As Bobby “Bible Belt” Ross Jr. noted the other day, this summer’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention did all kinds of interesting stuff. I choose to write about the Gulf of Mexico resolution for Scripps Howard, but, frankly, the divorce resolution was just as interesting and I still hope to dig into that one. It is rare to see conservative believers (or liberal believers, for that matter) point the finger of judgment at themselves.
Then again, the SBC also wrestled with a massive reorganization plan that affects millions of people and much of the money that they put in offering plates.
Lots of people. Lots of money. Is that news? At the same time, the Southern Baptists gathered in Orlando did all kinds of things (see the video and its links) linked to evangelism and aid for the poor and hungry. But that isn’t really news, either. Maybe if Bill Clinton, Al Gore or Jimmy Carter had shown up?
The bottom line: If a tree falls in a forest and the Associated Press is not there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Someone needed to stop and ponder the news values linked to this non-story and, thankfully, PoliticsDaily.com found a logical person to do that in columnist Jeffrey Weiss, who is best known to GetReligion readers for his years of service on the religion beat (R.I.P.) at the Dallas Morning News.
Weiss broadens this topic by adding a historical note. Thus, the headline: “The Southern Baptist Convention is Yesterday’s News.” The answer is, “yes,” kind of. What we have here is another one of those cases in which the press flocked to cover religion news, when the religion in question had an easy-to-label impact on politics. Here’s how he opens the essay:
If you know that the Southern Baptist Convention recently finished its annual meeting, you are either a Southern Baptist or a truly addicted news junkie.
The SBC met in Orlando, in the mouse-eared shadow of one of the denomination’s best-known recent adversaries. And if you’re interested in the official doings of the SBC, it did some interesting things. … But contrast the news coverage this time with what happened a decade or so ago. Back then, SBC meetings received major attention from the secular media. The pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance: Reporters from the nearby Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland Ledger, the Tennessean, Democrat-Gazette, Claremore (OK) Daily Progress, and Religion News Service.
Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so. (And for another good analysis of this question, check out Bobby Ross’ post on the excellent GetReligion blog.)
Obviously, one major cause of the exodus is the state of the economy. There are fewer religion reporters on national-level beats and the travel budget is thin, when it comes to coverage of religious topics other than politics and professional sports. Yet Weiss, like our own Ross, noted that the key was the absence of the AP.
This leads to the more interesting question: Did the SBC’s gatherings get too much coverage in the past and, if so, why did that happen? Yes, there were media-friendly issues such as abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, the Disney boycott, etc., etc. I would note that Weiss also says that the Southern Baptists voted to “proselytize specifically at Jews.” Actually, what they said (and this is controversial enough in this day and age) is that they would continue to prepare evangelism materials for dozens upon dozens of different ethnic and cultural groups in America and around the world and that the Jewish people would not be singled out for silence. That was yet another fight over Universalism.
The key is that hot buttons were being pushed, year after year. Then, Weiss notes:
Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called “conservatives” and “moderates.” That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base.
All factors that totally demanded intense news coverage for the SBC, yes?
Actually, many if not most MSM accounts of the great SBC civil war referred to those on the right as, yes, “fundamentalists” (truth be told, the coalition on the right did include some who fit under that historical umbrella). Meanwhile, those on the left were always given the label that they welcomed — “moderates.” Does any of this sound familiar?
But, culture-war era issues aside, Weiss is well aware that other issues are going on. You know a sea change is at work when even the Southern Baptists are facing a slight decline in membership statistics.
Weiss notes that the SBC war reflected, in part, the rise of the Religious Right and the redefinition of the Republican Party. That’s true, of course, and that represents good news and bad news for the convention. He also knows that the SBC is being hit by this culture’s slide into a “post-denominational age” in which people are increasingly on the move into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name on their lawn signs. People are also drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.
This is a giant story and, in part, that is what the SBC reorganization plan is about — granting more independence to congregations, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old denominational tent a bit closer to the realities of this day and age. The bottom line: The children of many old Southern Baptists are turning into generic Evangelical and Charismatic believers.
This is one half an important story. The other half is the implosion of the old world of the liberal Protestant mainline churches. You think the SBC has problems with declining numbers and red ink? Go talk to mainline leaders. For that matter, go check in with the “moderate” leaders of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the network on the left that formed in opposition to the coalition that won the great SBC war.
At the same time, it must be noted that the Southern Baptists are having some success with their church-planting efforts among Latinos, Aftican-Americans and Asians. The SBC’s numbers would be much worse without the small gains made there. This is another area in which, statistically, evangelicals and charismatics are doing better than “moderates” and liberals. There’s a story there that cuts against many stereotypes.
Weiss quotes people on both sides of the Baptist wars, but focuses his attention on trends that are affecting the right. That’s the bigger story, after all.
You need to read the whole essay, but here is the key point. The convention in Orlando included lots of news, but it was news that focused more on religious issues than political issues. GetReligion readers know which subject drives the conversations in most editorial meetings in big newsrooms.