In Kentucky, ‘Shiite Baptists’ and the crazy old uncle

Thou shalt not write an inflammatory newspaper column.

Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a community — or a congregation — scorned in print.

One of the favorite stories I wrote for The Associated Press during the 2004 presidential campaign involved the publisher of Republican George W. Bush’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry:

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”

So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.

Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.

“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.

Most folks in Crawford (pop. 705) wholeheartedly support the re-election of the man whose “Western White House” made their speck on the map famous. Eighty-two percent voted for President Bush in 2000.

The paper’s publisher, W. Leon Smith, said he never expected such a hostile response. He knew “a person or two might pull an ad, that we might lose a subscriber or two.”

“But this has turned a little more vicious,” said Smith, 51, wearing a decade-old knit tie and ink pens in his white shirt pocket.

I thought of that story when I came across an AP report today about a Southern Baptist church seeking an assistant pastor’s ouster.

The pastor’s apparent offense? His wife wrote a less-than-flattering “humor column” about Southern Baptists.

The top of the AP story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A newspaper column lampooning Southern Baptists, calling the group “the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians,” is causing quite a stir in a Kentucky city and put a pastor’s job in jeopardy.

The column was written by Angela Thomas, the wife of Bill Thomas, an assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church in Madisonville. Her column was done in response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to a new Boy Scouts of America policy that welcomes gay members.

“Sexuality doesn’t come up and isn’t relative to typical scouting activities but now, thanks to Southern Baptists, the parents of little innocent scouts everywhere are having to have The Talk,” she wrote June 19 in The Madisonville Messenger. She writes a weekly humor column for the community paper, which publishes daily.

Later, the story notes:

The column said Southern Baptists have become “raging Shiite Baptists” after drifting “to the right” for the past four decades.

“Santa and the Easter bunny are simply the devil in disguise and cable television and the Internet are his playground. The Boy Scouts are his evil minions,” she wrote.

Undoubtedly, the reference up high to the “crazy old paranoid uncle” and the later mention of “raging Shiite Baptists” will guarantee lots of Internet attention for this piece. In fact, this is the headline on The Tennessean’s presentation of the AP report:

Baptist pastor’s wife calls Southern Baptists ‘the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians’

In a perfect world, the reporter would ask the wife to explain what she means by the “crazy old paranoid uncle” statement, since a majority of evangelical Christians — as I understand it — consider homosexuality a sin. Unfortunately, both the wife and her husband declined to comment for the story.

At the same time, two quotes in the story refer to “Shiite Baptists.” Yet the AP provides no context concerning the term “Shiite.” Help me out, kind GetReligion readers: Is some background needed here? Or will most readers understand the connotation?

But in general, AP deserves kudos for presenting the story in a straightforward, evenhanded way, including seeking comment from a leading Southern Baptist commentator:

The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was surprised the “shockingly sarcastic tone” of the column came from the spouse of a church employee. It’s not clear whether Angela Thomas also attended First Baptist.

“I didn’t find the column to be the sort of lighthearted poking that one would typically find in satire,” Moore said. “I found it instead to be more of a screed from someone who’s very hostile to where most Baptists stand.”

Moore said the column also mischaracterized the convention’s stance on the Boy Scout policy.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s action last month “was a very balanced resolution that didn’t denounce the Boy Scouts,” Moore said. “We expressed disappointment, but didn’t speak in harsh terms and also did not direct churches as to how they should respond.”

The story ends by quoting a church member — by name — who provides behind-the-scenes details on the assistant pastor’s employment situation. (Read the full story.)

Here’s my journalistic question: If you were the editor, would you be comfortable with that source and the information provided? Or would you hold out for a more official source? In other words, would you consider this source credible on deadline?

Image via Shutterstock

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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.

  • MollieZHemingway

    I thought the story should have made clear that the “humor” columnist’s church was Southern Baptist. I had sort of assumed they were not Southern Baptist but researched and saw that they were.

    As for whether to take that hearsay at the end and publish it? I’d probably try to and my editors would *never* let me. Or ask me to substantiate it and I’d be unable to. But if the AP thinks it’s cool, that’s interesting.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the reply, Mollie!

      The second paragraph notes that the column was written by the pastor of the First Baptist Church, so I guess I assumed the other way — that they WERE Southern Baptists. But now that I think about it, there are some First Baptist Churches not affiliated with the SBC, so that would have been a good thing to be clear about.

      On the information at the end, it kind of made me nervous from a journalistic perspective. I mean, it’s all sourced and everything — but what makes the “source” credible?

  • Brett

    I also think the hearsay at the end is out, unless the story makes clear that the “can’t comment” quote from the pastor is in direct response to hearing it or the allegations it contains.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Hearsay means that the person does not have direct knowledge, right?

      In that case, perhaps what’s missing is the “How do you know this?” qualifier. Did the pastor tell the member this is what happened? Did church leaders inform the congregation? Did the source overhear this information while walking by a church office?

      That information seems crucial to the source’s credibility (and that of the news organization).

      • Brett

        Agreed — it’s another omission that weakens Mr. Lovan’s credibility in this story. Not necessarily because he was looking for a chance to “get” a Baptist, but because it’s just sloppy work that wasn’t properly finished.

  • Howard

    So, the question here is only about how to report journalistically on a really bad piece of writing, not on the bad piece of writing itself?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Bingo.

      We critique secular media coverage of religion news, not opinion columns by pastor’s wives.

      • Howard

        So, only *certain* media coverage of religion news. If she had not been a pastor’s wife, but an even more unqualified writer of an opinion piece in the Washington Post, you would have been happy to criticize the piece.

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          Ah, Howard is short for “likes to make straw man arguments …”

          Here’s your challenge: I’ve been writing for GetReligion for three-plus years. That’s 350 or so posts. Find a single one in which I’ve ever critiqued or criticized an opinion piece. And go ahead and provide the link.

    • Frank Elliott

      She should have written the letter in the style of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” That would have created interesting journalistic issues.


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