Anyone who knows anything about mainstream American religion knows that the Southern Baptist Convention is our land's largest non-Catholic flock. Despite the word "Southern" in the name -- and SBC leaders are thinking about changing that -- this is an increasingly national church and one with significant ethnic presence, as well. Thus, you really have to wonder how the Southern Baptist hierarchy is reacting to all of the controversy that currently is swirling around one of its best known national leaders -- the Rev. Herman Cain.
What? You didn't know that Cain is a Southern Baptist preacher?
Actually, there's a good reason you don't know that. You see, it isn't true.
Cain isn't a Southern Baptist preacher. However, readers would have good cause for confusion on that point if they read a recent essay by political writer Molly Ball of The Atlantic. It contains one of those tone-deaf linguistic slips that often show up when many mainstream political reporters attempt to cover religion.
The thrust of the story is that religious conservatives are having trouble rallying around one dream-boat candidate this year. Many candidates have tried to call, but no one has been chosen. That's a timely story, for sure.
Now, it's clear -- from the get go -- that Ball knows that there is a religious group called the Southern Baptist Convention. The story opens like this:
A leading figure on the religious right says conservative evangelicals are frustrated with their choices in the Republican presidential field.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the GOP candidates' tough talk on illegal immigration, as well as their anti-government fervor, are alienating Christian voters.
So far, so good. However, in the very next paragraph, we read this:
And it doesn't help that doubts have arisen about the personal morals of a candidate many social conservatives embraced -- Herman Cain, who is a Southern Baptist preacher in addition to being a former businessman.
Here's the problem. Cain isn't a Southern Baptist and, thus, he is certainly has not been ordained as a Southern Baptist preacher.
Ball was probably trying to say that Cain is from the South and that, when he gets wound up on the stump, he sounds a lot like a preacher, like the pulpit master that he has been known to be on occasion.
Once again, to stress the main point, Cain is not a Southern Baptist. As numerous journalists have noted, for several decades he has been associated with the Antioch Baptist Church North, a greater Atlanta megachurch that is affiliated with the National Baptist Convention USA, a large and historically quite progressive African American denomination. You can look it up.
Does this inaccuracy matter?
Rest assured that it matters to Southern Baptists. Ditto for National Baptists, many of whom have stood by Cain for years despite numerous political disagreements with him.
This mistake matters if accuracy still matters for journalists working for major publications in the mainstream.