Case of the radical Baptist church

Bizarre.

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.

Bizarre.

Downright bizarre.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://exlaodicea.wordpress.com berenike

    Well, it’s a lot closer to the facts than most of the Wacky Headline Catholic stories that run in the press :)

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

    How come every church that actually has a belief system is deemed, “Fundamental” (sic) or “Fundamentalist.”

    Somehow, the media believes we are all about Gods, Guns, and keeping the little women home.

    I blogged about Jaws today — funny coincidence!
    http://t.co/bazu7ek

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    How come every church that actually has a belief system is deemed, “Fundamental” (sic) or “Fundamentalist.”

    Well, in this case, that’s exactly how the church describes itself on its own website.

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

    Bobby…true. But generally, don’t you see all of us getting lumped into that “fundamentalist” soup?

  • Jerry

    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.

    I also don’t think this is page 1 material.

    Perhaps asking for prayers for a campaign is over the line, but given that the politicians are members of that particular church, I don’t see any real issue outside of perhaps a technical violation.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    First comment: I’d say it’s bad practice for an online news article to talk about a website without giving the URL.

    As for the the content: the “critics” are conspicuously thin on the ground in the article, and it seems to me that the reporter is rather in the dark on a lot of this. For instance, I see in the pictures of the “North/South” school, one of the guys holding a American flag is black. Couldn’t the report have talked to him? Couldn’t we have had some real content about this event? This is coming rather close to the whole “Rowan Williams is a druid” nonsense where people seized upon an appearance without bothering to find out what it meant. Maybe these guys are bad guys, probably they’re bad guys (if you aren’t a neo-con) but the story is leaning rather too much on innuendo.

    Oh, and BTW the only place anyone ever tried to teach me to shoot properly was at YMCA camp.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Bobby…true. But generally, don’t you see all of us getting lumped into that “fundamentalist” soup?

    I would agree that the term “fundamentalist” is used too often and many times in a disparaging way.

  • Mike

    There is a huge hole in this story: Is there anything in either of these candidates’ campaign platforms that indicates they are under the influence of any oddball ideas espoused by this church? That should have been the focus of the piece. But I read the entire story and could find no correlation between what the church practices and what these folks would do if elected to the City Council. Lacking that evidence, this appears to be a hit piece that should not have been published without more reporting.

  • Karen Hutchinson

    Bizarre…the right word for the right situation…

  • http://www.godsnextbigmove.com/MyJourney/ Steve

    Although I wouldn’t be interested in a church that used the limited time at camp for guns and waving a painful symbol of America’s past, I think the fact this is a story worth writing about indicates a slow news day.

    I have a couple of church-going friends who drink beer and have confederate bumper stickers if things get too slow.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    The print layout is worse — the picture of what the lede calls “flying” of the Confederate flag is actually on the inside page, not the front. After a few years of trending upwards, it makes me wonder if the Oklahoman wants to recapture that old “worst newspaper in America” title the Columbia Journalism Review gave it back in 1999.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    After a few years of trending upwards, it makes me wonder if the Oklahoman wants to recapture that old “worst newspaper in America” title the Columbia Journalism Review gave it back in 1999

    Brett, I spent nine years with The Oklahoman and was a state desk reporter when that famous CJR article came out. The piece contained some legitimate criticisms, but its credibility suffered as a left-leaning journalist took aim at a newspaper with one of the more conservative editorial pages in the country. It would be like Fox News labeling The New York Times as the “worst newspaper in America.” JMHO…

    As for the article critiqued in this post, I found it severely lacking and said so. But I wouldn’t use a single piece to indict the entire newspaper, which — like most major papers — is facing any number of challenges, including a drastically reduced staff. I have many friends at The Oklahoman who are still trying to produce quality journalism under less-than-ideal conditions.

  • James Manley

    “Independent Fundamental Baptist” is the preferred nomenclature by the movement (in which I grew up.) It’s abbreviated “IFB” both within and without the movement.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Interesting, James.

    I see that I turn up a number of mentions by Googling “Independent Fundamental Baptist.” On this particular church’s website, as in the story, it’s described in lowercase with a comma like this: “independent, fundamental Baptist.” Is that typical?

    I know that many congregations in my own fellowship (Churches of Christ) prefer to describe themselves as “churches of Christ.”

  • Maureen

    In my day, most camps offered archery and many offered a gun range. If Texas is the kind of place where you can have automatic weaponry at a camp gun range, I don’t see why you’d stop people from doing the same thing at a church camp. There’s nothing particularly irreligious about ballistics practice.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Fair enough, Bobby — I had and still have friends working for the Oklahoman and know there have always been good people in its employ. They’re doing some good work on more than one story in our area. And while my reading of the paper since I came to central OK in ’86 suggests to me that a significant portion of the CJR criticism was justified, I never felt the label “worst” was, so maybe my attempt-at-humor comment erred on the side of snark.

    But my own time in a newsroom showed me that the kind of mistake this story’s high play and shoddy work represents is a sign of real problems. The sloppy reporting and presentation makes me wonder if the paper’s continuing cuts in staff have reduced its ability to cover the full range of life in our state, leaving areas like religion to get slapped-together controversy bait like this or the drive-by snicker treatment given to the St. Charles Borromeo cross controversy last spring.

    I intend no disrespect to the people at the Oklahoman who want to do their jobs and do them well. But even if all the good people on board a falling plane flap their arms as hard as they can, it’s still going down. I realize this comment is long and may stray from strict commentary on the journalism involved, so no hard feelings if you spike it.

  • James Manley

    Hi, Bobby. Yes, there’s often a comma between “Independent” and “Fundamental.” There isn’t a standard usage because there isn’t a denominational structure to the movement.

  • http://none archie higgins

    Well maybe them folks might rather go to the grave being called a racist than a coward!


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