LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Are Southern Baptists still southern, or has America’s largest non-Catholic body become an entity that has transcended both its name and the culture which birthed it?
A group of historians and scholars tackled the question at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in a conference titled, “Southern Baptists in the New Millennium: Identity, Orthodoxy and Cooperation.”
The conference, which included a panel discussion on modern-day southern culture and the SBC’s place within it, was held at the Louisville, Ky., seminary Feb. 26-28.
Most of the panelists agreed that in recent years the SBC has become increasingly a nationwide denomination and is less restricted in its influence to the southern United States than it once was. Still, its connections with the South run far deeper than merely its name and the SBC remains an integral part of southern culture and its distinct temperament.
“For the time being, it seems to me, the Southern Baptist Convention is more like country music or NASCAR,” said John Shelton Reed, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. “You know it is something that is still rooted in its region and still reflects the South and its ethos, even though now it has a much broader appeal. I think for some time to come it is going to be flavored by the South.
“The South may be becoming less important for the Southern Baptist Convention, but the Southern Baptist Convention is still terribly important to the South. If you want to understand something about the South, you have to understand something about its dominant religion, its state church, which you all [the SBC] are, like it or not.”
Other panelists were Paul Harvey, assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; Barry Hankins, associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University, Waco, Texas; and David Stricklin, assistant professor of history at Lyon College in Batesville, Ark. Greg Wills, director for The Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention, was moderator.
Wills alluded to a statement made by former SBC President Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis, who said that Memphis is a more southern city (culturally) than Merritt Island, Fla. Rogers served there as pastor in the early 1970s. Wills, associate professor of church history at Southern, said Rogers’ statement illustrates the difficulty in defining southern culture.
Reed said the SBC influence is so pervasive in the South that it is next to impossible for a person to grow up there and not be influenced by the convention — regardless of his or her own religious heritage. That influence continues today, he said.
“It’s very difficult, or at least it used to be difficult, to grow up in the South, whatever your denomination, and not be part Southern Baptist,” Reed said.
“I went to college in Massachusetts and my best friend was from Arkansas,” he recounted. “I was an Episcopalian and he was a Christian Scientist. One of the reasons we liked each other [is because] we all knew the same Baptist hymns because we used to sing them in school. I don’t know that they do that anymore.”
One panelist said the SBC is so woven into the tapestry of southern culture that it is difficult to be “fully Southern Baptist” without growing up in the denomination. Because of the influx of non-southerners into the South, Hankins said he believes this is changing somewhat.
“Sam Hill, one of the noted historians of southern culture in our generation, used a term I like in saying the South has a ‘culture ethnicity’ about it,” Hankins said.
Hankins said that term resonated with him because he was a Michigan native who attended Baylor and joined a Southern Baptist church.
“There was always a sort of assumed knowledge that I didn’t have,” he said. “Now that’s obviously changing both as more diverse people come into the South and as Southern Baptist churches spring up all over the country.”