One SBC: Slightly Divided

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"The question for the SBC: How will a 'red-state' denom[ination] reach a 'blue-state' world that is younger, urban, more diverse, & less Republican?"

So tweeted Jimmy Scroggins, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida, five days prior to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting in Phoenix last week. The question points to a seismic shift in this denomination of big buildings, big budgets, and big programs. It was retweeted with such speed that it even caught the attention of some denominational leaders.

The language of "red" and "blue" America stems from the now-famous election map of 2000 where the United States appeared as a divided nation of red and blue states. David Brooks' essay in December 2001, "One Nation, Slightly Divisible," identified cultural indicators marking the differing mindsets of certain sections of the country. He stated that it was easy to ascertain the worldview of various sections of the country by carefully observing what institutions, personal habits, and educational levels were dominant in the regional red and blue areas.

Demographic research revealed that red states were rural, less educated (as measured by the percentage of residents with college or graduate degrees), ethnically white, more overtly religious, voted Republican. Blue states were just the opposite: their residents were more urban and ethnically diverse, possessed college degrees, voted Democrat, and seldom darkened the doors of the local church.

By every cultural indicator, Southern Baptists are dominantly "red" in their religious affections and political identity. Daniel Williams' new book, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, spotlights the SBC in its quest for theological conservatism that also translated, in the words of historian Mark Noll, "toward conservative political action." Rare is the vocal Democrat among Southern Baptists, and the political calculus that enabled Brooks' research to take flight a decade ago has proved conclusively true among Southern Baptists—until now.

It would be wrong to infer that the SBC is moving politically leftward in ways that would result in an embrace of same-sex marriage or pro-abortion policy. The generation of Southern Baptists now coming of age, however, is more missiologically oriented than politically driven. While Scroggins and others of his generation would believe that biblical theology mandates cultural awareness and action by local congregations, a blank check to the Republican party platform is no longer a given—much to the concern of some Southern Baptists, and especially to the political industry that has relied on the SBC's largely uncritical support.

How this translates into the future vision of the SBC was clearly evident in two mission board reports. Kevin Ezell, the new president of the North American Mission Board (the domestic mission agency of the SBC), and Tom Elliff, the new president of the International Mission Board, both announced that a renewed focus by these agencies would move financial and human resources out of Southern Baptist strongholds and into under-served areas of the United States and unreached people groups across the globe.

This could easily seem innocuous. Yet simmering just beneath the surface of the SBC is a distinct discomfort that engaging intentionally in urban areas such as Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver, or even in major cities in the new American South (Atlanta, Richmond, Nashville, Raleigh, and Miami), will require a rethinking of the Convention's methods, methods that are largely unfamiliar to large swaths of North America.

The red/blue divide is no myth, and it must be bridged in order to rescue the SBC from the possibility of a merely cultural Christianity that is in some instances more "Southern" than Baptist. From the issue of slavery in the denomination's founding era to the issues of immigration and homosexuality, Southern Baptists have often been most unified when they are most politically engaged.