The Southern Baptist Convention elected its first black president this week.
Not really. For at least a year, New Orleans pastor Fred Luter’s ascension to the top post has been anticipated. Nonetheless, the historic vote by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination drew a ton of media attention — and rightfully so.
Like Mollie, I’m always fascinated by how different media outlets cover the same news. In the case of the SBC election, I was curious whether major news organizations would send staff members to New Orleans or report the news from afar. (We’ve noted previously how the SBC meeting, once packed with reporters every summer, has become a blip on the radar.)
For starters, I enjoyed reading Godbeat pro Bruce Nolan’s Sunday advance story on Luter’s expected election in The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper (or what’s left of it). Nolan, a favorite of your GetReligionistas, was among numerous Times-Picayune staffers hit with recent layoff notices. Much to the delight of those in the journalism profession, Nolan made headlines by criticizing how the company had kept employees in the dark. But I digress …
Nolan’s story on Luter was, to no one’s surprise, full of important context, background and analysis by expert sources. Particularly compelling to me, however, was the detailed portrait of Luter that he painted:
There is little evidence left of Luter’s boyhood in the Lower 9th Ward.
Two houses where he grew up exist only in memory. His grandparents’ houses are gone. So are his schools, Alfred Lawless Elementary and Alfred Lawless Junior High. All vacant lots.
What remains, although as an empty, graffiti-marred husk, is Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church at the corner of Forstall and North Galvez streets.
In was a thriving center in Luter’s youth.
Luter said he grew up in that church, hauled there week after week by his mother, Viola, a seamstress and hospital worker who held down several jobs. Not enough to make ends meet, “but just to get them close enough to wave at each other.”
It was there, Luter said, that in 1977, recovering from a motorcycle accident that could have killed him, he hobbled up the aisle on crutches and at the age of 20 and apologized to the congregation for “living a lie.”
Another report that I enjoyed was produced by NPR’s Godbeat pro, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. It does not appear that Hagerty traveled to New Orleans, but she, too, did a nice job of putting Luter’s election in context.
While most media reports cited the SBC’s pro-slavery roots, I liked that NPR provided specific numbers to help gauge the progress the denomination has made in becoming more diverse:
The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was “as white as a tractor pull,” as one critic put it. Now it’s 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter’s election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.
The byline attached to Religion News Service’s datelined report from the New Orleans convention floor belonged to national reporter Adelle M. Banks. In other words, I knew before reading the story that it would be fair, thorough and enlightening.
Consider the relevant, precise details that Banks managed to fit just into the first two paragraphs:
NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Pointing heavenward and wiping away tears, the Rev. Fred Luter was elected Tuesday (June 19) as the first black president of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention.
“To God be the glory for the things that he has done,” Luter said moments after more than 7,000 Southern Baptists leapt to their feet, cheered and shouted “Hallelujah” when he was declared their next leader.
CNN produced a bylined story from afar. It was full of details and quotes and generally a nice read. However, this juxtaposition of information seemed strange:
“This is a brand-new convention,” Luter told CNN on Wednesday, calling his election “Exhibit A, to the world, that this convention is now ready to open its doors.”
However, he said, he and the convention are opposed to same-sex marriage, acknowledging that he and President Barack Obama differ “on this particular subject.”
Why is the “However” needed? Was CNN suggesting that the church can’t open its doors and adhere to its traditional beliefs on marriage?
My other problem with the CNN piece: Repeated references to online sources make it clear that a Google search provided much of the reporting. Did Luter’s election surprise CNN and require reporting on the fly?
The New York Times, on the other hand, sent a religion writer to New Orleans to produce a fairly comprehensive profile of Luter. But I share a couple of quibbles with a GetReligion reader who shared the link.
First, see if anything in this paragraph concerns you:
Mr. Luter shares the Baptists’ firm rejection of abortion and same-sex marriage, but he preaches more about personal salvation than politics. Though he never completed seminary training, he is renowned for his rapid-fire sermons filled with wordplay and hypnotic repetition.
Any Southern Baptists out there? Do most of your pastors — as I suspect — preach more about personal salvation than politics?
Second, does this paragraph raise any questions, Baptist readers?:
“We wanted someone with the human touch, and Fred seemed to be the one,” Mr. Lewis said. “He didn’t talk above people’s heads or tell them what to do.” Hiring him was a risk because he had no seminary training, and Southern Baptist officials took some persuading, but Mr. Luter quickly built a following and was unusually successful at attracting men to church.
Does that section make it sound like the church needed denominational approval to hire a pastor? Southern Baptist congregations are autonomous and can hire whomever they want as pastor, right? So who exactly had to be persuaded?
Speaking of whether or not major media sent reporters to New Orleans, I noticed that the Los Angeles Times produced a datelined story on the SBC vote … from Houston.
If you’ve seen other mainstream coverage, by all means, please provide a link in the comments section.