Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that Southern Baptists are increasingly eager to drop the “Southern” part of their name. At Samford University, a Baptist school in the South long associated with Southern Baptists, the percentage of undergraduates claiming a Southern Baptist identity has been dropping for years, even as the percentage who identify as Baptist has remained steady for the past half decade.
Each fall, Samford publishes a “Quick Facts” sheet that includes the number of undergraduates reporting various religious affiliations. I’ve kept track of these numbers since I joined the faculty in 1999. Initially, there was only one category of Baptists. Since 2007, there have been two Baptist categories: “Southern Baptist” and (other) “Baptist.”
I’m not sure why the change was made. It followed the arrival of a new university president. Perhaps it was so that it looked like there was more denominational variety among the student body. Perhaps it was to reassure Southern Baptists that Samford had (real) Southern Baptists.
Based on my experience, I think that the majority of Baptists at Samford are members of Southern Baptist churches whether or not they claim the “Southern” name. Thus I normally just watch that total Baptist number. It declined steadily from nearly 60% in 2000 to about 33% in 2015, but has remained fairly constant since then, even as the university’s enrollment has grown.
The recent report, and Andrew Gardner’s analysis in Baptist News Global, prompted me to look at how that Southern Baptist number has changed relative to the total of Southern Baptists and other Baptists.
As the graph shows, from a high of 16.5% in 2009 the number of self-reporting Southern Baptists has dropped to 4%. My assessment from teaching religion to these students from throughout this time is that this is primarily a sign of a change in self-identity, not in theology or affiliation.
The biggest story of the past twenty years in Samford’s reports of undergraduates’ religious identity is the growth in the number of those who do not claim a denominational label because they identify with churches, Baptist or otherwise, that do not use a denominational name. They way the university reports these students has changed over time. At one point, they were counted as “not reported.” Since 2017 they have been grouped as “Christian.” This percentage has risen from 19.5% in 2017 to 22.5% in 2020 even as the university’s undergraduate enrollment has grown from 3,373 to 3,591.
These declines in denominational identity are not unique. They are common. But they raise special challenged for a university that has a long history of Baptist identity, seeks to remain a “Christian university,” attracts students largely on the basis of that identity, and still requires its trustees to be members of Baptist churches.