Late last year, the Southern Baptist Convention completed an eye-opening study that included this fact: Knowing that a church is Southern Baptist would make four out of 10 Americans less likely to become a member of what is – for now – the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
In the political world, this is known as unfavorable name recognition. And it’s a killer. Ask Newt Gingrich.
So this week it was no surprise that, for 24 hours, at least, leaders of the denomination considered dropping – after 166 years — one of the most iconic and successful brand names in American culture.
Republicans should pay close attention to this, for the parallels are deep and striking. The strength of both institutions is rooted in the traditional South. Membership in both is aging, white – and slowly declining. Each has problems appealing to minorities. Gender gaps are another common bond.
Finally, over the last several decades, both Southern Baptists and Republicans have created an orthodox set of beliefs to determine who, really and truly, is one of their number.
Bryant Wright is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Cobb County. He is concerned with souls, not votes.
“So many of our church-starts outside the South and Southwest have complained about the struggle with the identity of the Southern Baptist name,” Wright said in a telephone interview from Nashville. “It’s not exactly the thing that causes people to come in droves.”
For Wright, the parochial barrier is the largest hurdle. Consider, he said, going to Birmingham, Ala., and attempting to establish a congregation under the name of “First Yankee Baptist Church.”
But a regional name doesn’t just hurt Baptist expansion plans. Residents of the North and Midwest are moving here to metro Atlanta. So the word “Southern” also becomes “an impediment in the South,” Wright said.
The big difference between Republicans and Baptists is the fact that Wright would rather be right than president. Of the United States, I mean.
Southern Baptists have adapted. For instance, Hispanics are a targeted demographic, and the denomination’s more moderate attitude toward illegal immigration doesn’t play well among GOP rank-and-file.
But Wright doesn’t see his denomination backing away from core principles that, admittedly, may make it harder to grow – such as its belief in the word-for-word truth of the Bible, or its 2000 decision to end the ordination of women. “Even though that’s very politically incorrect and counterculture,” Wright added.
This is what religions are about. This is why they have martyrs.
Political parties are entirely different vessels, according to David Key, director of Baptist studies at the Emory University Candler School of Theology.
Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern strategy aside, Key notes that the reassertion of fundamentalist control within the Southern Baptist Convention – a bitter fight that spanned the late ’70s and early ’80s – served as a precursor to the Christian Right’s rise within GOP ranks.
Both were a rejection of Jimmy Carter’s style of mixing religion and politics, Key said, in favor of one championed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
“What Republicans are dealing with is a branding issue. Is Rick Santorum going to be our brand? Or is Mitt Romney going to be our brand? Southern Baptists are just much further down that road of orthodoxy. There’s a difference of degree,” Key said.
“In the political world, Reagan didn’t deliver as some thought he would on the kind of agenda items that were promised,” Key said. Many Christian conservatives were likewise disappointed in both Bush presidencies.
“But Rick Santorum is really the first candidate, if he wins the nomination, who could begin to do the same thing in the Republican party as was done in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Key said. Though he admits that Republicans might not be able to make themselves as right-believing as Southern Baptists.
“The political system may not allow for the orthodoxy that the [convention] did,” Key said.
Political parties will tolerate martyrdom for a single election cycle, but no more. They are about power, not sainthood.
This week, Southern Baptists decided to take a middle road. The same study that indicated that “Southern” was a problem for Baptists also pointed to a growth area – people who considered themselves non-denominational Christians. Theological independents, if you will.
The Southern Baptist name will not be officially dropped. Too much of a legal quagmire, said Wright.
Instead, though it is not final yet, churches with identity concerns may soon be able to drop the words “Southern Baptist” and call themselves “Great Commission.” As in “First Great Commission Church of Akron, Ohio.”
So one day, we may see Great Commission Republicans, too.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider