When did Baptists stop making news?

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed scores of blunt resolutions in recent decades urging America's leaders to reject the sexual revolution and defend marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman. But something different happened during this summer's convention. In a jolting statement on the divorce crisis, leaders from America's largest non-Catholic flock looked in the mirror and decided that their own sins were just as bad as everyone else's sins.

"Studies have indicated that conservative Protestants ... are divorcing at the same rate, if not at higher rates, than the general population," stated the resolution, which passed unanimously. Other studies indicate that areas in which "Southern Baptist churches predominate in number often have higher divorce rates than areas we would define as 'unchurched.' "

In other words, Southern Baptists have "been prophetic in confronting assaults in the outside culture on God's design for marriage while rarely speaking with the same alarm and force to a scandal that has become all too commonplace in our own churches."

The convention urged its churches to walk their conservative talk by offering improved premarital counseling, by uniting in marriage "only those who are biblically qualified to be married" and by intensifying efforts to heal broken unions.

Press coverage of this text was next to nonexistent. Media coverage was light of a strong SBC statement on corporate sin and the environment, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The convention also approved, after some emotional debates, a sweeping program to change key elements of its national structure and finances.

This is the stuff of national news, noted religion-beat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing for Politics Daily. The question is why this SBC gathering received so little attention, while gatherings in the 1980s and '90s created waves of ink.

Back then, he noted, the "pressroom would be packed by wire service reporters, writers from large and not-so-large newspapers from across the South, and from most of the top 10 largest papers not in the South. This time, I can find evidence of exactly five representatives of the secular media in attendance. ...

"Which leads to this question: Did the SBC get too much attention back in the day, or is it getting too little attention now? My answer to both: Probably so."

Of course, the troubled state of the news business played a role. There are fewer journalists on the religion beat and there are fewer travel dollars to invest in covering subjects other than those most editors consider holy, such as politics and sports.

At the same time, the era of intense coverage of Southern Baptist life coincided with what journalists perceived as a major change in American politics -- the growth of the religious right. Journalists took note when the nation's largest Protestant body spoke out on abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women, Hollywood's influence on families and the need for evangelism around the world, including among Jewish believers.

Hot buttons were being pushed, year after year.

"Atop those reader-friendly news hooks, we had the 25-year internal battle between what we always called 'conservatives' and 'moderates.' That fight ended with the conservatives in firm control of the denominational leadership and the moderates purged at about the same time the Republican Party was becoming increasingly defined by a publicly political conservative Christian base," noted Weiss.

In other words, more politics.

These days, the SBC is primarily wrestling with issues of theology and polity, especially the culture's slide into a post-denominational age in which people are increasingly moving into congregations that strive to avoid putting a brand name -- think "Southern Baptist" -- on their signs. People are drifting back and forth across hazy doctrinal lines that used to be clearly defined.

This is a giant story and, in part, is what that reorganization plan is about -- granting more independence to churches, clergy and donors in an attempt to pull the old Southern Baptist tent a bit closer to contemporary megachurch realities.

Consider, noted Weiss, the news value of this dramatic plan to restructure "its organization and the way it funds missionaries -- which was the main reason the SBC was formed in the first place. How dramatic? Imagine if your city decided it would let people send some of their tax money to those programs they particularly liked."

Imagine that. That's would be news, wouldn't it?