Back in the days when I was a full-time religion reporter (soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust), the annual event that pulled the most religion writers into the same zip code was the annual slugfest between the left and right wings of the Southern Baptist Convention. This was especially true in the years before the conservatives firmly took control, back when one hold-up-your-red-cards vote to name a convention president could literally determine who appointed the trustees that ran the whole shooting match.
During one of those tense affairs, I think it was in Dallas (correct me, folks), Louis Moore of The Houston Chronicle walked into the press room with a smirk on this face, the kind of smirk a reporter has when he or she knows something that nobody else knows.
Everyone in the room noticed this smirk, of course. Beat reporters aren’t dummies.
When asked what was up, Moore declined to answer — of course. All he said was this cryptic phrase: “It’s a nuclear bomb.”
As things turned out, Moore was the only person who had learned that, at this crucial stage of the game, the Rev. Billy Graham had done something he rarely if ever did. He had chosen to endorse one of the candidates.
Do YOU want Billy Graham on your side in a Bible Belt tussle?
I thought of this when reading the following Associated Press report, which is (in my opinion wisely) the story that is running in many of the nation’s major newspapers:
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The Rev. Billy Graham urged North Carolina voters Wednesday to support an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage, a move that an observer said was highly unusual but another said was in keeping with the minister’s moral beliefs.
“Watching the moral decline of our country causes me great concern,” said Graham, 93, who lives near Asheville. “I believe the home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected.”
His complete statement about Amendment One will be part of full-page ads slated to appear in 14 North Carolina newspapers throughout the weekend. …
“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” Billy Graham’s statement said. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment” Tuesday.
Now, my point here is not to start a debate about Graham’s statement or even the wisdom of the world’s most famous Protestant making that statement. Don’t click “comment” to talk about that.
The purpose of this post is to praise two specific journalism points in this ticklish, “nuclear” story.
First of all, note the balancing act in the second half of the lede. It notes, accurately, two crucial points about Graham’s history in public life, especially in the second, post-Watergate part of his life. Graham rarely enters politics and, when it does so, it’s when he believes a Christian doctrine demands that he do so. His stance on nuclear weapons, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a perfect example.
Second, the AP team (Godbeat veteran Rachel Zoll was involved) got the right source to nail this down.
William Martin, who wrote the authorized Graham biography “A Prophet With Honor,” couldn’t recall another effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association like the one the ministry plans in support of Amendment One. The elderly evangelist preached often on the need for sexual purity, but rarely spoke about same-sex marriage, Martin said.
“I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand,” said Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University. “In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. … (It) sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”
Martin, of course, is a mainstream, if not progressive, scholar who is the author of one of the essential studies of Graham’s career — “A Prophet With Honor.” While he is not part of the evangelical world, he speaks the language fluently. Martin is also accurate in his statement that Graham never spoke about sexuality issues without stressing that all of American culture been reaping what it has sown, when it comes to sexual ethics. I have never heard of the elder Graham address sexual issues without framing the discussion in terms of the moral status of all sexual acts outside of marriage — period.
In other words, the Associated Press got the right source in terms of giving information that added another layer of complexity to this report. Everyone knows what conservatives are going to say on this matter and the story, as it should, quotes one or two, including Graham’s daughter (and in many ways, his heir in terms of pulpit talent) Anne Graham Lotz.
Getting Martin’s voice into the story was crucial for mainstream and progressive readers. Kudos.
NOTE: Once again, we are here to talk about the content of the AP story, not the North Carolina amendment and the arguments for or against it. Take your political comments elsewhere.