A Southern Baptist by any other name ...

From time to time here at GetReligion, we post "Got news?" items and wonder why the mainstream media haven't tackled a particular issue or topic that we deem newsworthy.

Yesterday, denominational press links circulated among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas concerning a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention. (See one report from Baptist Press and another from the Associated Baptist Press.)

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there's no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. Perhaps we should all take a moment and pay homage to the writer, Bob Smietana, the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year. (Smietana is a Red Sox fan, so he needs all the encouragement he can get these days. Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the top of Smietana's report:

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination may be getting a new name.

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just for the South anymore, its president contends, and rebranding could open up other parts of the country to new churches. It’s a strategy other denominations are trying, and at least one is claiming success.

SBC President Bryant Wright announced Monday at an executive committee meeting in Nashville that he’s set up a study group to research changing the 166-year-old denomination’s name.

“There are not a lot of folks in New York City interested in going to a Southern Baptist church,” he said. “Or in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Boise, Idaho.”

(I know Smietana was on deadline for a daily story, but it would have been interesting to contact a Southern Baptist pastor in Cheyenne or Boise and find out his thoughts on a possible name change.)

But Smietana was not alone in smelling mainstream news: The Houston Chronicle's Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

As the news reports indicate, this is not the first time Southern Baptists have contemplated a possible name change. In a 2004 interview for The Associated Press, I remember discussing the subject with the Rev. Jack Graham, then the convention's president:

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity.

Concerning the latest discussion, it'll be interesting to see if the story gains legs outside Southern Baptist strongholds (such as Houston and Nashville) and outside the conservative press (talking about you, Fox News).

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:

-- Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.

-- North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:

The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.

-- Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just "Southern," or will they consider chopping the "Baptist" too?

-- By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)

-- Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

Got news? It would appear so.

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