Any, um, Baptists in Alabama?

Pretend for a moment that you’re a New York Times reporter. You’re going to do a story on churches’ reaction to a tough new immigration law in Alabama.

What church groups might you include as part of your reporting?

You may recall a story earlier this year in which The Associated Press suggested that “you can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop in Alabama.” Hmmmm, that almost makes me think there might be a few Baptists in Alabama.

But for a Times story over the weekend headlined “Bishops Criticize Tough Alabama Immigration Law,” the reporter apparently did not stand on any hilltops or come across any Baptist churches.

Up high, the story summarizes opposition to the law:

Thousands of protesters have marched. Anxious farmers and contractors have personally confronted their lawmakers. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have sued, and have been backed by a list of groups including teachers’ unions and 16 foreign countries. Several county sheriffs, who will have to enforce parts of the new law, have filed affidavits supporting the legal challenges.

On Aug. 1, the Justice Department joined the fray, contending, as in a similar suit in Arizona, that the state law pre-empts federal authority to administer and enforce immigration laws.

And on that same day, three bishops sued.

An Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop, all based in Alabama, sued on the basis that the new statute violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that it would “make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”

“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

Later, there’s this:

To some church leaders — who say they will not be able to give people rides, invite them to worship services or perform marriages and baptisms — the law essentially criminalizes basic parts of Christian ministry.

And this:

The politics of this are unusual, with those opposed to the law, mostly coming from the left, arguing that the statute falls short of biblical principles, and the law’s supporters, mostly from the right, arguing that secular laws and biblical law cannot always run on the same track.

And the politics are thorny for ministers, who acknowledge that the immigration law is broadly popular. Congregations are not in lock step behind their leaders.

The story feels a bit too one-sided in its portrayal of the thoughtful religious opponents vs. the seemingly non-religious politicians (although a Methodist lawmaker who supported the law is quoted).

But search the story for these two words — Southern Baptist — and you’ll come up with no matches at all. In fact, the only reference to Baptists at all is this one line:

Bob Terry, the president of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, wrote in a column that the state was trying to dictate Christian ministry.

Why does that omission strike me as strange? For one thing, the governor who pushed for the law’s passage is a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. Is that fact not relevant in a story such as this?

For another thing, Alabama has roughly four times as many Southern Baptists as United Methodists, eight times as many Southern Baptists as Roman Catholics and 30 times as many Southern Baptists as Episcopalians. Would it not make sense to at least mention Southern Baptists in a story on churches responding to this new law? Of course, Southern Baptists aren’t the only Baptists in Alabama.

But including Southern Baptists in the story would have given the Times piece credibility and probably not hurt its story’s thesis, based on a mid-July report by the AP. From the earlier AP story:

The state’s largest denomination, the Alabama Baptist Convention, hasn’t taken a position publicly and likely won’t since it doesn’t speak for individual churches.

“I am concerned about the language concerning giving a ride in an automobile to an illegal immigrant or allowing children of illegal immigrant parents to ride on a church bus to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or church camp,” said convention president Mike Shaw, pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, in a statement.

“Should we ignore people who are injured or have broken down on the side of a busy interstate highway and have small children in sweltering heat with no family or friends to help them?”

Seriously, would the Times do this same kind of report in Utah and neglect to include Mormons?

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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.

  • Martha

    Seriously – this law would prevent a driver giving a lift to an illegal immigrant?

    Okay, I can see that they want to prevent car-pooling or other means of ferrying illegals to jobs by employers or contractors, but come on: does this mean that before you stop to give a hitcher a lift, you demand to see their passport? Or the police can pull people over if they see two or more in a car and think “Hmm – that one in the passenger seat looks a bit Hispanic, better check”?

    Mrs. Smith driving back from church on Sunday morning gives a lift to a woman who sat beside her in the pew and next thing, she’s up in court?

    How are they going to enforce this, without making the police public nuisances?

  • Dave

    Martha, I gave your comment a “Like” because it’s a neat summary of what’s wrong with the current flock of immigration law. But it’s not about the journalism.

  • Bobby

    Theoretically, Martha’s comment is about the journalism because those are legitimate questions that journalists should be asking. :-)

  • bob smietana

    Should we expect that a story about bishops criticizing a law to quote many Baptists?

  • Bobby

    Have you read the story, Bob?

    Despite the headline, I don’t think this is a story about bishops criticizing a law. It’s a story about the overall church response to the law in Alabama. Such a story needs some Baptists.

  • tmatt

    But BISHOPS are real news. Even editors like stories about BISHOPS, like in New York and real cities.

    Not Baptists.

    In Alabama?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The problem isn’t the number of Southern Baptists in Alabama, but the number of Southern Baptists in New York. “Bishops”, of course, gets attention of Catholic New York, although only two of the bishops were Catholic.

    Enough snark. The story isn’t just about the bishops, but a variety of clergy. For my money, I would liked to have known more about why some people (clergy) support the law. The claimed problems in the border states tend to be crime and extensive medical and other social service costs. Are these issues in Alabama?

    Maybe a little more snark: imagine a Times article about bishops without a quote from SNAP.

  • bob smietana


    Are you saying that four bishops filing a lawsuit against a state law isn’t news?

  • bob smietana

    Hi Bobby:

    I read the story, along with the headline and nut graph — and it’s pretty clear that the lawsuit filed by the bishop was the news peg for the story.

    It is odd that the piece mentioned Bob Terry’s column but didn’t quote from it or from the SBC’s resolution about immigration this summer.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: The problem isn’t the number of Southern Baptists in Alabama, but the number of Southern Baptists in New York.

    Honest question: are African-American Baptists from the South part of the ‘Southern Baptists’, or do they generally have their own Baptist church, in the same way that the AME Church is an African-American version of the Methodists?

    Because there are certainly a fair number of African-American Baptists in the North, even if there aren’t many white Baptists.

  • Frank Lockwood

    As a journalist, I’d want to know if this is a valid lawsuit or just a public relations stunt.

    Have any of these plaintiff/bishops actually broken the law that they’re challenging in court? Have any of them been accused of breaking the law? Do they have standing? Is this an actual case or controversy? Can Alabama courts issue advisory opinions or must the case be ripe?

    Also, while the constitution protects religious belief, its protections for religious practice are far narrower. The first amendment protects Native Americans’ right to believe in peyote use for religious purposes, however it doesn’t grant Native Americans the constitutional right to use peyote for religious purposes. Similarly, Fundamentalist Mormons have a constitutional right to believe in polygamy, but that doesn’t give them the constitutional right to engage in polygamy.

    The bishops can believe whatever they want to believe about the morality and propriety of aiding illegal immigrants. The government won’t censure their beliefs. But once they take actions that violate the law, then — perhaps — we’ll have a real case or controversy. And recent judicial precedent, if you’re a bishop, is not real promising.

  • Bobby

    A correction has been added to the article:

    Correction: August 15, 2011

    An earlier version of this article misstated the number of bishops who sued. It is four, not three. (Bishop Robert J. Baker, a Roman Catholic who serves Birmingham, is also a plaintiff.)

    That would seem to indicate that the reporter wrote the story without actually getting a copy of the lawsuit petition. Amazing, if that’s the case.

  • mer

    So, it would be worth the space for the NYT to report that the Baptist Church has no official opinion on the matter? The conflict within the church probably has enough meat for an article of its own, but the church’s lack of position seems like an unnecessary detail in this particular article.

  • Bobby

    So, it would be worth the space for the NYT to report that the Baptist Church has no official opinion on the matter?

    Not to sound like a broken record, but yes. Southern Baptists are, by far, the largest religious group in the state. The governor who pushed for the law is a Southern Baptist. This is a key part of the story.

    IMHO, it’s such an obvious question that even a “no official position” is helpful to discerning readers, particularly given what the state president went on to say to the AP.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Hector_St_Clare -

    Searching on the Southern Baptist Convention website for congregations in New York City yielded 27 congregations, mostly ethnic. By comparison, Birmingham, Alabama has about 99 congregations. The American Baptist Convention (MLK’s denomination) appears to have 41 congregations in New York City and 6 in Dallas (none in Birmingham).

    Beyond these sorts of data, Baptist organization is remarkably complicated. In the south, there are black SBC congregations and integrated congregations, but most black Baptists I know are Missionary Baptists, which also has a white version, to make things more complicated.

    And to all of that I add a question: how many black Baptists of any group in New York read the New York Times anyway? Are African-Americans a part of the newspaper’s target population?

    Now, can someone come up with a punchline for a joke that starts with: A Methodist bishop, an Episcopal bishop, and two Catholic bishops walk into a courtroom…

  • tmatt


    Of course it’s news.

    It’s just not as big a story IN ALABAMA as the SBC debates on the topic.

    When I was at the Charlotte Observer the editors would run almost anything about the local Catholic diocese — the smallest in the USA at that time. Catholic coverage went straight to A1.

    Baptists? Not so much. Editors from the North and upper Midwest didn’t think much about Baptists.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Passing By,

    Thanks, that was what I was looking for.

    I think it’s true, as TMatt says, that people from the Northeast and upper Midwest don’t think much about Baptists, since (other than African-American Baptists) they’re not a major presence in those regions.

    Another issue might be that (in contrast to RC’s) Baptists are a non-hierarchical, decentralized church, so there might be a lot more variation between what individual Baptist pastors believe.

  • Bobby

    tmatt, Interesting about the Charlotte Observer editors. In my Oklahoman days, editors (mostly native Oklahomans) were very open to front-page religion stories, be it Baptists or Catholics. But the religion stories were mainly below the fold, while politics and crime were the lead items most days. There were exceptions, but that was mostly the case.

    Bob, The Tennessean seems to be pretty good about giving religion stories real prominent play on Page 1.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    The NYT story stems from the lawsuit, which didn’t come from any Southern Baptist clergy. But I agree that there should have been some information in the story about where the SBC leadership/laity stands on this law, however — aside from this Christianity Today article.

    Any other suggested links?

    I’d also be curious as to how the clergy opposition (or lack thereof) of the Alabama law compares to the response to last year’s Arizona law.

  • mer

    Bobby, I live in Alabama and have since birth. I know both the Baptists and the Southern Baptists (yes, there is a distinction) are large churches in Alabama. I do not think it is newsworthy that they do not have a cohesive opinion. I would compare this to the Methodist Church, which has spoken as a cohesive whole.

  • mer

    tmatt, I think your sensitivity to the secular North is a little misplaced here. If the NYT had ignored the Baptists and SBC because they had a dissenting opinion, I believe that would be worthy of GR’s coverage. But again, they haven’t responded, and I believe, don’t intend to respond. As a native Alabamian, I don’t believe it would be worth a one-line mention that they haven’t responded. It might be worth it, however, to do a feature on why they haven’t responded.

  • Bobby

    So we’re only going to quote folks with “cohesive” opinions? That makes perfect journalistic sense.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Bobby -

    I think mer meant organizationally cohesive opinions. Baptists don’t as a rule claim the right to speak for anyone but themselves.

    I agree that including a Baptist perspective would have been useful, but how would it be anything authoritatively “Baptist”? I do think that would be an interesting follow-up article.

  • Bobby

    There is no authoritative structure, correct. But there is a state president and, I would assume, a full-time executive director. The AP, as I noted, quoted the state president, who made some interesting points.

    In any case, my original point remains the same — in a state as heavily Baptist as Alabama, a story exploring the religious angle would do well to acknowledge that dominance and give some kind of clue of how that group has reacted, even if it’s to point out that they haven’t taken a position. And again, it would be nice to note that the governor is an active Southern Baptist.