If you know that the Southern Baptist Convention recently finished its annual meeting, you are either a Southern Baptist or a truly addicted news junkie.
The SBC met in Orlando, in the mouse-eared shadow of one of the denomination's best-known recent adversaries. And if you're interested in the official doings of the SBC, it did some interesting things. Of which more in a moment.
But contrast the news coverage this time with what happened a decade or so ago. Back then, SBC meetings received major attention from the secular media. The pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly six representatives of the secular media in attendance: Reporters from the nearby Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland Ledger, the Tennessean, (AR) Democrat-Gazette, Claremore (OK) Daily Progress, and Religion News Service.
Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so. (And for another good analysis of this question, check out Bobby Ross' post
on the excellent GetReligion blog.)
Let's deal quickly with an easy explanation for the difference in media reports: The economic earthquake that has flattened the news industry has been particularly damaging to specialty coverage. Far fewer reporters are assigned to religion these days, those who write about religion mostly focus on local topics, and travel budgets have been slashed even more than staffing.
But that's not the whole answer. Even the Associated Press, which still aspires to national scope and writes about some relatively minor events, took a pass on the SBC in Orlando.
Did the Southern Baptists get too much media focus in the Olden Days?
I was as guilty as any: I slapped on the boilerplate "largest Protestant denomination in America," cited the claim of some 16 million members, and happily jumped on the hot button issues addressed in resolutions at every annual meeting:
Proselytize specifically at Jews? Check. Make the theological case that a wife is to "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership" of their husbands?" Check. Condemn abortion? Check and check. Swing a biblical bat over and over and over at homosexuality, including a call to boycott gay-friendly Disney? Check and check and double-check.
Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called "conservatives" and "moderates." That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base.
All factors that totally demanded intense news coverage for the SBC, yes?
But dig down a layer. We all knew that the claim of 16 million Southern Baptists was puffery. Almost all religion stats are puffed, after all. I knew that at least one large, old Southern Baptist church in my town included as "official" members anybody who had ever attended any function there in the previous five years. I was told that was common practice.
Church worship attendance is a more trustworthy number for the SBC and that's been around 6 million for a while. Toss in another couple of million for people who don't show up every week – Sunday School enrollment is closer to 8 million -- and we're still down to half the official total.
But size isn't the only measure of newsworthiness. Influence counts, as does success. Has the SBC racked up a record of either one?
In 1992, the Gallup folks asked adult Americans their annual "what religion are you?" question. About 9 percent said they were Southern Baptists. Last year, about 4 percent said they were Southern Baptists.
Consider some of the issues that the SBC has identified strongly with since the 1980s: Evangelism, biblical inerrency. abortion, and homosexuality. What effect has that advocacy had on the larger American culture? Whether or not you like any particular poll, the results are consistent across the board: American support for the positions taken by the SBC on those issues has been flat or declined.
Take a few Gallup numbers as representative: In 1975, about 2 in 10 Americans said abortion should always be illegal. Ditto in 2010. In 1996, 27 percent of Americans said they thought same-sex marriage should be legal. In 2010, that had risen to 44 percent.
And on the one issue closest to the core of the SBC -- eternal salvation through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone -- the most recent large surveys point in other directions. A Pew survey from a couple of years ago indicates that 70 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of members of what Pew calls "evangelical churches," say that many religions can lead to eternal life.
So: A small and shrinking denomination that has had little impact on the larger culture? Let's just ignore 'em.
Not so fast.
That battle for the leadership of the SBC really did mirror, and in some ways precede, the broad political movements of those same years. Some SBC leaders -- start with Richard Land -- were particularly visible and effective spokesmen for their point of view. And while the SBC hasn't managed to make many new converts, either religiously or culturally, the denomination has served as an institutional focus for a relatively large chunk of Americans who stand together on matters of theology and morality.
Bill Leonard is dean and professor of church history at the Wake Forest University Divinity School. He was one of the moderates who suffered though the SBC purge. He's also one of the most respected historians in the nation about Baptists in America, so he has a better perspective than most on the importance of the SBC.
The Olden Days SBC was well worth the media attention, he said.
"They anticipated the culture wars and were the framework for the Republicanization of evangelicals," he said. "Every year, they chose to set themselves up against the mainstream culture."
And for a long time, it looked like that strategy was working. But if you set yourself against the mainstream, eventually, the mainstream will move on and leave you behind, Leonard said.
"As they lost culture privilege and numbers, their evangelism failed on them. Their sectarian rhetoric drove people away. They sounded like they didn't like you," he said. "What they missed is that they can't have it both ways."
Which leaves the SBC at a fork in the road, Leonard said. In one direction are, say, the Mennonites, who separate themselves from the larger culture to ensure their own doctrinal purity. In the other direction might be greater popularity but a dilution of the doctrine.
"The real issue for me is not whether the SBC was saved from 'liberals.' It is whether anybody in the next generation cares about being Baptist," he said. "The real problem for them is not liberalism. It is identity. Identity means whether people support the denomination, pay the bills, and promote the doctrine."
Ed Stetzer has a different perspective. He's director of Lifeway Research, an official department of the SBC. He's been sounding an alarm for several years
about how the statistics he's been generating do not bode well for the health of the denomination.
The SBC did deserve the earlier media attention, he said.
"It was newsworthy that a denomination with 16 million members would make the shift that it did, especially comparing that number of Americans with 67,000 Tea Party activists and 500,000 members of the National Organization of Women."
More recently, the SBC has been caught in a larger cultural tide, he said.
"I think that in the past most Americans saw the church as more of a 'natural fit' for them. There was something of an expectation that 'good people go to church.' So, churches grew because people who wanted to be good and find God would look to the church. Today, I think that assumption is not longer true for many people," he said. "They believe they can be good without church and, in many cases, good without God."
And he points out that the cultural influence of evangelicals in general and of SBC members specifically can be found in places other than poll numbers.
"Go to the city mission, to the disaster relief efforts after a hurricane, and to the places where real people live, and you will find evangelicals there," he said.
So how about this recent meeting? What happened there that might be interesting to the vast majority of Americans who are not Southern Baptists?
A couple of the resolutions were at least as interesting as any from a decade ago. One resolution acknowledges that Southern Baptists divorce at least as often as the American average and rather gently offers a bible-based rebuke. Another resolution responds to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a strong endorsement for environmental stewardship. Only four years earlier a resolution had dissed "environmentalism" as "a neo-pagan religion." And yes, there was the obligatory condemnation of the end of "Don't ask, Don't tell" in the military and of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
For the inside baseball fans, the denomination accepted what could be a dramatic restructuring of its organization and the way it funds missionaries – which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked. Plus, this meeting included some of the most closely contested elections for leadership positions seen in at least a decade.
Scott Thumma has a particularly good seat in the bleachers for everything that happens in American religious life. He's a professor of the sociology of religion for the non-denominational Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research. I asked him for his take on the media attention given to the SBC, past and present.
"After being flooded with religion stories over the past 20-30 years, there is now so little coverage that I have to follow the Christian Post to learn anything," he said. "I also am saddened that just when the SBC begins to feel the pain of decline and struggle that all the mainline denominations have endured for decades, there are few reporters around to document and publicize on their seeming acts of desperation."
Leave aside the schadenfreude of a mainliner watching the SBC's struggles. He's a firm proponent for secular religion coverage -- and not just about the Southern Baptists.
"Religion is clearly still important and a significant force in our society; there is no such thing as too much coverage of it," he said. "And now we have too little."