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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Compared to What? Southern Baptists and Race

A recent story on National Public Radio (NPR) focused on the upcoming election in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that might result in the election of the SBC's first African-American (Pastor Fred Luter) denominational President ("Black Leader For Southern Baptist Convention?"). The story was framed in terms of how historic this would be, given that the SBC was founded in a dispute over slavery (it split from the Northern Baptists -- now American Baptists -- over whether missionaries could own slaves) and was an implicit supporter of segregation for a number of years. The SBC recently apologized for its support of slavery and segregation, but the reporter (Guy Raz) implied that the SBC still has a way to go in terms of overcoming its racist past when he noted that the SBC is still 80% white. In fact, he suggested that its racist past is one of the reasons why it is still 80% white.

But is that a fair characterization? A quick check of the 2010 US Census would have told Raz that 70-75% of Americans are white, so in terms of racial composition, the SBC is a relatively decent snapshot of America. That is, if one were to assign a random sample of Americans to a particular denomination, it wouldn't be a whole lot more diverse than the SBC currently is. Perhaps more impressively, the SBC is far more integrated than most mainline Protestant denominations (the American Baptists being the exception), which run about 90-95% white. In other words, mainline Protestant denominations, which include such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and so on, which have historically been quite progressive on issues of race, are actually doing worse in terms of diversifying.

As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of a piece of advice one of my good friends offered me several years ago: When hearing a statistic, one of the first questions you should ask is, "Compared to what?" It is still good advice. I just wish more folks would follow it.

P.S. As many readers know, I am not a Southern Baptist. Rather, I attend one of those historic denominations (UCC) that is behind the SBC in terms of diversity.

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