Those who convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism are said to “swim the Tiber” while those going in the other direction “swim the Thames.” So what do Catholics do when they become Southern Baptists? Swim the Cumberland?*
If so, the Tennessee river must be getting mighty crowded, for as Marcel LeJeune of Aggie Catholics points out, many Catholics are becoming Southern Baptists. LeJeune notes a report by Notre Dame economist Daniel Hungerman which explains the unusual shift:
This paper considers substituting one charitable activity for another in the context of religious practice. I examine the impact of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal on both Catholic and non-Catholic religiosity. I find that the scandal led to a 2-million-member fall in the Catholic population that was compensated by an increase in non-Catholic participation and by an increase in non-affiliation. Back-of the- envelope calculations suggest the scandal generated over 3 billion dollars in donations to non-Catholic faiths. Those substituting out of Catholicism frequently chose highly dissimilar alternatives; for example, Baptist churches gained significantly from the scandal while the Episcopal Church did not. These results challenge several theories of religious participation and suggest that regulatory policies or other shocks specific to one religious group could have important spillover effects on other religious groups.
Rod Dreher finds this surprising: “The Baptists?! They’re pretty far from Roman Catholicism in some important ways.” While that’s certainly true, I think there may be a reasonable explanation for why the Baptists are attracting former Catholics.
First of all, in many parts of the country there are plenty of Baptist churches to choose from. In the part of Texas I hail from you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Baptist church. Every little town in the area has a First Baptist Church (though, oddly enough, you don’t hear much about the 3rd and 4th Baptist Churches) as well as a dozen others.
Second, if someone has invited you to church there is a 87% chance that they are Baptist. That’s just what we do. We invite people to church. I’ve been around Catholics all my life and yet I don’t think they’ve ever invited me to Mass. I’m not saying that should have extended an invitation and they probably have good reason why they do not (e.g., they’ve seen the “Baptist 4 Eva” tattoo on my neck). The same is true for most other (at least most other non-evangelical) denominations. The reason that Baptists pick up so many lapsed members of other congregations is not because we are “sheep stealing” (though, admittedly, that does happen) but merely because we ask, “Do you go to church somewhere? No? Well, why don’t you visit mine?”
Third, contrary to what Umberto Eco might say, joining a Baptist church is like owning a Mac: You don’t have to know or do much to get started. There are a lot of drawbacks to our lack of liturgy, of course, but I suspect for many Catholics the “ease of use” in “being Baptist” is a key selling point.
Combine those three elements and I think it becomes easier to understand why the Southern Baptists are picking up the newly Protestant.
* The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is located just across from the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee.