Southern Baptists (and Republicans): old, white and in decline?
The evangelical Protestant revival has been one of the most dynamic religious and social movements in the United States in the last three decades. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one in four U.S. adults now count themselves as followers of this faith tradition.
So it may come as a surprise to some non-American readers of this blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — with 16 million members, America’s largest evangelical denomination and the country’s second largest after the Catholic Church — is ringing the alarm bells of decline.
Its research arm LifeWay Research released the following projections this week at the convention’s annual meeting in Kentucky: it said its numbers would fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 “unless the aging and predominantly white denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to strengthen evangelism, reach immigrants, and develop a broader ethnic base.”
“Using U.S. Census projected population figures, SBC membership could fall from a peak of 6 percent of the American population in the late 1980s to 2 percent in 2050,” said LifeWay director Ed Stetzer.
The SBC in 1951 enjoyed robust annual growth of four percent and still had two percent in the early 1970s but in recent years it has been falling about 0.6 percent per year.
The number of baptisms — which is how the SBC counts converts and is key to a group that sees bringing souls to Christ as its raison d’être — have also been in decline.
“I’m not saying the sky is falling but we are alarmed about it,” said Gary Ledbetter, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. He and other Southern Baptists I spoke to said they saw the problem as a spiritual one and they see themselves not doing enough in their evangelism efforts.
It all raises a number of interesting questions and issues. While the SBC does have churches outside of the South, most of its membership remains concentrated there. So the ceiling it seems to have hit may point to the changing nature of the South itself as immigrants pour into the region from other parts of the United States as well as other countries.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex where I reside, a growing number of previously “dry” areas where you couldn’t buy booze are going “wet” — a trend seen elsewhere across the South. That says a lot about the changing nature of the South and strongly suggests the SBC is losing its clout in public affairs and policy. If there is a dry area in the South, you can bet it has a Baptist church. But more and more Baptist churches are finding themselves in wet areas as well.
If the SBC is in decline, one also has to wonder what the long-term political implications could be for the Republican Party. Conservative white evangelical Protestants have become its most reliable base. In recent election cycles it has relied on this base to deliver the vote in part by galvanizing opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.
And the conservative SBC, one could argue, is the core of that base.
Of course, the SBC could be losing people to other evangelical denominations or even the Mormon faith (SBC officials have long maintained that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a successful “poacher” of its flock). Neither trend would necessarily hurt the Republican Party. Mormons for one are every bit as conservative and Republican as Southern Baptists.
But Republican strategists will probably not take comfort by the fact that the SBC’s demographics in many ways mirror that of the party itself. Old, white, and Southern (one could add male and rural), with expansion dependent upon attracting immigrants and other ethnic groups, notably Hispanics. It is perhaps no coincidence that the core of the Republican base looks a lot like the party itself.