AP discovers a new faith — “Southern Baptism”

On one level, the error that I am about to spotlight is so silly that it could just be a typo or a stupid (click here for classics) error — like someone calling Sen. Rick Santorum an evangelicalist or reporting that some liturgical committee has decided to modernize the Episcopalian prayerbook, again.

Then again, maybe not.

After all, this version of an Associated Press report on conservative ecumenical work ran at The American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. Now, as a native Texan I am aware that Austin really isn’t located in Texas (it’s in a parallel universe of its own), I would still think that a copy desk located in the heart of Texas would employ one or two professionals who know something about Southern Baptists.

After all, the separation of Baptists and state is a big issue down there. There are parts of Texas in which there are more Southern Baptists than there are people (and roughly the same number of Baptist churches as 7-11s).

So, spot the clinker at the top of this story:

RALEIGH, N.C. – After the White House decreed this month that religious employers would have to pay for workers’ birth control, it was no surprise that Roman Catholic leaders would protest. That evangelical Protestants would rally to their cause was less expected and unthinkable even a generation ago.

“It’s just the common good. We’re all brothers. They’re Christians, we’re Christians,” said Thomas Fallon, 43, a general contractor who lives in Auburn, Mass., and converted to Southern Baptism from Catholicism. “We have that belief system that this is wrong that the government is trying to impose on our religious beliefs.”

LOL. Fallon did what?

Let’s look at that again. We are told that he “converted to Southern Baptism from Catholicism.”

Now, I admit that if this man left Roman Catholicism and joined a Southern Baptist congregation — conservative, centrist and perhaps even “moderate” — there is a good chance that he was baptized a second time, by immersion, as an adult believer.

However, I have never heard of a faith called “Southern Baptism.” I have heard of someone converting from Catholic to Protestant, or perhaps someone joining a particular branch of Protestantism (such as a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention). But one simply does not convert to “Southern Baptism.” Correction, please.

Perhaps there are some, or even many, editors at the Associated Press who think that Southern Baptists are so foreign and strange that they are their own separate faith. Of course, Southern Baptists are very strange, rare people in American life. There aren’t that many Southern Baptists around in places like North Carolina and Texas. The SBC is only the largest non-Catholic flock in America. It’s a tiny little thing, as religious groups go in this land.

Meanwhile, this story features clinker after clinker. Spot two in the following passage:

Contraception is one of the very issues that have been a wedge between Catholics and evangelical Protestants for decades. But for Protestants who’ve rallied to the Catholic bishops’ side, the question this time is one of religious liberty rather than dogma.

Even after the Obama administration hastily revised the order to require insurance companies, rather than religious employers, to pay for birth control, many evangelicals say the bishops are right to reject the new rule as the same violation of conscience in a different form.

First of all, I have attended dozens of evangelical/Baptist meetings with Catholics through the decades and I have never even heard contraception mentioned. How can it be a “wedge issue” if it’s irrelevant? Evangelicals are not of one mind on this topic, but it’s the last subject that would cause heated debate between Catholics and evangelicals.

And, second, “many evangelicals” say the Catholic bishops are right to see the new Health and Human Services rules as a threat to religious liberty? “Many” do? Can anyone find a single mainstream evangelical parachurch group, network, denomination or what not that has NOT rejected these rules and called them a threat to religious liberty and the separation of church and state?

I could go on. Do read the story for yourself. Even better, if a version of this AP report ran in your local paper, check and see if an editor caught the “Southern Baptism” laugh line before it went into print. I was alerted to the error by a copy-desk pro who did precisely that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • carl jacobs

    “Southern Baptism from Catholicism.”

    Looks to me like the author wanted a word that would provide parallel construction with Catholicism, so I don’t see this as a typo. It’s a casual mistake like this that conveys a fundamental level of disrespect. As in “You people aren’t even worth the effort it would take to apply correct labels.” For there to be any rapprochement between media and religion, the media has to stop treating religious people like bacteria in a Petrie dish – as organisms that are interesting only if lethal, and otherwise completely irrelevant.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What many people don’t realize–and is not talked about in the media— is that small Protestant churches (and their members) frequently feel much more in danger from and exposed to government tyranny, than Catholics.
    A few years ago here in Ma. the legislature was all set to levy steep taxes on church property. All the talk by the politicians and in the media was about how the “rich” Catholic Church could afford it.
    But the movement soon came to a screeching halt when a number of Protestant groups came out on the “Catholic” side because they could prove the proposed law would financially destroy over half the small Protestant churches in the state.
    Thus although the media barely notices it (and seems surprised by it when they do notice it) the big story in an unbiased media would be how the Obama Admin is bringing many religious people together in defense of the First Amendment.
    And many of us Catholics are proud of our bishops for leading the way in defense of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Yet a liberal syndicated cartoonist recently dressed up defendants of the First Amendment in beards and ayatollah’s garb in typical liberal disparagement of even a rational freedom of religion.

  • sari

    This kind of a long shot. Is it possible that the reporter provided a direct quote? As non-natives, Texans’ unique understanding of the English language can be somewhat baffling. A [sic] might have been in order.

  • Beate

    Dogma? Shouldn’t that be “doctrine?”

  • Bill

    Sari, I’m afraid that not just reporters don’t “get Texas.” Hard to believe, but there are some folks down here that actually went to school and learned to read and write. A few even learned to eat with knives and forks and not wipe their mouths on the tablecloth. I know because I met one once.

    Kidding aside, as Tmatt said, Austin, although geographically in the middle of the state, is not exactly in Texas. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the reporter involved came from somewhere else. Maybe somewhere where they didn’t have many Southern Baptists and are not familiar with the proper vocabulary to use, Baptistically speaking.

    A few years ago I noticed the local Baptist youth group was having a car wash to raise money for something or other. I’m very ecumenical when it comes to car washes and bake sales, so I pulled into line. The pastor greeted me and offered that if I did not have a church home, I’d be welcome at his. I thanked him and said I was a parishioner at the Catholic church. He smiled and said, “Well in that case, we’ll just use the hose on your car. We won’t drive it into the river for a full immersion wash. I thought it a pretty funny line. I also think it is indicative of the much warmer relations between and among different Christian groups. Not to ignore or trivialize doctrinal differences, but this is a great improvement over how things were 50 years ago.

  • Trey

    This further confirms the lack of understanding regarding religion by the media. I once was a Southern Baptist or should I say Baptism. I’ve NEVER heard them referred to as such.

  • SouthCoast

    “Is it possible that the reporter provided a direct quote? As non-natives, Texans’ unique understanding of the English language can be somewhat baffling. ” Nope. Then it would’ve been written “Babdist”.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com Big Daddy Weave

    Just to add:

    Many Baptists in Texas – likely a strong majority – are going to prefer the label “Texas Baptist” over “Southern Baptist.”

    The Baptist colleges and universities here are Texas Baptist colleges and universities (not Southern Baptist colleges, etc.).

    Baptists in Texas have long had a Texas-first identity but that Texas Baptist identity has been strengthened over the last 25-30 years in light of developments in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is, of course, extremely complicated.

    The Statesman regularly reports on the work of the Christian Life Commission which is a part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (now known as “Texas Baptists”).

    Also, with regard to the HHS controversy, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty – which represents evangelical and mainline Baptists alike – has welcomed President Obama’s “compromise.” Prior to the compromise, the BJC called for the HHS to adopt a more religious freedom-friendly rule. The BJC never used the “threat” language though.

    As to the Austin=Not Texas thing: Yea, Austin is Weird but there’s not much more “Texas” than DKR Stadium on a Fall Saturday afternoon.

  • Mark C.

    Certainly the construction “Southern Baptism” is not felicitous and not really correct. On the other hand, if someone converts specifically to a branch of the Christian family, we need some word for it. In this case, this isn’t it, but it is curious that there doesn’t seem to be one. One could convert from Catholicism to Lutheranism, from Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, or Congregationalism to Orthodoxy. But what when one converts to a theological understanding, faith practice related to the Baptist tradition, or the Southern Baptist tradition specifically. It is not accurate to simply say that he as converted to Protestantism when one specifically means that he became a Southern Baptist. Southern Baptists may be Protestants, but they are not generically so. They are a particular flavor of that meta-branch of Christianity. It isn’t so much that the journalist here made a flub, as it is that he or she was trying to fill in a real gap in our language about families of Christianity. It’s not standard language and it’s a real clinker to the ear, but I wouldn’t fault the journalist or the paper too much, really.

  • Chris

    It can only be correct if he was baptized below the Mason-Dixon line.

  • sari

    I live close in to Austin, worship in Austin proper, and am quite familiar with its inhabitants. To be clear, the Austin area encompasses far more than the official city limits and bleeds out into unincorporated portions of adjacent counties (mine, for instance). The population’s pretty diverse, from hard scrabble farmers to California transplants, and becomes progressively more conservative, politically and religiously, as distance increases from the city center. Some sections may be liberal, but overall the Austin area is more conservative than most places we’ve lived.

    My first week in Austin, at the HEB on Parmer and Mopac, the kid behind the register asked about the absence of our horns and tails.

    Most Baptists of my acquaintance self-label simply as Baptist. Their ministers may be more specific. And, from my experience advocating for better treatment of Jewish students in public schools, Baptist clergy have been meeting with clergy from other Christian denominations, including R.C. priests, for at least at long as we’ve been here (16.5 yrs). My meetings were with groups outside of Travis (Austin proper) and not affiliated in any way with the area’s Interfaith Alliance.

    Sari, a member of the Hebrew Persuasion (so labeled by a native Texan blue-haired lady, who stopped to enquire about our religious status)

  • Martha

    It would appear that it’s not just reporters who are struggling with what to call the Southern Baptist Convention:

    “As the Southern Baptist Convention recently weighed changing its name, denominational leaders were bombarded with suggestions. Hundreds of them.

    Most suggestions avoided the word “Southern” but one hinted at the denomination’s regional flavor: Baptist Ultimate Bible Believing Alliance, or BUBBA.

    In the end, leaders recommended the unofficial moniker “Great Commission Baptists.”

  • Bill


    Good points. Austin is an interesting city, and the combination of the state government, the university and the fabulous music scene give it its own flavor. And as you pointed out, a place where you’ll find people from different places, political perspectives and religious beliefs. We live outside a small town a few hours away from Austin where a traffic jam means three pickups ahead of you at the light.

    I’m always encouraged to hear of people of different religious groups (awkward wording, I know) trying to work together as children of God. Mark Twain opined that, “Man is the religious animal. He loves his neighbor as himself. And slits his throat if is theology is cockeyed.” It is good to avoid this.

    Big Daddy #8 wrote:

    Yea, Austin is Weird but there’s not much more “Texas” than DKR Stadium on a Fall Saturday afternoon.

    How true, especially if the Longhorns are playing the Aggies!

    • helen

      The Aggies have decamped to the SEC since this was written, probably.
      The Texas Tech game seems to be the next Texas rivalry.

  • Bill


    BTW, I’ve had a few people over the years tell me that I wasn’t really a Christian because Catholics aren’t really Christians. I just laugh and thank them for letting me know as I was unaware of that fact.

  • Chris Bolinger

    At least the water is a little warmer with Southern Baptism.

  • SouthCoast

    BTW, wouldn’t a fer-real Southern Baptism cause one to gravitate to the Left, politically? Y’know, Coriolis Effect and whatnot?

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    This copy editor once worked at an Alabama newspaper with some self-proclaimed “Jimmy Carter Baptists” ;)
    They would’ve caught this mistake for sure!
    It’s true there is no parallel “ism” for Baptists – so I would’ve just said “was raised Catholic and became Southern Baptist,” or something like that.

  • http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com Paul Wilkinson

    Southern Baptism: All the cool kids are doing it.

    But seriously, this is just another example of how it’s difficult to cover the religion beat from outside of it; or why, at least, editors should have someone on standby to vet the copy of faith-related stories.

  • northcoast

    If only the individual had converted from orthodoxy.

    The idea that contraception would be a wedge between Catholics and Southern Baptists will keep me rolling on the floor for a while. How far down would that be placed in a prioritized list starting with the most serious difference?

  • Kevin

    It is important to note that up until the 1930 Lambeth Conference (where exceptions started to be made by some Protestants) all Christians were pretty well united against Contraception. Such has been seen as gravely sinful since the early days! Heck it was Protestant lawmakers who wrote laws to the contrary of contraception in the US often.

    It is also to be noted that Southern Baptists also are received into the Catholic Church (I was).

    Praised be Jesus Christ -Now and Forever

  • northcoast

    Kevin, we Anglicans don’t really identify ourselves as Protestant. Also, didn’t your reception include baptism and confirmation as a Catholic; so your prior allegiance didn’t really matter.

    I think that Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians are received in the Episcopal and Anglican churches with no required second confirmation. No second baptism is required for any Christian.

    Finally, didn’t blue laws in this country start with New England Protestants?