A top-notch profile of Baptist ethicist, with a few caveats

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I really liked Tennessean Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s profile last year of Richard Land, then the embattled president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But what did I think of this week’s sequel?

Hey, good news: I really liked it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Smietana’s story on Russell Moore, Land’s successor.

The opening sentence is fantastic:

Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf and Merle Haggard on his iPod.

Did you catch how much information — and insight — Smietana packed into those first 27 words? That’s a really nice lede, one of the best I’ve read in a while.

The opening continues:

His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.

The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.

In between, he’s been meeting with pastors and politicians about immigration reform, all while keeping up a lively feed on Twitter. Moore, a native of Biloxi, Miss., and former seminary dean, is having the time of his life.

“A friend of mine called me ‘giddy,’ ” Moore said. “I don’t think I am giddy. But I am happy.”

That summary does an excellent job of introducing Moore to the average reader and making it clear why he’s a newsmaker worthy of a major newspaper profile.

By way of constructive criticism, a couple of phrases — “baptism by fire” and “time of his life” — struck me as cliche, as did a “rising star” reference later in the story. I wish the editor had highlighted those phrases and asked the reporter for fresher terminology. Then again, maybe I got spoiled by the high bar for creative writing set at the very beginning.

Later in the piece, Smietana describes Moore this way:

He’s conservative but not angry, is skeptical about politics, and believes that kindness is not a weakness. He’s also critical of Bible Belt faith, which he says sees Christianity as a normal part of American life.

The “conservative but not angry” wording stood out to me. I’d say 99 percent of the story is fair and evenhanded, but that wording seems to creep into editorialization. Would “liberal but not (pick your word)” make it into the same newspaper?

But overall, as I said, I really liked this story.

Like the Land profile last year, this piece presents a nuanced portrait of the story subject and bolsters its broad themes with specific, compelling anecdotes, such as this one:

Some years later, Moore became friends with the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. Highland Baptist left the Southern Baptist Convention about 10 years ago and is known as a liberal congregation with openly gay members.

Phelps and Moore are fans of Wendell Berry, a farmer and author known for his critiques of modern American culture. They met several times to discuss Berry’s work and have coffee.

“What I appreciate about Russell is that he seems to have an open heart to other groups,” Phelps said. “I find him to be shaped by love and his understanding of the gospel.”

After he took office, Moore promised to work with other Baptist groups on issues such as religious liberty. Phelps said that was a good first step.

“We are not going to reunite, but we don’t need to be adversaries,” Phelps said.

It’s a terrific story. By all means, read it all.

And while you’re at it, check out this Washington Post news story that contrasts Moore’s reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict with Land’s controversial take last year on Trayvon Martin’s slaying. Kudos to the Post’s religion writer Michelle Boorstein for revisiting that issue.

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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.


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