Houston Chronicle: Southern Baptists are going to need a bigger tent

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Southern Baptist Convention was so famously insular for so long that it earned its own joke about members believing they’re the only ones in heaven.

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination was known more for what, and often who, it rejected than what it included – with political warriors in the SBC leadership often alienating other religious groups and particularly the racial minorities in them.

But over the past decade that began to change:

Southern Baptists elected the denomination’s first African-American president, apologized for supporting slavery, apologized to Asians for the culturally offensive “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum, reprimanded their former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission chief Richard Land for racially charged remarks, and recognized that its regional-sounding brand has so much baggage that perhaps a name change was in order.

They began reaching out to other evangelical churches and to Roman Catholics on issues of common interest, a collaborative spirit that landed three Southern Baptists in top leadership roles at nondenominational evangelical universities.

Then last week at its annual convention the denomination seemed to confirm its shift toward both ecumenical work and racial reconciliation by taking the first step to joining the National Association of Evangelicals and, most notably, by repudiating the Confederate battle flag.

Taken together, these moves represent a significant pivot away from the conservative takeover that began in the 1970s and produced a string of hard-line leaders, said David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University and a columnist for Religion News Service.

Those leaders included the denomination’s president in 1980, Bailey Smith, who declared that God didn’t hear the prayers of Jews.

Gushee and others track the current shift back to the 2006 election of then-unknown Frank Page to the denomination’s presidency. Page represents a generation of Southern Baptist leadership less concerned with political victories and more impressed by leaders who are pastoral, plugged into the broader culture and manifesting biblical fruits of the spirit, Gushee said.

“I would say that leadership in the denomination seems to be passing to people who are still plenty conservative, but they are not mean on the whole,” he said. “They are cooperating with Catholics when they can and other evangelicals. They’re sensitive to the convention’s history on race and trying to get that right. And the Confederate flag discussion … was the next step forward there.”

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