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.”
A resolution passed at last year’s SBC meeting titled “On Protecting Religious Liberty” cites several issues of concern: They include the Obama administration’s mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions (but not houses of worship) to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees; government defense of gay marriage; and the acceptance of gay service members in the U.S. military.
Russell Moore, the incoming president of the Nashville-based SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he would be very surprised if there was not at least one resolution on religious liberty introduced at this year’s annual meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The government is overstepping its bounds in breathtaking ways,” Moore said in an interview. “The audacity of state challenges to religious freedom would have been unbelievable just a few years ago. A warning about some of these threats would have been dismissed as slippery-slope scare tactics.”
Recently, some Southern Baptists thought their worst fears were realized when military chaplains trying to access the Southern Baptist website came across a warning that it was unavailable due to “hostile content.” As it turned out, that referred to malicious software, not the ideological content.
“I think the reason why these incidents were taken seriously is because there are so many threats to religious liberty in the U.S. military right now,” Moore said.
He cited a recent statement from the Department of Defense that troops and chaplains are free to engage in evangelism, but not proselytizing, a distinction Moore called “artificial and confusing.”
“We need a clear definition (of proselytizing) that protects free-speech and free-expression rights,” Moore said.
Probably no issue more starkly reflects the Southern Baptists’ recent struggles than the growing mainstream acceptance of homosexuality.
“Ten years ago they were passing constitutional amendments against gay marriage. Now they are watching states approve gay marriage and they have no control over it,” Emory’s Key said.
Even the Boy Scouts have voted to allow gay members, despite dire warnings from SBC leaders that such a move would be a disaster for an organization with numerous troops sponsored by Southern Baptist churches.
Jonathan Merritt, a faith and culture writer whose father is a former SBC president, remembers watching President George W. Bush address the convention and receive a standing ovation.
“It’s very clear the Southern Baptist Convention has lost the cultural cachet it had even 10 years ago,” he said.
Today, the U.S. president is a liberal Christian whom many Southern Baptists opposed despite his opponent being Mormon, a religion many Southern Baptists don’t consider to be Christian.
Merritt sees the SBC’s declining role in divisive partisan politics as an opportunity to expand its focus to a broader array of issues, something that he says is already happening.
Richard Land, the outgoing President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, felt so strongly against Obama, that he broke a long-standing personal pledge last year and endorsed Mitt Romney for president. But incoming President Moore, while politically conservative, is widely considered to be a less polarizing figure than Land.
Merritt noted that the SBC recently has taken more progressive stances on immigration and social justice issues like caring for the poor and vulnerable, including orphans, and Moore has been part of that change.
Also, a recent push within the SBC to expand its ethnic membership has brought political diversity to Southern Baptist churches, Merritt said.
“For a long time the SBC has been a predominantly white denomination with a focus on issues of concern to predominantly white conservative evangelicals,” he said. “The question now is whether the SBC will be able to speak to the diversity of issues important to the diversity of people within the SBC.”
Last year, the SBC for the first time elected an African-American president. The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. did not publicly announce whether he supported Romney or Obama, leaving open the possibility that the leader of a denomination often viewed as closely aligned with the Republican party could have voted for a Democrat.
“This is the first time in 30 years that we don’t know who our president voted for,” Key said.