AP embraces cliches, labels in seminary prez profile

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Yawn.

Sorry, I just finished reading The Associated Press’ feeble attempt at profiling Albert Mohler on his 20th anniversary as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

From the start, the story reads like a reporter (in this case, more than one reporter since it has a double byline!) and editor got together and decided to see how many cliches and labels they could mix together in one shallow report. Instead of providing insight into Mohler, the AP settles for presenting a cardboard cutout.

Let’s start at the top:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For the last 20 years, Albert Mohler has led the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention, restoring it to more conservative principals even though it meant purging faculty who were out of step with his beliefs.

Unless I’m missing something, doesn’t the AP mean “principles” and not “principals?” But I digress.

I hope you caught the “conservative” label in that first sentence. That’s just the first of seven times that word appears (five times as an adjective) in this 800-word story.

The second sentence:

He expressed satisfaction with the transformation as he recently welcomed a new crop of students to the Louisville campus of stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns. Donations, enrollment and the school’s budget have grown dramatically since Mohler took the helm, and there’s no sign of him leaving.

Stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns? Dear cliches, welcome to the party!

Let’s get to the meat of the story (or what passes for it):

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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:

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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:
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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:

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Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention

Just how much do you know about Calvinism?

Former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey developed a short quiz to gauge readers’ knowledge:

See if your score is predestined, or if you have free will to determine your score.

Go ahead. Take the quiz.

I scored — gulp — 58 percent.

In other words, I probably should start this post by referring to Matthew 15:13-14, where Jesus talks about “the blind leading the blind.” My apologies, GetReligion readers, if I lead you into a ditch with this post.

In yesterday’s critique of an Associated Press story on the political influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, I promised a follow-up post on a mystery subject covered by AP and RNS. That subject: the theological debate over Calvinism simmering in Southern Baptist circles.

In about 900 words, AP covered the debate in a story advancing the SBC’s annual meeting, which starts today in Houston:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Is God’s saving grace free to anyone who accepts Jesus, or did God predestine certain people for heaven and hell before the beginning of the world? That’s a 500-year-old question, but it is creating real divisions in 2013 in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Calvinism is named for the 16th Century theologian John Calvin. Among other things, it teaches that Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation. That idea does not sit well with many non-Calvinist Baptists, who believe Jesus died for the whole world.

Some of the theological differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists can get pretty far into the weeds, but what may seem an arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few months.

RNS took AP’s 900 words and countered that it could “Name That Tune” in only 700 words.

The top of RNS’ story:

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Southern Baptists on the downhill slide?

This just in from The Associated Press: Southern Baptists are having a tough time.

But it’s not what you might think.

Instead of declining membership and baptisms, the big worry for Southern Baptists appears to be — you guessed it — a weakening influence in American partisan politics:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention was riding high.

The president of the United States was a conservative evangelical Christian who personally addressed the group’s annual meetings, either by satellite or video, at least four times in two terms, and SBC leaders were feeling their influence at the highest levels of government.

Ten years later, as members prepare for their 2013 annual meeting in Houston on Tuesday, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination finds itself in flux: It has less influence in government and a growing diversity that may be diminishing its role as a partisan political player. And some Southern Baptists are beginning to cry foul at what they see as discrimination by gays and liberals that violates their religious liberty.

“For 100 years the Southern Baptists have been the dominating religious entity of the South,” said David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a Southern Baptist. “Now they are starting to feel religious victimhood. … In many ways, Baptists introduced pluralism to America. Now they are feeling like victims of that pluralism.”

Certainly, the Southern Baptist political influence is a legitimate angle for a news story. I remember asking Texas pastor Jack Graham, then the SBC president, about that issue in 2004 when I served as an AP religion writer in Dallas:

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Pod people: ‘Mass exodus’ from the Boy Scouts?

One of the wonderful things about writing is the ability to type something, decide it’s not precisely exactly what you wanted to say, delete it and start over.

Alas, when you’re recording a podcast — let’s say, with Todd Wilken of “Crossroads” — you don’t have that luxury.

Instead, you’re responding to questions off the cuff and thinking out loud.

So, please enjoy a trip inside my (scatter)brain in the latest GetReligion podcast.

Wilken and I discuss media coverage of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay members — the subject of my recent posts on “Seven questions about Boy Scout gay policy coverage” and “Churches dumping Boy Scouts over gay policy … or not?”

My most recent post drew some interesting comments, including this insight from GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly:

The key to the whole question is that no one knows what the word “open” means in the phrase “openly gay youths.” At this point, Catholics are the key. Keep waiting for the hierarchy to speak.

And this insight from Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana:

So far there hasn’t been a mass exodus of Baptists from Boy Scouts in Nashville. And the local Royal Ambassador leaders don’t want to fill their ranks with disgruntled scouts. This could be a case for Baptist where the national leader want one thing and the local churches something else.

The notion that the policy change hasn’t sparked a “mass exodus” also was referenced in an Associated Press story published after my last post:

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Seven questions about Boy Scout gay policy coverage

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Headlines over the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay members are still flying fast and furious.

There’s been so much recent coverage, actually, that it’s impossible to critique all of it in a single post. So I thought I’d ask seven questions related to the decision and news coverage of it.

1. Does the new Boy Scout policy conflict with Catholic teaching?

No, according to a Religion News Service report:

(RNS) The U.S. Catholic Church’s top liaison to the Boy Scouts of America is telling Catholic Scout leaders and troop sponsors that the BSA’s new policy welcoming gay Scouts “is not in conflict with Catholic teaching” and they should continue to support scouting programs.

2. Why did religious groups that opposed allowing gay Boy Scouts suddenly change positions?

The “On Faith” section of the Washington Post tackles this question:

What gives?

Experts say the Scout vote embodies the struggle going on today in traditional religion over homosexuality. There is a strong desire and effort to be more welcoming — and even affirming — of some equal rights, but not to back off completely. But that’s proving tricky to do.

Who are the “experts” who say that? This piece offers interesting analysis but provides inadequate attribution, it seems to me.

3. Will Southern Baptist churches leave the Boy Scouts over the new policy?

A mass exodus appears likely, according to CNN:

The Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, will soon urge its 45,000 congregations and 16 million members to cut ties with the Scouts, according to church leaders.

The denomination will vote on nonbinding but influential resolutions during a convention June 11-12 in Houston.

“There’s a 100% chance that there will be a resolution about disaffiliation at the convention,” said Richard Land, the longtime head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “and a 100% chance that 99% of people will vote for it.”

“Southern Baptists are going to be leaving the Boy Scouts en masse,” Land continued.

4. Exactly how new are the Royal Ambassadors, an alternative scout group highlighted by the New York Times?

The Times (just two weeks behind RNS) suggests:


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