Baptists' hot time in Phoenix

Unlike Rob Bell, Southern Baptists believe in hell.

In related news (kidding), the denomination this week staged its annual meeting in a frying pan.

A year ago in this space, we lamented (and again here) the lack of mainstream media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention's 2010 meeting in Orlando, Fla.:

Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines.

Whether battling over “hotbeds of liberalism” or declaring that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists’ arrests, the convention’s annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters -- a “who’s who” list of Religion Newswriters Association members.

How far has the news value of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — with 16 million members — fallen?

Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it’s drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that.

Fast-forward 12 months. Instead of the home city of Walt Disney World, Baptists convened in the, um, desert. In the summertime. Sounds like a hot recipe for a popular convention, huh?

Not so much.

Let's check in with (apparently) the only secular reporter to make his way to Phoenix: religion writer Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a story mostly behind a paywall (I have my ways, people), Lockwood noted:

Overall, there were 4,791 messengers in Phoenix, officials said, the lowest number, by far, since the 1944 annual meeting in Atlanta, when the nation was in the midst of World War II.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and experienced decades of growth before plateauing around the turn of the century.

To summarize: Not only did the press stay home this time, but so did the Baptists. (Thank you, I'm here all week.)

Alas, even from afar, there has actually been some pretty interesting mainstream coverage of the two-day Phoenix meeting. In advance of the convention, The Tennessean's Bob Smietana reported on the denomination's declining baptism rate (which is becoming an annual story for the Southern Baptists).

Lockwood's first-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Southern Baptists, who split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on Tuesday elected a black pastor to serve as first vice president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, soundly defeated Richard Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, to claim the second-highest office in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Luter, 54, is the highest ranking black to ever win office in the predominantly white denomination, which allowed its churches to exclude blacks from membership at least into the late-1970s.

The race angle drew the attention of Religion News Service, The New York Times and The Associated Press, all of which produced fairly substantial reports -- albeit not from the convention floor. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans profiled Luter and analyzed why he's likely to be elected the denomination's first black president in his hometown next summer.

That potential election sets the stage for what could be a "big headline" kind of convention with reporters from the major media on the scene in New Orleans in 2012. Most of the reporting I've seen on this year's convention has highlighted the Baptists' lack of minority membership and leadership. I'm hopeful that next year's reports will do a better job of putting those figures in context of the wider religious world. In terms of diversity, how do the Southern Baptists compare with other denominations?

Lockwood's second-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Meeting in one of the nation’s most heavily Hispanic states, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday called for the creation of “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures” for illegal aliens living in the United States.

Convention delegates, known as messengers, debated whether to strip that language from a resolution titled “On Immigration and the Gospel,” which had been crafted by the Committee on Resolutions.

But attempts to delete the wording failed by a vote of 766-723.

The overall resolution then passed by a show of hands.

Two-fifths of Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are here illegally, Baptist leaders estimated.

Again, the Arkansas newspaper captured the angle of the day that national media followed from afar, including RNS, Politico and the AP.

How did the Democrat-Gazette benefit by actually having a reporter at the meeting? The advantages were subtle but important. For example, Lockwood's report was the only one I read that quoted actual delegates -- er, messengers -- opposed to the immigration language approved:

Richard Huff, a Southern Baptist messenger from Tucson, Ariz., moved to strike any call for a pathway to legal residency.

If illegal aliens are allowed to stay, “we will be rewarding people who have broken the law,” warned John Killian, a messenger and pastor from Maytown, Ala. Accepting millions of illegal aliens is “a policy that’s completely unsustainable for our economy.”

Others warned that the measure was misguided.

“This is amnesty any way you phrase it,” said Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif.

As seems to happen every year, gay-rights advocates raised concerns about Southern Baptists' treatment of homosexuals. Unless I missed it, the Times was the only mainstream publication to tout that angle, tacking it on to the end of its report:

Gay and lesbian advocates on Wednesday called on the Southern Baptists to apologize for antihomosexual policies and for what they called destructive efforts to “cure” people of homosexuality.

Mr. Mohler said that in contrast to racial issues, the church view that homosexual behavior is a sin is dictated by the Bible. “We cannot compromise without disobeying the Scriptures,” he said, adding that it is also an article of faith that the Holy Spirit can transform people.

Those two grafs seemed to come out of nowhere in a story about the convention's minority appeal. There's no explanation of the alleged "antihomosexual policies" or the "destructive efforts." (The Associated Baptist Press provided a fuller report on the gay-rights angle.)

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