Congregational Self-Identity: Part 1of 4


Part One: “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Baptists as the ‘Other’”

by Bruce T. Gourley

cbflogoIn the fall of 2013 the Baptist History and Heritage Society in partnership with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship conducted a congregational identity survey to which individuals from 78 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations in 14 states responded. The non-scientific survey asked open-ended questions, prompting responders to speak freely. This 2014 series of articles is an interpretive analysis of survey responses. 

American Christianity exists uneasily within a complex and rapidly-changing early 21st century context that is broadly characterized by entrenched political paralysis, growing economic inequality, accelerating scientific knowledge, fading religious commitments, and — hovering within, below and above all — a pervasive technological presence that empowers and sustains the daily lives of the nation’s citizenry.

Christian churches in today’s America face formidable challenges. 21% of Americans now say that religion is “not that important” in their lives, up 50% from 1997. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of American adults under the age of 30 — known as “millennials” — claim no religious affiliation (and hence are often referred to as “nones”), compared to 9% of adults 65 years of age or older who are religiously unaffiliated. Over the longer term, since 1972 the percentages of both Protestants and Catholics have declined, while the ranks of “nones” have tripled.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1990, was birthed on the cusp of the acceleration of this statistical decline of religion in America. In addition, CBF churches remain heavily skewed to the geographic area of the former Confederate States of America, otherwise known as the “Bible Belt.” Compare this map of the Confederacy to a map of today’s Bible Belt and the current CBF church map database. The overlapping of the maps is stark. Outside the boundaries of the old Confederate / present-day Bible Belt states, CBF churches are scarce, to the point that there are several bordering states within which no CBF churches are identified in the database.

What is the broader identity of the southern region that serves as the home base of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship?

Historically, the Bible Belt emerged from white southerner’s biblical defense of female subordination and black slavery in the decades prior to the American Civil War, as documented by Christine Leigh Heyrman in Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt.

Politically, the states of the old Confederate / present-day Bible Belt are the stronghold of the Republican Party, most recently evidenced in the 2012 presidential election.

Economically, the old Confederate / present-day Bible Belt states are home to the majority of states with the greatest economic inequality in terms of poverty, income inequality and upward economic mobility. Not surprisingly, economic inequality is clearly correlated with ongoing racial segregation in the South.

Educationally, the states of the old Confederacy / present-day Bible Belt lag in the “knowledge economy” while leading in beliefs in biblical literalism and biblical creationism.

Collectively, the low economic and knowledge status in these southern states translates into the region harboring the lowest of human opportunity measures in terms of health, knowledge, and standard of living. The culturally/socially-conservative ideology of the dominant, virtually-whites-only Republican Party reinforces these regional patterns.

The story of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in short, has unfolded within the framework of a small, progressive Baptist group whose geographic home is the region of the United States in which exists the nation’s greatest religiosity, biblical literalism, political conservatism, poverty, income inequality, racial segregation, ill health and scientific illiteracy.

In respect to demographics, the progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a counter-cultural, prophetic voice crying out in a conservative bastion. Demographics make it unlikely that CBF in the near future will experience significant growth in the states of the old Confederacy / present-day Bible Belt. On the other hand, it is possible that growth will come about in the long term as ethnic diversity, and hence progressivism, grows in the South (although growing ethnic diversity may conversely serve to further magnify economic and knowledge inequalities).

Not surprisingly, approximately 90% of the congregational identity survey responses originated from within southern states. Any analysis of the results of the survey must thus be understood in the context of CBF Baptists as the “other” in their native land, an overarching theme reflected in survey responses.

Part Two: “Embodied Identity: Being Baptist in the 21st Century.”