Reporters! When in doubt, be specific

Caught with pants downWhile it may surprise GetReligion readers who reside in some parts of the United States, there are thousands of evangelical Christians — millions, globally — who worship in United Methodist pews week after week. That is certainly true down in the Southeastern corner of the Sunbelt, where there seems to be a United Methodist congregation in every small town and in almost every zip code.

Now hold on to that thought.

I am sad to report that ABC News served up a story the other day that, once again, pinned the “evangelical” label on another GOP falling star without offering any practical details that would, or would not, justify that word. At best, this appears to be a story about a man who “voted” evangelical and then got caught with his pants down.

We simply don’t know. Here’s the top of the story, which includes all kinds of slimy details about a scandal that deserves to be called an “affair” in every sense of the word. The detail about the stolen disc of nude photos is especially choice.

What began as a government internship for a one-time honors student with a questionable past has become a full-blown sex scandal that ensnared a married Tennessee state senator and led him to resign.

Republican Sen. Paul Stanley had maintained a low profile until his announcement … that he was resigning from the state Senate effective Aug. 10, after his affair with a 22-year-old intern and a subsequent extortion attempt was revealed to the public.

Stanley, a 47-year-old evangelical Christian with two children, said in his resignation letter that he has “decided to focus my full attention on my family.”

“Whatever I stood for and advocated, I still believe to be true,” he told Memphis radio station WREC-AM Tuesday. “And just because I fell far short of what God’s standard was for me and my wife, doesn’t mean that that standard is reduced in the least bit.”

He had been engaged in a sexual relationship with intern McKensie Morrison when her boyfriend, Joel Watts, contacted him, according to an affidavit filed in Davidson County by prosecutor Douglas Long. Watts threatened April 8 to release nude photos of Morrison at the senator’s apartment unless Stanley paid him $10,000, the affidavit claimed.

So he is an “evangelical” and that’s that. Read on and you’ll see that there is nothing in the story that gives us any clue as to why Stanley fits that label — unless simply being a Republican is enough. Take it away, Jim Wallis.

Now, as a GetReligion reader quickly noted by email, it isn’t all that hard to Google this politician’s name and read the following on his personal website. At least, it was easy to do that before the contents were locked after his resignation announcement. Still, the direct link still works, so click here. That’s where we read that:

From 1997-1999 he was Vice Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. Paul was Senior Field Representative to U.S. Senator Bill Frist from 1995-1997 and served on the Republican State Executive Committee from 1998-2002. He is a member of Christ United Methodist Church where he serves as a Sunday school teacher and board member of their day school.

OtherPaulStanleySo here is the question for the reporter. Why not simply say that the state senator is a Sunday school teacher in a United Methodist congregation? That would be specific and accurate.

But wait, I hear some of you thinking, “But that doesn’t offer any political content about this man who has sunk into this pit of shame. It makes his actions worse if he is one of those ‘evangelical’ people. After all, if you just said he was a United Methodist, then people might think that he’s, uh, well educated and sane.”

As it turns out, the state senator’s “about” page also offers more information, noting that:

He has sponsored and passed many pro-business and technology bills and has a 100% rating from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, NRA and Tennessee Right to Life.

There you go, Stanley had a sky-high voting record from his state’s Right to Life chapter — even higher than the rating by another pro-life evangelical from Tennessee years ago. You remember Sen. Al Gore, don’t you? But he was a Democrat, of course.

In conclusion, there may be all kinds of specific information — other than this one political statistic on life issues — that would justify pinning the stunningly vague term “evangelical” on this latest GOP falling star. However, that information is clearly not in the ABC News story, where all we get is a hollow label.

It was easy to learn that Stanley is a United Methodist. Why not simply be specific, for a change? Go ahead and give us a few details.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian Walden

    Is it possible to have evangelicals and non-evangelicals within a denomination. For example could the Christ United Methodist Church on one side of town just be regular old Methodist and the Christ United Methodist Church on the other side of town be evangelical?

    If so, assuming the reasons for calling Stanley the generic term evangelical rather than Methodist were not political (or laziness), what are the differences between your ordinary Methodist and an evangelical Methodist that might cause a journalist to choose one label over the other?

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.blogspot.com David

    I have never met a United Methodist who I would consider an evangelical. And more importantly, would any United Methodist consider themselves an evangelical?

    Not a knock on the denomination, but evangelical hold pretty true to the “ye must be born again” scriptures.

    That’s why it always amused me to hear that Bush was a ‘member and a tool of evangelicals’ just because he prayed.

    David
    http://www.redletterbelievers.com

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BRIAN:

    By all means. Most of the oldline denominations contain many people who can accurately be called evangelicals — think JI Packer in the Anglican world — and there are more who can accurately be called theological liberals.

    I really wish that the classic paper “The Seven Churches of United Methodism” was available somewhere online. See the reference here:

    http://www.tmatt.net/2009/07/13/signs-along-the-methodist-trail/

    David:

    Please investigate some of the URLs. Many, many UMC people consider themselves evangelicals. Bring in the global stats and you could even say a majority do.

    You don’t get more born-again than John Wesley of the warmed heart.

    See: http://www.google.com/search?pz=1&ned=us&hl=en&q=wesley%2C+strangely+warmed&btnmeta%3Dsearch%3Dsearch=Search+the+Web

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, as for W. Bush, he was a United Methodist too. I have no idea if he was an “evangelical,” other than his fondness for men’s Bible studies. His wife and daughters certainly appear to be as oldline Prot — even liberal — as you could hope to be.

    Hey, Rush Limbaugh was raised in a very liberal United Methodist congregation by a father who denied most classic Christian doctrines. You never know. Is LIMBAUGH a liberal United Methodist?

    http://www.tmatt.net/2009/03/15/rush-limbaugh-liberal-heretic/

  • C.Bryant

    For what its worth, Stanley seems to have represented a district in Shelby county — Memphis and its metro area. I’ve lived there, and the only Christ United Methodist Church there that I’m aware of is very much an evangelical congregation. You might call it a megachurch, if you find such terms useful. So the label’s probably accurate.

    Which isn’t to say that the reporter shouldn’t have included some evidence that he’s an evangelical that would be accessible to people who haven’t gotten a chance to familiarize themselves with the ever-fascinating world of Memphis churches.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I have to disagree with you on this one.
    First, I’m from Western Pennsylvania, a region where evangelicals and mainline Protestants are, for the most part, the same people. THe mainline pews and pulpits are loaded with theological conservatives, and you have to travel a long way around here to find a dispensational congregation. Even several of our largest independent evangelical congregations started either started out as, or were splits off of, mainline congregations. Nationally, the United Methodist Church has a vigorous evangelical movement, known as Good News.
    Second, the words that came our of Stanley’s mouth after he got caught were pretty classic evangelical language. I’m not sure that you’d find someone who was a nominal, lukewarm or liberal United Methodist saying the following:

    “And just because I fell far short of what God’s standard was for me and my wife, doesn’t mean that that standard is reduced in the least bit.”

    I had issues when Time magazine labeled Rick Santorum an evangelical (he’s a highly devout Catholic). But I don’t see any obvious issues with this one.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Ann:

    With your local or regional audience that may work.

    I disagree in this case, with a NATIONAL network and audience.

    All we needed was another sentence, two at the max. Just a few facts, not simply a label.

  • dalea

    I find it interesting that in all the coverage we learn that he has a ‘wife’ but do not find her referred to with even the simple dignity of a first name. Does she have some qualities that distinguish her from household appliances? The reporters treat her as a receptacle for whatever Paul chooses to do. An interview with the ‘wife’ would be a good addition to the story.

    One thing I do not understand is how the intern with whom he is having an affair also has a boyfriend who has photos of the intern nude at Paul’s apartment. So what, unless Paul is also in the photos, there is no issue. The reporters here are so locked into genteelism and euphemism that the coverage is useless. Unless Paul is also in the photos, I don’t see an issue.

  • Julia

    he has a ‘wife’

    The Memphis Commercial appeal says the current wife’s name is Kristi nee Pruitt.

    http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/jul/25/suburban-residents-sad-disappointed/

    A political blog out of Nashville says about Kristi, the current wife (#2):

    Shortly after the incident described above transpired the couple divorced. Stanley shortly thereafter met his current wife while working for Bill Frist’s U.S. Senate office in Memphis.

    Kristi Stanley also worked in Frist’s Memphis office — as an intern.

    http://politics.nashvillepost.com/2009/07/23/stanleys-first-wife-a-former-intern-swore-out-a-restraining-order-in-1994/

  • Julia

    Re: “Evangelical”:

    - – - – - – -

    The Nashville political blog cites the Tennesee Journal:

    Nearly all legislators begin their Tennessee Blue Book entry by specifying religious affiliation, sometimes identifying a particular congregation. Stanley is the only senator in the 2007-08 edition who begins with “Evangelical Christian.” He follows that with his United Methodist Church membership. He has championed conservative Christian causes, including a bill that would have barred unmarried couples from adopting children — an attempt to prevent gay adoptions.

    http://politics.nashvillepost.com/2009/07/24/representin/

  • dalea

    The Memphis Commercial appeal says the current wife’s name is Kristi nee Pruitt.

    Does the AP style book prefer ‘current wife’ as opposed to ‘wife du jour’? At least we now have a name.

    It looks like refering to Stanley as an Evangelical Christrian is accurate, tho were I an EC, I wouldn’t like it.

  • Bern

    The only thing, then, the story lacks is “self-described” before he EC to make it clear that it isnt the writer’s opinion.

    (So ask Mr. Stanley what he thinks he meant when he described himself thus.)

  • MJBubba

    Christ UMC is well-known around the Memphis region. It is large enough to be considered a “megachurch,” I suppose. It is way more conservative than the national norm for the United Methodist Church, but is not nearly conservative as smaller and more rural UMC congregations around these parts. They certainly embrace the UMC tradition of “Pluralism,” and you might run across every sort of Methodist there, from Fundamentalists to Universalists.

  • http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctpolitics/ Sarah

    I notice that he identifies himself as an evangelical on his website (or at least his staff does):

    http://www.capitol.tn.gov/senate/members/s31.html


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