you make of the fact that there are evangelical Christians who no longer define themselves that way, though? They've chosen explicitly to shed the term evangelical, instead preferring to call themselves orthodox Christians, for example, because they don't like that - the assumptions that are baked into that word about their politics.
GREEAR: Yeah. I mean, that's certainly understandable. I mean, they can do that. That's not the path that I've chosen. I mean, what we need is not a change of label. What we need is a change of heart, a change of values. The idea of Christians not being perfect is not a new thing. So I don't know if every time we get, you know, some kind of reputation, bad reputation, whether it's deserved or not - if we need to cast off the label and pick a new one.
I think it just kind of goes with the territory. And we've got to be committed to living out the faith and listening to criticism even from people on the outside because, you know, God can speak to us that way and just say, hey, here's some inconsistencies, and we need to repent.
Thank God that we're not - you know, God doesn't accept us based on how perfectly we've lived. He accepts us based on his grace. I mean, that's - ultimately our message is not, hey, come be awesome like us. Our message is there's a very gracious God who has extended us forgiveness in Christ. And we've experienced that. And we invite you to come and experience that also.
MARTIN: J.D. Greear - he is the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor Greear, thank you so much for talking with us.
GREEAR: Yeah. Thanks for having me on, Rachel.
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