NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was riding high.
The president of the United States was a conservative evangelical Christian who personally addressed the group's annual meetings, either by satellite or video, at least four times in two terms, and SBC leaders were feeling their influence at the highest levels of government.
Ten years later, as members prepare for their 2013 annual meeting in Houston on Tuesday, the nation's largest Protestant denomination finds itself in flux: It has less influence in government and a growing diversity that may be diminishing its role as a partisan political player. And some Southern Baptists are beginning to cry foul at what they see as discrimination by gays and liberals that violates their religious liberty.
"For 100 years the Southern Baptists have been the dominating religious entity of the South," said David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and a Southern Baptist. "Now they are starting to feel religious victimhood. ... In many ways, Baptists introduced pluralism to America. Now they are feeling like victims of that pluralism."
A resolution passed at last year's SBC meeting titled "On Protecting Religious Liberty" cites several issues of concern: They include the Obama administration's mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions (but not houses of worship) to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees; government defense of gay marriage; and the acceptance of gay service members in the U.S. military.
Russell Moore, the incoming president of the Nashville-based SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he would be very surprised if there was not at least one resolution on religious liberty introduced at this year's annual meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The government is overstepping its bounds in breathtaking ways," Moore said in an interview. "The audacity of state challenges to religious freedom would have been unbelievable just a few years ago. A warning about some of these threats would have been dismissed as slippery-slope scare tactics."
Recently, some Southern Baptists thought their worst fears were realized when military chaplains trying to access the Southern Baptist website came across a warning that it was unavailable due to "hostile content." As it turned out, that referred to malicious software, not the ideological content.
"I think the reason why these incidents were taken seriously is because there are so many threats to religious liberty in the U.S. military right now," Moore said.
He cited a recent statement from the Department of Defense that troops and chaplains are free to engage in evangelism, but not proselytizing, a distinction Moore called "artificial and confusing."
"We need a clear definition (of proselytizing) that protects free-speech and free-expression rights," Moore said.
Probably no issue more starkly reflects the Southern Baptists' recent struggles than the growing mainstream acceptance of homosexuality.