Southern Baptists hit the highways — again

dbc buses lineThe year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses.

Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.

The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with “messengers” — the convention does not have “delegates” — from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don’t want to know.

I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation’s 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don’t want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.

The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:

… Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. “I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement,” Dr. Page told reporters after his election. …

Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. “I believe in the Word of God,” he said. “I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for.”

The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support — think church buses again — from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention’s life.

bus mirrorThis is one of those cases where the nation’s newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services — Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, “moderates” or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.

The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?

It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region — driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian — were in a position to swing the election.

And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:

Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”

So two kinds of highways were crucial — concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).

This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.

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Unanswered questions

bobby hatPretty much no one liked the report from London’s Metropolitan police regarding why complaints of corruption and misconduct against Asian officers are 10 times greater than for white officers. At least that’s how The Guardian‘s Sandra Laville and Hugh Muir would like you to see it.

I consider this article Exhibit A in why directed reporting, also known as reporting with a slant, fails a democratic society. Here’s the newsy part of the article:

A secret high-level Metropolitan police report has concluded that Muslim officers are more likely to become corrupt than white officers because of their cultural and family backgrounds.

The document, which has been seen by the Guardian, has caused outrage among ethnic minorities within the force, who have labeled it racist and proof that there is a gulf in understanding between the police force and the wider Muslim community. The document was written as an attempt to investigate why complaints of misconduct and corruption against Asian officers are 10 times higher than against their white colleagues.

The main conclusions of the study, commissioned by the Directorate of Professional Standards and written by an Asian detective chief inspector, stated: “Asian officers and in particular Pakistani Muslim officers are under greater pressure from the family, the extended family … and their community against that of their white colleagues to engage in activity that might lead to misconduct or criminality.”

The article goes to great lengths to explain why the report’s conclusions are not helpful to the country. That much is certain. Exactly how the conclusions might be wrong is less clear. But the issue is raised.

What the article fails to address is the biggest question of why indeed are Asian officers 10 times more likely to be complained about than white officers? I’d like to know, as would the people of London.

Photo via Flickr.

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Preachers and pornographers unite

remoteKudos to The Washington Post for picking up this Religion News Service article by Piet Levy on the problems religious broadcasters see with à la carte cable plans. The subject has been around for awhile. It has received heavy coverage in publications such as National Journal‘s Technology Daily and a segment on NPR’s On the Media, but mainstream press coverage has been scant.

It’s an excellent look into how Washington lobbying works. You would think that religious broadcasters would be thrilled with the idea of consumers being able to choose what cable channels they receive, but this is surprisingly not the case:

The fear among Christian broadcasters is that a proposal to allow consumers to reject MTV or Comedy Central would also allow them to drop the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Cutting off that access could hurt religious broadcasters.

“We do not believe that ‘a la carte’ is the cure for the disease,” said Colby May, attorney for the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, which represents Trinity and CBN, in addition to other stations. “In fact, it is a cure that may very well kill the patient.”

Evangelical and family groups support the concept of “a la carte” cable legislation, which would allow cable users to subscribe only to the networks of their choice.

The article does an adequate job of explaining the two cable channels’ fears other than possibly losing viewers. Religious broadcasters are worried that they will end up “witnessing to the choir” and that channel-surfers will lose out on conversion experiences.

cable dishThis is definitely a concern, but what to do about viewers who want to receive family-friendly channels such as ESPN and CNN but want to avoid FX, Spike TV and Comedy Central? Well, here’s the answer:

“That’s why we have remote controls,” [Michael Goodman, media analyst for the Yankee Group] said. “If you don’t want to see it, turn the channel. Or if you really don’t want to see it, use the parental controls.”

But [Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America] said because many children are more tech-savvy than their parents, it is simply not enough. Besides, she said, the main problem is that cable subscribers are required to pay for material that they find objectionable.

In an effort to appease critics, the two main cable providers, Time Warner and Comcast, announced “family tier” packages late last year that carry only what they construe to be family-appropriate stations, such as the Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, the Food Network and CNN Headline News. But the critics are still upset.

“The ‘family tier’ system is a straw man designed to fail,” Swann said. “. . . I don’t think we need the same individuals who promote, produce and air the type of programming we’re trying to avoid to be allowed to define what is family-friendly.”

I wonder whether FX and Spike TV are equally concerned. I would think they wouldn’t have the same “preaching to the choir” concerns, but are they worried about losing audiences?

As a consumer I want to control what I pay for. I don’t like paying for Lifetime and the other two dozen channels I never watch, but I also understand the concerns of the television evangelists, not only from a financial perspective, but also from a, well, evangelistic perspective.

I guess the next question is whether government policy is supposed to be directed to support religious goals. President Bush’s much heralded faith-based initiatives would seem to say that yes, government action can encourage religious activity, but I know more than a few groups that would strongly disagree with that ideology.

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Post: Christian conservatives usually look like this

angerLibby Copeland’s 2,500-word profile of Sen. Sam Brownback thoroughly analyzes his religious views. Titled “Faith-Based Intitiative: Presidential Hopeful Sam Brownback Strives to Be Humble Enough for a Higher Power,” the piece is all religion, all the time.

And because I know very little about Brownback, I’m unsure whether he really is as folksy, non-threatening and, well, slightly weird as she makes him out to be. The piece is puffy and Copeland seems a bit taken with Brownback. She’s goes to great lengths to point out how much Brownback prays for his enemies, how he apologized to Sen. Hillary Clinton for thinking hateful thoughts about her, how he worried about his stereotyping Copeland as a liberal because she’s a reporter. For The Washington Post. (You have to admit it’s funny that he says that to her and she puts it in her story.)

But there is a paragraph in the piece that says nothing about Brownback and everything about Copeland.

Because of his emphasis on compassion, Brownback does not fit the stereotype of the angry Christian conservative. This persona was embodied sensationally by “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan and his talk of America’s “religious war,” by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once imagined “rampant” lesbianism in his state’s schools, by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said abortionists, feminists, gays and pagans helped cause the 9/11 terror attacks. (Falwell later took it back.)

Well, if the Post‘s stereotype of Christian conservatives is that they are angry and are described best by bizarre outliers and uncharitable caricatures, then I guess Brownback doesn’t fit! I wonder if there are any other Christian conservatives — other than this Brownback fellow — who deviate from the Falwell model?

I know it was in the Style section, but when do reporters there get to stop using that as an excuse?

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Dang it, there’s that question again

Scales2Here is a story that has been hanging around in my laptop for some time now, just bugging me from last week into this one.

Don’t get me wrong. The story is fine.

But there was something about the question that was included in the lead. It just seemed so — familiar. So click here to see the rest of the New York Times story:

As the issue of gay marriage finally reached New York State’s highest court … the six judges who heard the passionate arguments from both sides put forth a fundamental question: Has marriage been defined by history, culture and tradition since the dawn of Western civilization, or is it an evolving social institution that should change with the times?

Now, does that question remind you of anything?

Perhaps the work of a sociologist down in Virginia? A certain thesis about the ongoing, well, cultural warfare between a “camp of the orthodox” that embraces transcendent, eternal moral absolutes and a “camp of the progressives” that sees truth as an evolving concept in which human experiences and emotions play a strong, strong role?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe not. I also know that there are smart, secular people who adisagree. But the issue isn’t going away. Has anyone else seen a lead as blatant as this one?

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Problems on the abortion beat

18 weeks ultrasoundEarlier this week, newspapers in the United Kingdom reported some abortion figures from the Office for National Statistics. From 1996 to 2004, 20 unborn children in late pregnancies were aborted because ultrasounds showed that they had club feet.

The deformity is fairly common and readily corrected by surgery or physical therapy. Another four babies were aborted because they had webbed fingers or extra digits — also easily corrected. In 2005, a healthy baby was aborted at the sixth month because part of his foot was missing.

The story spread rapidly and was linked to by a number of blogs. Almost all of the reaction about the abortions was negative, even in the stories, such as this one in The Sunday Times:

News of the terminations has reignited the debate over how scanning and gene technology may enable the creation of “designer babies”. In 2002 it emerged that a baby had been aborted late — at 28 weeks — after scans found that it had a cleft palate, another readily corrected condition. . . .

Naomi Davis, a leading paediatric surgeon at Manchester children’s hospital who specialises in correcting club feet, said: “I think it’s reasonable to be totally shocked that abortion is being offered for this. It is entirely treatable. I can only think it is lack of information.”

Stories quoted a number of people expressing outrage that unborn children are aborted for treatable conditions. And other stories were devoted to clerical condemnations.

But that is so dog-bites-man, isn’t it?

Being shocked is reasonable, as the pediatric surgeon says. So wouldn’t it instead have been interesting to substantively interview advocates of abortion? How do they feel about aborting a fetus because of cleft palate? On what basis do they support it? If they don’t support it, why not? Also, in general, the implications of designer babies and the intolerance of imperfection could better be covered by media outlets.

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Missing in the Clinton story

clintonchurchThe Washington Post‘s front-page article on the political dynamics of a Sen. Hillary Clinton presidential run is Exhibit A in a political reporter’s attempt to answer the questions that leading candidates historically refuse to answer. As expected, those questions center on “What does [Clinton] stand for? And where would [Clinton] try to take the country if elected?”

Despite candidate Clinton’s coyness, longtime WaPo political reporter Dan Balz draws out a decent amount of analysis on the New York Senator from an interview he scored Friday:

To the contrary, she made clear in a telephone interview on Friday that her governing philosophy may never be easily reduced to a slogan. “I don’t think like that,” she said. “I approach each issue and problem from a perspective of combining my beliefs and ideals with a search for practical solutions. It doesn’t perhaps fit in a preexisting box, but many of the problems we face as a nation don’t either.”

Her detractors find much — and much different — to criticize. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins dismisses Clinton as the embodiment of “triangulation, calculation and equivocation.” Markos Moulitsas, whose Daily Kos Web site often attacks the Democratic establishment, ridicules her as a leader who is “afraid to offend.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell, echoing a view shared by many Republicans, calls her a liberal “ideologue” who is far more doctrinaire than her husband.

A selective reading of Clinton’s record can produce evidence to prove she is a centrist, a liberal and much in between. But there are clear patterns. On defense, she has consistently supported the use of force abroad, having advocated military intervention in the Balkans during her husband’s administration. She differs with Bush administration officials on many aspects of how they have conducted foreign policy, but not on combating terrorism or the imperative of winning in Iraq.

Domestically, she has a more complex profile, a product of life experiences that have shaped and refined her approach to issues. She is an activist who believes in the power of government to solve problems, but those pro-government instincts have been tempered by the health-care debacle of 1993-94 and the nation’s budgetary squeeze. On family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.

Not that there isn’t more than enough to write about when it comes to Clinton, but I found it interesting that Balz all but ignores a previous WaPo splash on the alleged rise of the religious left. Not that I’m complaining at all, but I am curious what the leaders of the religious left think of Clinton and whether Clinton’s people think the group is significant enough to make them worth a political courtship.

Here Balz hints at Clinton’s beliefs on religious issues:

She believes government is an essential partner in a three-sided relationship that also includes the free market, and a “civil society” of churches and nonprofit groups. “I am a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible,” she said. “But I know one of the reasons our country has been one of the most successful organizations in the world is because we got the balance right.”

This and a mention of her January 2005 talk regarding abortion being a “sad, even tragic choice” for women is it when it comes to religion in this story. And that’s too bad, because there’s plenty to write about when it comes to religion and Clinton.

A couple of notes for reporters venturing into this tenuous area: As tmatt has said repeatedly, what of Clinton’s Methodist roots and her very public churchgoing when she was First Lady?

Outside Clinton’s personal life, I think it would be difficult to draw in the religious left angle in an article such as this. The voters who make up the religious left have yet to define themselves or carry a significant candidate to victory.

That said, would Clinton be the religious left’s candidate of choice? Or would that honor go to the more moderate Mark Warner? And what of former Vice President Al Gore? If the religious left story is going to have legs, it’s going to need a candidate for the 2008 election.

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Looking beyond big conferences and grand pronouncements

PhillipsCoverReporters searching for the rise of the “religious left” don’t have to look hard to find people to talk about the surge or growth in the movement. Never mind that no one has really defined exactly what this movement stands for politically, let alone theologically.

Conferences, Bible verse-dropping and citing the history of progressive religious movements (civil-rights, social gospel) are all nice and good for a quick-hit story. But as the Democrats look to rally a religious movement on their own to compete with the religious right, reporters should note the last three paragraphs of this excellent Economist article titled “American Theocracy.” Reporters covering the intersection and politics should remember these poignant insights as they explore the movement:

But is this truly a sea-change in American religious politics? Or is it a brief “hallelujah moment” — born of Bush fatigue and political opportunism — that will bring no lasting change? The betting is on the latter. The religious left suffers from two long-term problems. The first is that it is building its house on sand. The groups that make up the heart of the religious left — mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics and reform Jews — are all experiencing long-term decline. Most of the growth in American religion is occurring among conservative churches. And the constituent parts of the religious left are also at odds over important issues. Middle-of-the-road Catholics are happy to march hand-in-hand with mainline Protestants over immigration and inequality. But they often disagree over abortion and gay rights.

The secular left usually wins

Serious doubts also persist about how much the Democratic Party is willing to change to embrace religion. Some influential Democrats want real change. Others think that all they need to do is drop a few platitudes to religious voters and the God-gap will disappear. Mr Dean’s performance on Pat Robertson’s television programme was as telling as it was laughable. He not only chose to talk to a man who plays a much bigger role in the liberal imagination than among evangelicals; he also let slip that Democrats “have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community.”

The biggest problem for the religious left is that it is badly outgunned by the secular left. The Democratic Party’s elites — from interest-groups to funders to activists — are determinedly secular. So are many of its most loyal voters. John Kerry won 62% of the vote of people who never go to church; and that group is the fastest-growing single “religious” group in the country. These secular voters don’t just feel indifferent to religion. They are positively hostile to it, regarding it as a embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values such as the right to choose. These crusading secularists are in a particularly militant mood at the moment, as the sales of Kevin Phillips’s Bush-bashing book, “American Theocracy”, testify. The last thing they want is a religious left to counterbalance the religious right.

So two thoughts that should be seriously considered in the debate over the alleged rise of the “religious left”:

  • Groups that compose the “religious left” are on the decline.
  • Secularists in the Democrat Party don’t like religion.

It’s up to reporters to discover whether or not there is merit to these arguments — or, better yet, to disprove these arguments. The answers are out there, but it will take some serious digging and going beyond official spokesmen and announcements.

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