On Monday (Feb. 20), Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright is expected to give his recommendation on a possible name change to the denomination's top leaders. That recommendation is likely to be debated at the Southern Baptists' annual convention in June in New Orleans.Like many issues that are peripheral or unrelated to academic freedom at OBU, Save OBU has no compelling reason to take a position on this matter. But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what an institution's name means and what associations it carries.
Southern Baptist Convention
There are apparently two main arguments for changing the name of the SBC. The first has to do with the role of slavery in the convention's formation in 1845 and the notion that "Southern" somehow brings to mind an association with a racist past. Along these lines, proponents of a name change point to statistics showing that 44% of people have a negative view of Southern Baptists (according to a LifeWay study quoted in the linked article above). The second reason for a change has less to do with public relations and more to do with the reality that Southern Baptists are increasing their presence in areas outside the Old Confederacy. If you are planting churches in the West and Northeast, the reasoning goes, why call them "Southern" Baptist? (Though Baptists' foothold in the South is obviously the only region where they are dominant, as the figure shows.)
Another story, though one less talked about in the media and discourse I've read, is the decline of denominationalism overall and particularly the decline of denominational loyalties among the young. Overwhelmingly, people are not nearly as likely to identify with a denomination than their parents were. Anecdotally, when you see churches being built in the middle class white exurbs, they are almost never have denominational identifiers on their signs and buildings, even if they are affiliated with a denomination. Instead, you see "The Rock Church," "Living Vine Church," "River of Life Community," etc.
If I had to bet, I think I'd bet on a name change. To what, though? From my perspective, I wish they would choose a name that helps distinguish who the convention is now that it has taken over every institution, board, and agency and purged/marginalized all moderates and what few liberals there ever were. Probably the "Conservative Baptist Convention" would be the most accurate. Such a name would help imply their victory in the Fundamentalist Takeover as well as their new place as the religious wing of the Republican Party. If you read what Baptist leaders taught and believed about the separation of church and state 30 or 40 years ago, you would not believe that today's leaders are in the same denomination.
I'm just sad that, whatever the SBC does, the Nashville boys will get to claim the name "Baptist" -- a label they have dragged through the mud of fundamentalism and secular politics for a generation to the point that nearly a majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of a word that used to be synonymous with soul freedom, liberty of the conscience, and separation of church and state.
Oklahoma Baptist University
One of the tricky things about the Save OBU effort is that our mission is a little more difficult because OBU has "Oklahoma" and "Baptist" in its name. For one thing, unlike Furman, Stetson, and Jewell, we can't start with a discussion about academic freedom or whether the school and the convention can even be partners in the same mission. Before we even get to that point, we have to deal with the objection, "It's Oklahoma Baptist University," by which our critics mean to imply that the BGCO should be able to do whatever it wants, no matter how perilously its vision for OBU encroaches on academic freedom.
So, for better or worse, before we can even have a substantive debate about the merits of disaffiliation, we have to have a debate about what it means to be Baptist. When you are eager to argue for disaffiliation, that discussion can feel like a distraction. But the truth is, we welcome that debate. We welcome the opportunity to discuss all the Baptist distinctives we stand for. Because whenever we have that discussion, it becomes easier, not harder, for us to show that it is the SBC and the BGCO that moved away from those distinctives. We have remained true to them all along.
While they are glad to have OBU in their portfolio because it represents and reinforces that they own us, we are proud to be OBU because we have been living by and fighting for the best of the Baptist tradition all along. We are the descendants of a great generation of OBU administrators, teachers, and students who built a proud name in Christian higher education. They are the descendants of a Takeover faction that booed Herschel Hobbs at the SBC, purged and marginalized anyone who dared to disagree with them, sold out for a pittance to the religious right, ran our agencies and institutions into the ground, and created a P.R. emergency for a denomination that nearly half of Americans view unfavorably.
The BGCO may own the buildings and grounds. But it absolutely does not own what it means to be Baptist. It turned away from that legacy years ago. And that is why we will win.