Some fundamentalist leaders think it is time for the Southern Baptist Convention to have a face lift. They want to change the name of their denomination.
They apparently believe that a cosmetic change to the most unattractive church body in America will successfully hide the negative truth and revitalize a sagging denomination.
Of course, these leaders claim a different motive. The proposed change is to help new church starts outside the South to shed the problem associated with the word “Southern.”
When SBC president Jack Graham called for a name-change study committee, he emphasized that the only reason for a change was “to strengthen and lengthen our witness here and around the world.”
Interestingly, the SBC Executive Committee decided against a name change in 1999, saying that there was “no compelling rationale for changing the name of the convention nor for underwriting a study of the same.” They said a name change could weaken the SBC’s image as a citadel of conservatism.
While Graham pitched the issue in terms of regionalism, a more truthful explanation at the Executive Committee meeting this week came from Fred Herring, president of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention. “I support the name change if that’s what it’s going to take to change people’s perception, impression and feelings about the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Herring fingered a real problem—the need to change perceptions and feelings about the SBC, which are extremely negative and widespread. Under fundamentalist leadership, the name Southern Baptist has become synonymous with fundamentalism, which after 9/11 has become the first dirty word of the 21st century.
In March 2002, Bob Jones, the grandson of the school’s founder, admitted that the term fundamentalist “evokes fear, suspicion and other repulsive connotations.”
He said that fundamentalists needed a “new term that will define us” and recommended the term “preservationists.” Yet he also said that his school would remain “unashamedly Fundamentalist.”
Like Jones, some Southern Baptist leaders now want a new name that will define who they are. Their move takes half-a-page from the corporate world.
When WorldCom collapsed in scandal and became synonymous with fraud, leaders changed the corporate name to MCI. But they also moved the corporate headquarters and began reforming corporate practices.
It is this second step that is lacking in the SBC: reformation. Rather than cut a new path of reformation toward a positive, inclusive and proactive future, some SBC leaders duck down the easy, superficial path of name change.
Yet a fundamentalist denomination by any other name is still a fundamentalist denomination.
Robert M. Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.