Keeping the “Southern” in Southern Baptist Convention

Followers of religion in the American South watched their status updates and Twitter feeds closely Monday night, as a special executive meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (the SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, headquartered in Nashville with over 16 million members and 44,000 churches) met to hear the recommendation of a task force reporting on whether to change the name of the organization. Specifically, the issue was whether to take “Southern” out of the title and create a new name for a denomination founded in Georgia in 1845, by and for slaveholders.

The result was reported in breaking news Monday night: legally, the Southern Baptist Convention will keep the name it has had since its inception, but informally, churches will be allowed, and even encouraged, to use a non-legal name, Great Commission Baptists, that avoids the negative connotations of the legal name.

While recognizing “Southern Baptist” was a “strong name that identifies who we are in theology, morality, and ethics,” former SBC president Jimmy Draper said,

“we also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word ‘Southern.’ We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention.”

In allowing for informal use of the name Great Commission Baptists, he said, “we believe we have found a way to do that.”

But it is precisely in “theology, morality, and ethics” that the official name—Southern Baptist Convention—matches the key role of the SBC in guiding the white South on its long transformation from the era of segregation, through the turmoil of the civil rights struggle, and into the era of Baptist Republicanism.

Not a Good Brand?

The SBC has considered name changes in years past, apparently dating back (at least) to 2004, when the name change first fell under consideration. Over the last months, a special task force solicited comments on all sides of the issue, and reported their findings to the executive committee Monday evening in Nashville. During these months, important convention leaders weighed in with their recommendations. Perhaps most significantly, the most important intellectual force and public spokesman for Southern Baptists and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, spoke in favor of the name change, suggesting that it would help Southern Baptists remove a name that originated in 1845 from the slavery controversy.

Paige Patterson of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the most flamboyantly conservative of the convention’s leaders, also expressed support. Both believed that the SBC’s efforts to extend its reach to other ethnicities and other parts of the country could only be aided by ridding itself of a geographic label that suggested provincial concerns.

Others pointed out that the name “Southern Baptist” tended to poll relatively poorly, with over forty percent of respondents associating the name with hardcore partisan political positions. The convention’s current president, Bryant Wright, pastor of a large megachurch in Atlanta, moved for the task force in part to galvanize sentiment for the change, as did some African American and Hispanic pastors who have aligned with the SBC (often in dual alignments with their historic ethnically-defined denominations, such as the black National Baptist Convention) in recent years in order to tap its considerable resources in church support.

While the convention’s powers that be (largely) lined up in support of the change, the rank-and-file pastorate expressed more skepticism. The Tennessee State Baptist Convention voted down the change in an expression of sentiment for maintaining a historic tie with a regional identity that was and is deeply personal to many. “I think the Southern Baptist Convention name is a good brand,” one Tennessee Baptist said. “I don’t reject a new name. I just don’t have any problem with the old name.”

And, whatever the convention leader’s intentions about “church planting” everywhere, there are good reasons for the name as it is. This map of the religious geography of the United States, showing the percentage of Baptists as a percentage of all residents in each county in the country in 2000, shows that “Southern” is not just a name, but in fact still an identity as well as a powerful geographic referent.

Manning the Culture War Barricades

And it’s more than a geographic referent and cultural identity. Increasingly it has become a political identity, reinforced both by the voting patterns of white Southerners who form the vast majority of members of churches affiliated with the SBC, as well as public spokesmen such as Mohler and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC. At the level of leadership for sure, and to a pretty large extent at the level of the voting patterns of congregants, the “Southern” in SBC stands for a solid South of Republican ideologies and voting practices.

This Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which has effectively replaced the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (for twenty years led by Texas church-state separationist James Dunn) as the public policy auxiliary arm of the SBC, has staked out a consistent position on the right wing of social and political issues. Land, whose intellectual pedigree includes a Ph.D. from Oxford and whose smoothly articulate voice makes him a favorite for extended commentary on Fox News and debates with intellectual opponents on NPR and elsewhere, mans the public culture war barricades.

On the recent “contraception mandate,” for example, Land continues to lead the charge against the Obama administration’s recent proposed compromise of exempting religious employers from providing coverage while requiring insurance companies to provide for basic women’s health concerns. “In my opinion,” says Land,

“a Baptist needs to take a stand on this issue. Our Baptist forefathers went to prison and died for the freedoms that we have, and now it’s our responsibility in the providence of God to defend these freedoms lest they be taken away by government fiat.”

And it extends far beyond the so-called “social issues.” The “take action” portion of the Commission’s website urges followers to contact Congress on the full panoply of issues that preoccupy the Republican right, representing a virtual scorecard of the Senate Republican leadership’s agenda—including urging support (last summer) for the “cut, cap, and balance” budget proposal put forward by House Republicans, and urging Congress to “stop the EPA power grab” (referring to proposals to limit carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions). Given the latter, it’s not surprising that the Ethic and Liberty’s Commission position statements on the environment reproduce extensive (and bogus) commentary on “Climategate” and other fantasies of climate change denialists.

How any of this actually relates to “Ethics and Religious Liberty” is unclear, but how it comports with an entire ideological worldview is obvious and unapologetically stated.

To be sure, churches in the SBC represent a wide and varied spectrum of individuals and social attitudes, but the dominant force in the convention since the so-called “conservative resurgence” of 1979 has been towards turning rightward Southern Baptists as a body into a formidable electoral force. And, to the degree the Republican Party heavily depends on that white Southern base as its largest and most reliable voting bloc, the association of the SBC with Republican politics will grow stronger.

For these leaders, if heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie—with low taxes, fewer regulations, a decreased state involvement in public welfare and institutions, denial of coverage for women’s health concerns, and bitter attacks on the Obama administration launched from every available platform—then they don’t want to go. And even the city slickers running Mitt Romney’s campaigns and the rowdy friends at Ron Paul’s rallies should be able to appreciate that.

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.