Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

Take that famous evangelistic sermon at 1st Mariner Arena, the one that put 14,000 people in the seats and, I would imagine, pulled scores of people forward during the altar call?

That pivotal sermon is never mentioned again. The story does not, in fact, include any material at all from this great man’s sermons and prayers — not a single word.

The obituary does include a fine overview of his solid career in academia. He was the son of an Old Testament professor and had earned doctorates from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and at Colgate Bexley Hall/Crozer Seminary in Rochester, N.Y. But what did he study? Nothing worth mentioning, apparently.

The obituary places a heavy emphasis — as it should — on his ties to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. It talks about Carter’s powerful role as a community leader and as a social entrepreneur. This is crucial material

It quotes the mayor. That’s fine.

It quotes a U.S. senator. I guess that’s OK.

This obituary quotes all kinds of people. But it never quotes Carter in the pulpit, it never quotes him addressing the issues that truly dominated his life — prayer, preaching and evangelism. In the end, what really mattered was the work he did — you guessed it — that journalists would see as linked to politics.

I am sure that GetReligion readers are shocked, shocked to know that.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Sari

    tmatt,
    For give my ignorance, but what sorts of degrees do seminaries confer? Is it more that ordination?

  • tmatt

    All kinds of degrees. MDiv is the basic ministerial degree that includes Greek, ancient languages, etc. Religious studies master’s degrees might stress history, worship, etc. HUGE growth in recent decades in counseling degrees — sort of the evangelical Protestant take on confession. In this case, these degrees are from THEOLOGY SCHOOLS, not really seminaries. Very mainstream PhDs.

    • Sari

      Thanks! Overall I agree with your assessment of the press’ treatment of black churches, but it was unclear, at least to me and possibly to the reporter, that seminaries, the word used by the schools themselves, offer a range of degrees rather than simply a path towards ordination (not sure of the correct word in this context).

  • John Pack Lambert

    Unless I am really confused, St. Mary’s Seminary and University is a Catholic institution. I did not think Catholic seminaries accepted non-Catholic students, but maybe the “and University” part does lead to non-Catholic students. It still surprises me that the head of a Baptist church would have a degree from a Catholic institution. Maybe in shouldn’t, since I know that some LDS general authorities have degrees from Catholic institutions, but since LDS general authorities rarely have degrees in religion, that just seems different. For example of the current 12 apostles, the one most likely to be described as a religious scholar is Jeffrey R. Holland, in part because he worked as a religious education teacher for the Church before he became a general authority, however he has a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale, and although his dissertation was on the religious sensibilities of Mark Twain, it is still clearly about literature more than religion.

    I am really surprised there was no comment on Carter going to a Catholic institution. I guess they began the ecumenical institute of theology there in 1968, and so it would probably be through this that Carter got his doctorate. It still would be nice to see some discussion of if this is reflected in Carter’s thought, his having been trained at an institution that is at least somewhat Catholic, even if they are specifically doing the training not to religious indoctrinate people.

    Maybe people in Baltimore understand that St. Mary’s is much more than a Catholic seminary, but it seems both surprising and intriguing to those of us not familiar with it.

    • tmatt

      Once again, there is nothing strange about a non-Catholic earning a degree from a
      Catholic school of theology. Happens all the time, especially with
      doctorates. Now, a non-Catholic earning an MDiv degree from one would be
      strange.

  • Howard

    Good points about covering this particular preacher, but I can understand the difficulty in making broad statements about black churches generically. If you’re grouping churches by race rather than by doctrine, why would you expect good coverage of religion?

  • tmatt

    There is nothing strange about a non-Catholic earning a degree from a
    Catholic school of theology. Happens all the time, especially with
    doctorates. Now, a non-Catholic earning an MDiv degree from one would be
    strange.

  • JoFro

    How on earth can a Baptist have a degree in religion from a Catholic university? Either his Baptist faith was not really Baptist or the Catholic university is a Catholic university-in-name only!

  • wjbernard

    This is a public announcement for all the religious leaders of American, especially the Black ones: I have some good news that I must share with my Black brothers and sisters.

    We, Blacks in America, now know who we are, where we came from and why we are catching Hell in America. In the Holy Scriptures, our history book, is a prophecy directed at Israel shortly after being led out of slavery in Egypt. It can be found at Deut.28:15-68. I would urge all to read this prophecy carefully and ask yourself, “In all of human history, who has had these experiences?

    And, by the way, how long would this suffering last?” Well, once again the Bible provides the answer at Gen.15:13, 14 – 400 years.

    Now, here is where it gets really interesting. According to my research, the first recorded sale of an enslaved African in America was 1619.

    Now, connect the dots, meditate on this information and consider the ramifications of these prophecies on world’s religions. They are facing a dissolution of their businesses. They may want to get their house in order soon, for God is preparing to clean house soon.

    May you have peace and love for you and yours, my brothers and sisters.


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