The Southern Baptist Convention is changing. All of us who hope to understand Fundamentalist America should be watching very carefully.
We know it is a mistake to equate the SBC with conservative Protestantism, but as America’s largest Protestant denomination, one that has been firmly under conservative control since the 1980s, watching the goings-on among SBC members can tell us a lot.
Historians know that today’s political conservatism is a fairly recent phenomenon. As Baylor‘s prolific Barry Hankins has described in Uneasy in Babylon, before the 1980s the SBC was dominated by relatively moderate leaders. It was only in that decade that the SBC became the conservative powerhouse that it remains today.
More recently, SBC leaders agreed that churches could adopt the name “Great Commission” Baptists. The goal was to distance the SBC from its reputation as an outpost of regional obscurantism.
Similarly, as Ingrid Norton noted in a recent piece in Religion & Politics, the SBC elected its first African American president, the Reverend Fred Luter.
What does this mean for Fundamentalist America? As we’ve argued elsewhere, it implies that the close historic links between racism and cultural conservatism may be breaking down. It seems to make sense to more and more residents of Fundamentalist America to unite across the color line. After all, with so many deeply traditionalist Americans from ethnic minorities, the ability to unite around cultural issues would mean a huge boost for the power of traditionalism.