In recent years, a series of leaders have warned against America’s largest Protestant denomination being too closely tied to one party, even as Southern Baptists and evangelicals at large remain stalwart supporters of the GOP:

  • “You just can’t always say we belong to a party,” former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Frank Page warned back in 2008. “We can’t. I have cautioned Baptists about being too lockstep with any party.”
  • “We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) told The Wall Street Journal in 2013, soon after his election.
  • “There continue to be perceptions in our culture that the SBC is in bed with the Republican Party,” wrote leaders of Baptist21, an influential group of young pastors with Reformed leanings, after Ben Carson was invited to speak to a national gathering of SBC pastors in Columbus, Ohio. Carson eventually withdrew as a speaker.
  • Baptist21 leaders also called for a moratorium on future political invitations. “Our suggestion is that we believe it would be prudent for future SBC leaders to stop inviting politicians to our meetings,” they wrote in April. “Period.”

But disconnecting from the GOP is proving complicated.

This past week, the ERLC announced plans to interview presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio at an upcoming Baptist missions conference in Nashville.

Image: Flickr / Gage Skidmore

On Saturday, Baptist21 issued a statement, saying they “aren’t as concerned” about the Bush and Rubio interviews as they were about Carson.

The two settings are different, said Jedidiah Coppenger, one of the founders of Baptist21. Carson had been invited to preach to pastors. That gave the impression that the SBC approved of his message. And Carson was the only candidate invited to Columbus.

By contrast, Coppenger told CT, the ERLC invited all the leading candidates of both parties to the upcoming missions event, although only Bush and Rubio accepted. That is a step forward from inviting only one politician or candidates from one party only, he said. The ERLC staff will also be asking the candidates questions, giving them more control of the discussion.

Those are significant differences, said Coppenger, adding that Baptists shouldn’t walk away from politics all together.

“We want to be politically engaged,” he said. “But we don’t want to be owned by a political party.”

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Still, Coppenger said, some members of Baptist21 are skeptical and would rather see a ban on all politicians at Baptist events.

“Whenever gospel proclamation and politics are in close proximity, there’s a cause for concern,” he told CT.

Overall, the focus of the Send North America conference is “to see a movement of people from within the church living out the mission of God in their everyday lives,” according to organizers.

“The conference focuses on how to do that in work, school, community, and church through a variety of sessions and resources,” said Mike Ebert, spokesman for the North American Mission Board, one of the co-sponsors. “Dr. Moore's session will ask candidates how they plan to protect religious freedom so Christians can continue doing that.”

The ERLC’s press release, however, billed it as a “sold-out crowd of 13,000 evangelical pastors and leaders.” That has led to a perception of the event as more arena-sized political rally than missions conference.

Page, who’s now the president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, told CT he’s still wary of mixing faith and politics.

“That concern remains. But I have been assured that this is an interview where the front runners of both parties have been invited,” he said. “It is not a political rally, but an attempt to inform our people where candidates stand on issues of concern.”

Dan Darling, vice president of communications for the ERLC, said there’s been some pushback about the candidate interviews. He said the interviews will focus mainly on religious liberty. That topic affects missions, he said.

“Pastors and church planters want to know they’ll be free to preach the gospel and to start churches,” said Darling. They also want to be sure that the tax-exempt status of religious groups will be protected, he said.

At least one prominent Southern Baptist pastor raised questions about the interviews, even though he approved of the idea.

“I like this but confused,” tweeted Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. “After outcry over Carson at Pastors Conference, this looks like a double standard.”

Traylor also wondered why Rubio and Bush, both Catholic, were being interviewed at a missions conference. (Two Southern Baptist candidates, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, were not invited, because of low poll numbers.)

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Kelly and Janice Seely, Baptist missionaries in Germany, asked a similar question on Twitter.

“What function do they serve @ a missions conf. as interviewees? That I don't get,” they tweeted.

The Send conference is co-sponsored by the SBC’s International Mission Board.

The ERLC hopes to interview more candidates in the future. However, no politicians are scheduled to appear at the ERLC’s “Gospel and Politics” conference in Nashville, a one-day event that follows the Send conference.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include details about Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.