Southern Baptists on the downhill slide?

This just in from The Associated Press: Southern Baptists are having a tough time. But it's not what you might think.

Instead of declining membership and baptisms, the big worry for Southern Baptists appears to be — you guessed it — a weakening influence in American partisan politics:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was riding high.

The president of the United States was a conservative evangelical Christian who personally addressed the group's annual meetings, either by satellite or video, at least four times in two terms, and SBC leaders were feeling their influence at the highest levels of government.

Ten years later, as members prepare for their 2013 annual meeting in Houston on Tuesday, the nation's largest Protestant denomination finds itself in flux: It has less influence in government and a growing diversity that may be diminishing its role as a partisan political player. And some Southern Baptists are beginning to cry foul at what they see as discrimination by gays and liberals that violates their religious liberty.

"For 100 years the Southern Baptists have been the dominating religious entity of the South," said David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and a Southern Baptist. "Now they are starting to feel religious victimhood. ... In many ways, Baptists introduced pluralism to America. Now they are feeling like victims of that pluralism."

Certainly, the Southern Baptist political influence is a legitimate angle for a news story. I remember asking Texas pastor Jack Graham, then the SBC president, about that issue in 2004 when I served as an AP religion writer in Dallas:

Q: Along the same lines, how active do you expect Southern Baptists to be in the political process this summer? Baptists and evangelicals have become identified with Republicans such as Bush. Is that fair and will that continue?

A:No. 1, the 2004 presidential election is a critical election. There probably hasn’t been a clearer choice in terms of the future direction of America than we have right now. For me and for most Southern Baptists, it’s not an issue or Republican or Democrat. It’s an issue of biblical values vs. secular values and values that we share as opposed to values that we do not share.

Whether it be the marriage amendment or whether it be abortion, we’re interested as Christians – as conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians – we’re interested in the moral issue of abortion and marriage and the family. So we have heightened the awareness of our congregations of the issues at stake – and therefore have challenged our people … to vote their principles and not their political parties. …

But back to the current AP story, here's my question: Is it accurate to pitch the health of the SBC entirely in political terms?

Which worries Southern Baptist leaders more: less influence on Capitol Hill or fewer souls in the nation's pews? The AP story does not even reference the declining membership and baptisms. That seems like relevant information for a story on a denomination facing challenges, right?

On the positive side, the AP story serves as a timely primer for casual observers on where Southern Baptists find themselves — in a cultural context — on issues such as religious liberty, gay rights and immigration.

This just impresses me as one of those stories that makes a lot of blanket statements — and presents them as facts with no specific attribution — on issues that are more complicated and nuanced than they might appear on the surface.

We at GetReligion have complained a few times in recent years — here, here and here, for example — about a lack of media coverage of the SBC's annual meeting. So, despite the constructive criticisms, give AP credit for advancing the national meeting that starts Tuesday in Houston.

And the story critiqued in this post isn't even the most interesting one produced by AP (and others, such as Religion News Service) leading up to the denomination's Lone Star festivities.

Stay tuned for GR's take on that story first thing tomorrow. (Update: Here's that link.)

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