Baptists’ hot time in Phoenix

Unlike Rob Bell, Southern Baptists believe in hell.

In related news (kidding), the denomination this week staged its annual meeting in a frying pan.

A year ago in this space, we lamented (and again here) the lack of mainstream media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2010 meeting in Orlando, Fla.:

Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines.

Whether battling over “hotbeds of liberalism” or declaring that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists’ arrests, the convention’s annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters — a “who’s who” list of Religion Newswriters Association members.

How far has the news value of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — with 16 million members — fallen?

Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it’s drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that.

Fast-forward 12 months. Instead of the home city of Walt Disney World, Baptists convened in the, um, desert. In the summertime. Sounds like a hot recipe for a popular convention, huh?

Not so much.

Let’s check in with (apparently) the only secular reporter to make his way to Phoenix: religion writer Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a story mostly behind a paywall (I have my ways, people), Lockwood noted:

Overall, there were 4,791 messengers in Phoenix, officials said, the lowest number, by far, since the 1944 annual meeting in Atlanta, when the nation was in the midst of World War II.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and experienced decades of growth before plateauing around the turn of the century.

To summarize: Not only did the press stay home this time, but so did the Baptists. (Thank you, I’m here all week.)

Alas, even from afar, there has actually been some pretty interesting mainstream coverage of the two-day Phoenix meeting. In advance of the convention, The Tennessean’s Bob Smietana reported on the denomination’s declining baptism rate (which is becoming an annual story for the Southern Baptists).

Lockwood’s first-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Southern Baptists, who split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on Tuesday elected a black pastor to serve as first vice president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, soundly defeated Richard Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, to claim the second-highest office in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Luter, 54, is the highest ranking black to ever win office in the predominantly white denomination, which allowed its churches to exclude blacks from membership at least into the late-1970s.

The race angle drew the attention of Religion News Service, The New York Times and The Associated Press, all of which produced fairly substantial reports — albeit not from the convention floor. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans profiled Luter and analyzed why he’s likely to be elected the denomination’s first black president in his hometown next summer.

That potential election sets the stage for what could be a “big headline” kind of convention with reporters from the major media on the scene in New Orleans in 2012. Most of the reporting I’ve seen on this year’s convention has highlighted the Baptists’ lack of minority membership and leadership. I’m hopeful that next year’s reports will do a better job of putting those figures in context of the wider religious world. In terms of diversity, how do the Southern Baptists compare with other denominations?

Lockwood’s second-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Meeting in one of the nation’s most heavily Hispanic states, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday called for the creation of “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures” for illegal aliens living in the United States.

Convention delegates, known as messengers, debated whether to strip that language from a resolution titled “On Immigration and the Gospel,” which had been crafted by the Committee on Resolutions.

But attempts to delete the wording failed by a vote of 766-723.

The overall resolution then passed by a show of hands.

Two-fifths of Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are here illegally, Baptist leaders estimated.

Again, the Arkansas newspaper captured the angle of the day that national media followed from afar, including RNS, Politico and the AP.

How did the Democrat-Gazette benefit by actually having a reporter at the meeting? The advantages were subtle but important. For example, Lockwood’s report was the only one I read that quoted actual delegates — er, messengers — opposed to the immigration language approved:

Richard Huff, a Southern Baptist messenger from Tucson, Ariz., moved to strike any call for a pathway to legal residency.

If illegal aliens are allowed to stay, “we will be rewarding people who have broken the law,” warned John Killian, a messenger and pastor from Maytown, Ala. Accepting millions of illegal aliens is “a policy that’s completely unsustainable for our economy.”

Others warned that the measure was misguided.

“This is amnesty any way you phrase it,” said Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif.

As seems to happen every year, gay-rights advocates raised concerns about Southern Baptists’ treatment of homosexuals. Unless I missed it, the Times was the only mainstream publication to tout that angle, tacking it on to the end of its report:

Gay and lesbian advocates on Wednesday called on the Southern Baptists to apologize for antihomosexual policies and for what they called destructive efforts to “cure” people of homosexuality.

Mr. Mohler said that in contrast to racial issues, the church view that homosexual behavior is a sin is dictated by the Bible. “We cannot compromise without disobeying the Scriptures,” he said, adding that it is also an article of faith that the Holy Spirit can transform people.

Those two grafs seemed to come out of nowhere in a story about the convention’s minority appeal. There’s no explanation of the alleged “antihomosexual policies” or the “destructive efforts.” (The Associated Baptist Press provided a fuller report on the gay-rights angle.)

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    In the report by Adelle Banks it might have been helpful to readers not familiar with the Bible if she had pointed out that when the Baptist preacher asked “Did God really say this” he was likening Rob Bell to the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I do find it interesting that the SBC has apparently yet to live down its racial history, even as it has publicly disavowed said history, condemned racism, and been one of the most startling successes in the move toward more ‘diversity’ in majority-white Protestant denominations. Since 1970, the SBC has gone from almost completely white to 20% minority (mostly African American). This outstrips, for instance, the largest mainline denomination in the US, the United Methodist Church (91% white).

    There are reasons for this, of course; the SBC is strongest in the South, where African American Baptists are concentrated. Additionally, the congregational structure of the SBC allows many black Baptist congregations to affiliate with the SBC and other historically-black networks. On the other hand, individual congregations do tend to separate along racial lines (i.e., black congregations and white ones), making the SBC appear somewhat less diverse than it actually is.

    I really think it would be nice if people (especially journalists) would do a little demographic research, rather simply assuming that the SBC is some manner of all-white gentlemen’s club held captive by its racial history.

  • Cliff

    Good point, Jon. The Religion Dispatches article on the SBC made the mistake of describing the denomination as being almost exclusively white. The numbers don’t bear that out as you note. However, the SBC has failed to include these minorities in positions of leadership – thus the reason for the ethnic diversity recommendations this year.

    I think perhaps the biggest story coming out of Phoenix this year is not that the SBC elected an African-American as 1st VP (they did, after all, elect Luter to the 2nd VP position back in 1996) or that the SBC is continuing its downward numerical slide in terms of both membership and baptisms.

    The biggest story or at least what Southern Baptists will continue dialoguing about is captured in this AP article titled “Seminary President: Baptists have been homophobic”

    http://tinyurl.com/3cu3hgd

    Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press covers Al Mohler’s statements re: homosexuality in more depth with an article titled: “Mohler Says Baptists Must Repent of Homophobia.”

  • Jon in the Nati

    The numbers don’t bear that out as you note. However, the SBC has failed to include these minorities in positions of leadership – thus the reason for the ethnic diversity recommendations this year.

    Good point, although I’d argue that in a fiercely congregational body in which the ‘national church’ dictates neither doctrine nor policy to member churches, denominational leadership positions are of relatively little consequence regardless of who fills them.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    “denominational leadership positions are of relatively little consequence regardless of who fills them.”

    The presidency of the SBC is consequential in that it has the power to appoint , alone or in concert with the two vice-presidents, directly or indirectly though the Nominating Committee and the Committee on Committees, all the governing boards and committees that govern the seminaries, the publishing houses, missions, chaplains, finances, audits, real estate, and and the convention itself. Addtionaly, and very importantly for a denomination that stresses preaching, the President is required to preach to the convention.

  • Dave G.

    Mr. Mohler? They mean Rev. Mohler? Dr. Mohler? The Reverend Dr. Mohler? Dr. Rev. Mohler? But Mr. Mohler?

  • Jettboy

    “Luter, 54, is the highest ranking black to ever win office in the predominantly white denomination, which allowed its churches to exclude blacks from membership at least into the late-1970s.”

    I’ll have to quote this the next time someone complains about blacks not allowed the Priesthood until 1978. Commentators, reporters, and most ironic of all Baptists never put things into perspective when this is brought up as a criticism. At least blacks were given membership.

  • Jettboy

    I’ll have to quote this the next time someone complains about blacks not allowed the Mormon Priesthood until 1978.

    sorry, got ahead of myself.

  • Bram

    It will be nice when Southern Baptists become as racially inclusive as Episcopalians and Unitarian-Universalists are. Oh, wait …

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Speaking just for myself, my hometown Episcopal parish (All Saints in the Ashmont section of Boston) is over 50% black (mostly Caribbean immigrants). Obviously there are many others that are lily white, unfortunately.

    I know there are a lot of African American Baptists, especially in the South: do they tend to belong to the SBC, or do they have their own denominations similar to the AME church and such like?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I know there are a lot of African American Baptists, especially in the South: do they tend to belong to the SBC, or do they have their own denominations similar to the AME church and such like?

    Firstly, AME =/= Black Baptist, although the worship and preaching styles can sometimes be similar. The AME has Wesleyan roots and is governed by bishops (in the Methodist tradition).

    Many black Baptist congregations affiliate with both the SBC and with one or another of the black Baptist networks (like the National Baptist Convention, about 8 million members). Of course, the black Baptist world is in many ways like the white Baptist world: very congregational, heavily fragmented, and with lots of little independent churches all over the place.

  • John M.

    I’d just like to point out that we’ve been having a lovely spring here in Phoenix. We haven’t hit 110 at all yet, and the 100s haven’t really set in but for the last week (more’s the pity for the SBC). But heck, they are the SOUTHERN Baptists, and it’s a dry heat, so they’ll be fine.

    -John

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    I agree with Jon in the Nati (#4) and not with mattk (#5). Since the national convention is not a church court (in the Presbyterian, or even American, sense), policies decided at the national level are not binding, nay, cannot be binding on individual congregations. Said convention may certainly be important to the denomination, but not so much to the individual churches themselves.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: The AME has Wesleyan roots and is governed by bishops (in the Methodist tradition).

    No kidding, which is why I phrased it, “similar to the AME Church”. Perhaps I should have fleshed that out more, but I know the AME is a methodist denomination, I was wondering whether there is an African-American body which holds the same relation to the SBC that the AME Church holds to the Methodists.


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