Southern Baptists on the downhill slide?

This just in from The Associated Press: Southern Baptists are having a tough time.

But it’s not what you might think.

Instead of declining membership and baptisms, the big worry for Southern Baptists appears to be — you guessed it — a weakening influence in American partisan politics:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was riding high.

The president of the United States was a conservative evangelical Christian who personally addressed the group’s annual meetings, either by satellite or video, at least four times in two terms, and SBC leaders were feeling their influence at the highest levels of government.

Ten years later, as members prepare for their 2013 annual meeting in Houston on Tuesday, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination finds itself in flux: It has less influence in government and a growing diversity that may be diminishing its role as a partisan political player. And some Southern Baptists are beginning to cry foul at what they see as discrimination by gays and liberals that violates their religious liberty.

“For 100 years the Southern Baptists have been the dominating religious entity of the South,” said David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a Southern Baptist. “Now they are starting to feel religious victimhood. … In many ways, Baptists introduced pluralism to America. Now they are feeling like victims of that pluralism.”

Certainly, the Southern Baptist political influence is a legitimate angle for a news story. I remember asking Texas pastor Jack Graham, then the SBC president, about that issue in 2004 when I served as an AP religion writer in Dallas:

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