In religion news that’s akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, many leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention are dropping “Southern” from their name. (No word yet on why they’re so eager to keep “Baptist.”)
This isn’t a formal change by any means; it’s more of an individual trend that SBC leaders are hoping will catch on. They say the association with the South is making it that much more difficult to escape the denomination’s racist past (and, many would argue, present) while also creating a hurdle to expand in places outside the South as well as outside the U.S.
The Washington Post‘s Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports:
The 50,000 Baptist churches in the convention are autonomous and can still choose to refer to themselves as “Southern Baptist” or “SBC.” But in his first interview on the topic, convention president J.D. Greear said momentum has been building to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptists,” both because of the racial reckoning underway in the United States and because many have long seen the “Southern Baptist” name as too regional for a global group of believers.
If Southern Baptist is considered too regional for a global organization, “Great Commission Baptists” may be too broad. The phrase is a reference to the command by Jesus to proselytize and convert people across the world, but that could legitimately describe most Christian denominations.
As the Post notes, Greear has taken several steps to address the SBC’s racist legacy. He has argued that Jesus was a “brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee.” He used “Black lives matter” in a speech. An SBC seminary leader recently said Confederate statues needed to come down. And two decades ago, the SBC formally apologized for its long racist past.
But if the goal is to show people that the SBC is a more welcoming place, changing the window dressing won’t be enough. The SBC has been marred more recently by stories of rampant sexual abuse among its leaders. The denomination is historically misogynistic. They’re still overwhelmingly opposed to LGBTQ rights and homosexuality in general.
And it’s not like you can just walk away from racism by changing your name. As researchers have pointed out, 86% of Southern Baptist voters picked Donald Trump in 2016. Whatever the number is now, it’s probably not too far from that. How can the denomination seriously pretend to care about racism when members had no qualms about voting for a candidate who was openly racist during his campaign and has continued to fan the flames of bigotry during his time in office?
If the SBC wants to change its image, it needs to change its beliefs. They’re not about to do that. Instead, they’re going for a rebranding. It’s a superficial change. It’s the bare minimum. They have a long way to go before they’re seen as a welcoming, inclusive, force-for-good religious denomination.
The word “Southern” has plenty of problems, as they rightly recognize. But the “Baptist” part isn’t helping their case either.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)