#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

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The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

Then in the body of the story:

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination’s national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a “task force” on the sect’s “evangelistic impact.”

A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings — weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state — and a lot of other nations as well?

Think I’m making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.

Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:

* “A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.”

* “A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches.”

* “A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.”

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Baptists ‘unofficially’ changing doctrine on homosexuality?

Southern Baptist leaders are seeking a “softer approach on homosexuality,” reports National Public Radio’s ”All Things Considered.”

While noting that “the country’s largest protestant (sic) group … still preaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman,” NPR points to a recent, vaguely identified meeting of pastors to back up its headline:

The Southern Baptist Convention held a gathering of pastors at its Nashville headquarters in April. For an organization that has previously used opposition to gay marriage as a rallying point, statements here from church leaders, like Kevin Smith of Kentucky, shocked the auditorium of pastors into silence.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Florida went even further.

“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage,” Scroggins told the pastors.

A quick aside: As noted previously by GetReligion, Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce,” so Smith isn’t exactly the first Baptist to bring up that subject.

Another quick aside: Did all those “silenced” pastors lose their voices for as long as Zechariah? Otherwise, it would have been nice to hear their direct reaction to what was said.

But back to the main point: Hang on to your keyboards, tablets and smartphones and swallow any coffee or other hot liquids before considering this next broad statement of fact by NPR:

Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that homosexuality is sinful. Gays and lesbians are still barred from church membership without first repenting. But Scroggins says they’re sitting in his pews and shouldn’t be the butt of preacher humor. He calls that “redneck theology.”

Officially!?

Does that mean that “unofficially,” Southern Baptists are backing down from their belief that homosexuality in sinful? Seriously, NPR? This story certainly provides no evidence of that dramatic change in doctrine. (I have written about a similar effort in my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — that aims to change approach, not doctrine.)

If Southern Baptist pastors were to tout a more loving approach toward Christian men who struggle with viewing images of naked women online, would NPR write, “Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that pornography is sinful.” Or would the difference in tone and doctrine be clear?

Let’s keep reading:

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Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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Pod people: There really are two sides to every story, folks

The stories we critique here at GetReligion usually fall into one of two categories. First we have the good stories: well-written pieces that are fair, balanced, properly sourced and complement the outlets they represent. The second category is comprised of the opposite kind of story, the poorly written ones. These pieces have problems such as ghosts, bias, unexplored angles, poor attribution, inadequate sourcing, vague terminology, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Which would you think would be the more difficult posts for your GetReligionistas to write? If you said the well-written ones, you get a cookie. Or a sugar-free lollipop, since that’s more politically correct.

The well-written stories take much more time and thought and energy and work (at least for this girl) to post about for the very reasons they take longer to write. When a journalist does the job correctly, the story is a veritable treasure chest of information. It features colorful writing and multiple angles. Sources are plentiful, selected thoughtfully and allowed to speak without the journalist inferring or labeling or categorizing for them. When I encounter a good story, I read it multiple times — each time I flesh out a new detail or appreciate a particular pattern of thought. Writing about these gems is an extension of reading them. (And then I have to take a timeout to Google the author, if I don’t recognize the byline. Just to give the writer a virtual high-five.)

Todd Wilken and I discussed the contrasts between good stories and incomplete ones on this week’s edition of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. In particular, we looked at my part of a three-post journalistic train wreck from The Dallas Morning News. Three stories about two elderly gay men and one maverick Methodist minister preparing to marry them — and zero quotes from anyone affiliated with the United Methodist Church who might speak to the denomination’s official stance on gay marriage. I feel like I know this couple quite well, as do I all their friends and supporters, after the trilogy. What we don’t know, as Todd astutely pointed out, is why no one bothered to walk inside one of the many, many Methodist churches that line the streets of Dallas and interview someone who felt differently about gay marriage than the journalist, the couple, the rogue minister and those who know and love them.

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Moore of the same, but still a worthy effort

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I had a sense of deja vu this week as I clicked on a 2,000-word Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore:

For years, as the principal public voice for the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s biggest evangelical group, Richard Land warned of a “radical homosexual agenda” and pushed for a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

His successor, Russell Moore, sounded a different note when the Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. ”Love your gay and lesbian neighbors,” Mr. Moore wrote in a flier, ”How Should Your Church Respond,” sent to the convention’s estimated 45,000 churches. “They aren’t part of an evil conspiracy.” Marriage, he added, was a bond between a man and a woman, but shouldn’t be seen as a “‘culture war’ political issue.”

Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members. The country’s largest Protestant denomination pushed to end abortion, open up prayer in public schools and boycott Walt Disney Co. over films deemed antifamily. Its ranks included many of the biggest names on the Christian right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines. Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

I kept thinking: Haven’t I already read this?

In fact, I had, to an extent. The dearly departed Bob Smietana of The Tennessean scooped the WSJ on this story by three months and got his just reward.

The mention of Disney, Robertson, Falwell, et al also felt a little stale — as if we’d plowed this same ground a time or two before.

But you know what? I kept reading, and the WSJ — as it so consistently does — enlightened me with insightful, well-sourced details and context.

Yes, the WSJ makes broad statements like this:

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Hey, guess what, all Baptists are Calvinists

Where’s Joe Carter when you need him?

Oh, right. I forgot.

Before his premature departure, Carter served as GetReligion’s resident expert on Calvinism. Trust me, I am a poor fill-in, although I posted a few months ago on media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention debating that subject. (At that time, I acknowledged that I flunked Professor Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s Calvinism 101 course.)

So, I am stepping into this post with fear and trepidation — and under duress from Editor tmatt, who sent me the relevant link with the note, “Take it away, Bobby.”

So, as instructed, I am taking it away. Let’s just hope it doesn’t crash and burn.

The featured story, titled “The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real,” appeared in Pacific Standard magazine. Let’s start at the top:

Why do we work the way we do? For years Americans have been arguing over whether or not it has something to do with the country’s religious history. Does a history of Protestant religiosity make us work harder? Now we’ve finally got some answers.

The influence of Protestantism on American capitalism has been a matter of considerable debate since German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. The book wasn’t even translated into English until 1930, but it’s particularly interesting to this country because Weber argued that capitalist success stems from Calvinism.

Today just 53 percent of Americans identify with some sort of Protestant church, and only the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Baptist denominations (which directly influence less than five percent of the American population) can be called churches in the Calvinist tradition. But Calvinists were the religious ancestors of our Puritans, the English Calvinists who helped establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony so that they could have a place to practice their (rather extreme) religion in freedom. Because they were some of the first major settlers of the United States, they had a rather profound influence on our country’s economic development.

OK, since I already declared my ignorance, I’m going to admit that I’m confused.

First question: Is this story suggesting that all Baptists are Calvinists? If so, why did the reporting I read this past summer include background such as this?:

Calvinism, which is traditionally the domain of Reformed churches like Presbyterians, differs from traditional Baptist theology in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation.

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

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Pod people: ‘Conservative’ Baptists spark a conversation

In three and a half years, I’ve written 439 posts for GetReligion (this makes 440, I believe). That ranks me No. 5 on the all-time GetReligionista list, with tmatt the Hank Aaron of GR at 3,139 and Mollie next at 2,015.

That’s a lot of posts.

And that’s a lot of opportunity to type a quick opinion on deadline and either not express it clearly enough or — in some cases — botch it altogether.

In a post this week titled “AP embraces cliches, labels in seminary prez profile,” I questioned the repeated use of the term “conservative” in a profile of Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. I noted that the term appeared seven times in the 800-word story — five times as an adjective.

My criticism drew this response from one reader on Twitter: 

In the comments section of that post, GetReligion guru tmatt himself noted:

But, hey, conservative is accurate. Fundamentalist would have been inaccurate in this case. Smaller sins!

That prompted two replies from me.

The first (typed in defensive mode):

Maybe conservative is accurate.

But it’s overused and vague.

Better journalism would be to show, not tell, that someone is conservative.

The second (after a bit more reflection):

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