Holy Scouts! Southern Baptists didn’t do what we expected!

So, when push came to shove, what did the Southern Baptist Convention decide to do about the Boy Scouts of America?

To the surprise of the national press, the debate in the national convention ended up featuring a variety of voices making a variety of interesting and valid points about Scouting and its new approach to gay members. In the end, the nation’s largest Protestant flock elected to do something that was more Baptist and congregational than it was political — they left the ultimate decision about supporting or leaving the Boy Scouts of America up to local congregations.

Thus, some news organizations clearly didn’t know how to handle this.

Did The New York Times even do a story? I cannot find one on the site. The lesson? If the story doesn’t go the way you expected, then don’t cover it.

Or, you can take the approach used in The Los Angeles Times. Try to find the key fact — the fact that the SBC said churches should make their own decisions — at the top of this report:

HOUSTON – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention at their annual meeting Wednesday voted to support families who leave the Boy Scouts due to the group’s plans to accept gay Scouts, urged the removal of Boy Scout leaders who championed accepting gays and encouraged former Boy Scouts to join a Southern Baptist youth group instead.

“Homosexuality is directly opposed to everything that Scouting stands for. I am disappointed in Scouting,” said the Rev. Wes Taylor in speaking for the resolution endorsed by the convention. “They are moving away from the principles that it was founded upon. This is an attempt to open the door to broaden the acceptance of homosexuality in that organization. It is an environment that would prove just fertile for young boys to be exposed to something that is ungodly and unacceptable.”

The proposal was submitted by the Southern Baptist Committee on Resolutions.

All valid, but the story totally missed the point of the key debates on the convention floor. In fact, the story does not include a direct reference to the most important element of the decision — the defense of local-church autonomy. It is clear that thousands of SBC churches will continue to be critical (in multiple meanings of that word) participants in Scouting for some time to come.

You can tell that the newspaper’s scribe heard some of the debate. The following information is crucial and hints at the issue lurking in the background — the distinction the Boy Scouts (echoing language used by Catholics and Mormons, to cite two key groups) are drawing between sexual orientation and opposition to sexual activity, gay or straight, by Scouts.

Thus, the story notes:

Before Wednesday’s vote, some Baptist pastors spoke in favor of the Boy Scouts in proceedings that have been streaming live online.

“The Boy Scouts have said they are against sexual activity of any boy. I don’t think they are condoning homosexuality,” said the Rev. Charlie Dale of Indian Springs First Baptist Church in Indian Springs, Ala., adding that he didn’t think the vote “will help the cause of Christ.”

He noted that Baptist youth groups don’t exclude gays. “I don’t think we should hold the Boy Scouts to a standard we would not put on our own churches. Such a boy needs our love so let’s bring him in and show him what real biblical love is all about,” Dale said.

Down in Dallas, in the heart of Southern Baptist life, the local newspaper also missed the main story in its lede, but managed an interesting variation on the key facts in the second paragraph:

The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting at its annual conference in Houston, passed a resolution Wednesday expressing “opposition to and disappointment” in the Boy Scouts of America for allowing openly gay boys to participate in Scouting.

The resolution stopped short of encouraging the denomination’s 46,000 churches to withdraw support for Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops that they currently host.

And, once again, The Dallas Morning News managed — appropriately so — to get information into the story describing the tightrope that the BSA will now attempt to walk. Again, note the divide between orientation and behavior.

Deron Smith, a BSA spokesman, expressed “deep respect” for the Southern Baptist Convention. He said the new policy does not condone homosexuality or allow any form of sexual behavior in Scouting.

“This change allows Scouting to be more compassionate in its response to a young person who expresses a same-sex attraction, but is not engaging in sexual activity, by no longer calling for their automatic removal from the BSA,” Smith said.

So here is my basic question: Why did so many newsrooms (a key exception, no surprise, was Religion News Service) struggle to get the NEW element of the Southern Baptist debate into their stories, the element of the story that represented the key change in the SBC’s course of action?

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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.


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