Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation's largest Protestant denomination. "Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms," quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers' attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.
But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:
A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect's declining rate of dunkings, saying, "We have a spiritual problem."
Then in the body of the story:
When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination's national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a "task force" on the sect's "evangelistic impact."
A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings -- weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state -- and a lot of other nations as well?
Think I'm making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.
Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:
* "A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition."
* "A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches."
* "A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches."
The dictionary also has a few broad, catch-all definitions, such as "any group, party, or faction united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader"; "a group of people with a common interest, doctrine, etc; faction," and "a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination." By those standards, you could brand Judaism or Catholicism -- or Methodism or the Salvation Army, for that matter -- as a sect. How often do you imagine The Atlantic has done so?
The article on the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t all bad. The Atlantic's writer alertly notes that there are also other kinds of Baptists and that the SBC is a "loose network," not a tightly run corporation. She also reports that many denominational leaders have lowered their vision from seeking converts to managing the 50,000 congregations.
And here's a perceptive paragraph:
This seems to be a conflict between logistics and belief, with everyday pastors focused on keep their churches running and national leaders fixated on getting souls saved. The task force would probably argue that the two are inextricably linked, but the data do not necessarily agree: The decline in baptisms started half a decade before membership started shrinking. Even in the denomination's best-ever year for church membership, baptisms declined by roughly four percent compared to the previous year. At least in terms of numbers, it seems possible to have a strong faith community with fewer baptisms.
Unfortunately, the article has other blemishes besides the misuse of "sect." In one case, it says "evangelical" (conversion to Christ) when it means "evangelistic" (influencing others to convert). And you’ve already seen baptism belittled as "dunkings" in the subhead.
The team at The Atlantic also gets squishy in saying the SBC peaked at 16.6 million members in 2005, then fell to 15.8 million in 2012. "That's nearly one million members lost in roughly a decade," the piece says, although it's actually 800,000 in seven years.
And there’s a clumsy attempt to get cutesy at the end of the story by talking about pastors trying to "get more people to go down to the river to pray." The linked song of Down in the River to Pray, by Allison Krauss, is a sweet version; but just because it was in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, doesn’t make it quintessentially Southern Baptist.
Finally, The Atlantic seems to equate baptism with outreach and maybe even the peak Southern Baptist experience. There’s a lot about "dunking," rates of baptisms, who gets baptized and who doesn’t. What I don’t see is a recognition of the prerequisite: being born again, accepting Jesus as Lord and savior -- and only then to be baptized. The ritual is totally different than, say, for a Catholic; you undergo it as a public demonstration of your belief.
To miss or ignore this fact is to miss the first thing about all Baptists, Southern or otherwise. And if you misunderstand a group, you just might start calling it names like "sect."