That’s my first reaction to a 1,900-word investigative report by The Oklahoman concerning the church attended by two Oklahoma City Council candidates.
Downright bizarre. That’s my second reaction.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure whether I’m reacting to the nature of the allegations or the Page 1 Sunday report itself.
Cue the theme music from “Jaws,” and let’s dive right in. The top of the story:
Two Oklahoma City Council candidates attend a church observers have criticized for flying the Confederate flag, making political commentary from the pulpit and training children to use automatic weapons at a church camp.
Windsor Hills Baptist Church’s activities have been described as radical by critics who fear it could influence city council decisions if its members are elected Tuesday.
OK, immediately, one thing jumps out at me (besides the freaky image of kids shooting guns at church camp, I mean): the vagueness of the sourcing.
A church observers have criticized?
Activities … described as radical by critics?
Seriously, this is a Page 1 Sunday story, and that’s all you’ve got in the way of sourcing?
Keep reading, and the main sources turn out to be an official with the local chapter of Americans for Separation of Church and State, two former church members (one quoted anonymously) and a black pastor critical of the Confederate flag. In a letter posted on the church website, one writer accuses the publication of basing the story on the “evidence” of a “notorious liar” and “his buddy.”
The story describes the church this way:
Windsor Hills Baptist Church is an independent, fundamental Baptist church. The church runs Windsor Hills Baptist School and Oklahoma Baptist College, all at 5517 NW 23 in Oklahoma City.
My first thought was that perhaps the reporters meant to write fundamentalist church. But fundamental is how the church describes itself on its website.
As for the allegations themselves, this appears to be the full extent of the claim concerning the flying of the Confederate flag:
Oklahoma Baptist College, which trains preachers, holds the North South School of the Prophets at the end of the school year.
Students divide up sides and are judged on sermons they give. Photographs of the event posted on the college’s website show one group of students holding American flags and the other group of students holding Confederate flags.
Now, again, the word “bizarre” comes to mind. But do those circumstances impress you as the same thing as the church actually flying the Confederate flag outside its building? Unless I’m missing something, that hasn’t been alleged, despite the claim in the lede.
As for the children learning to shoot guns, the story goes out of its way to insinuate that the church is involved in “militia-type training.” Yet a state official shoots down that allegation:
Ed Cunnius, the coordinator of the state Wildlife Conservation Department’s shotgun training program, said the camp has some of the best supervision that he sees when presenting the department’s program. The department has taken its basic Shotgun Training Education Program to the camp for three years.
Cunnius said before the first time he went to the camp he heard something about it being a militia-style camp, checked into it and found the accusation false.
“If it was something that was out of the way or something that wasn’t kosher, I would be the first one not to be there,” he said. “I wouldn’t expose the department to any kind of controversy, or I wouldn’t expose my program to anything that would be questionable.”
As for the church possibly violating its tax-exempt status by engaging in political activities, this seems to be the strongest of the allegations. Of course, that’s not so sensational — from a headline-making perspective — as Confederate flags and kids shooting guns.
Among those questioning the attacks on the council candidates’ religion is Patrick B. McGuigan, a former editorial page editor for The Oklahoman. In a letter on the church’s website, McGuigan writes:
I believe all 13 people who ran for City Council should be honored for their willingness to serve, not denigrated for their religious beliefs. In terms of politics, robust debate clarifying contrasting policy views is important to assure citizens are well informed, yet some of the things said and done these last few weeks fall more into the category of slander than of robust debate. To whatever extent these words of mine are heard and read, I encourage civility by all parties, and generosity about the motivations of those with contrasting points of view.