Houston Chronicle team shows (again) that it just doesn't 'get' the struggles at Baylor

 And God said, "Let there be tab photos," and it was last-minute-panic-inducing.

Kevin Freeman | Lariat Photographer

How many Southern Baptists are there in the greater Houston area, out of a population of four to six million people?

This is not an easy question to answer, just poking around online. It doesn't help, of course, that Texas Baptists are a rather divided bunch and things have been that way for several decades. But one thing is sure, there are hundreds of Southern Baptist congregations in the area and several of them are, even in Donald Trump terms, YYHHUUGGEE.

Now, the important journalism question -- when looking at Houston Chronicle coverage of Baylor University issues -- is whether there are any Southern Baptists, or even former Southern Baptists, who work on this newspaper's copy desk or in its suite of management offices.

Can I get a witness?!? Is there anybody there who knows anything about events in recent Southern Baptist life and how they affect the news?

It would appear that the answer is "no." I base that judgement on the following passage in a rather bizarre Chronicle report about the current Baylor crisis (it's much bigger than a football crisis) about sexual assaults involving Baylor students.

Baylor is the nation’s largest Baptist school and has deep Christian roots. As the university has moved into the modern era -- allowing dancing on campus, adding non-Baptist board members and, most recently, removing a long-standing ban on “homosexual acts” -- it has angered some Baptist leaders. In recent years, school officials have acted to dilute the influence of the state’s Baptist convention. In return, the convention has cut its financial support by millions.
Baylor leaders must walk a fine line. To keep many donors happy, they have to maintain the Baptist principles on which the school was founded. At the same time, higher education is in many ways a liberal landscape.

OK, let's unpack that summary material.

First of all, Texas does not have one state Baptist convention -- it has two. There is the old-guard, "moderate" Baptist General Convention of Texas and then there is the newer Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, with its strong links to the more conservative national leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. If you don't know that fact, and how it affects fights about Baylor, then, as many Texans would say, then you're gonna wind up a few tacos short of a combination platter.

Also note that Chronicle editors still have not straightened out the facts of that happened last year when Baylor leaders tweaked their "sexual conduct" guidelines (.pdf here).

At that time, the newspaper went with this inaccurate headline: "Baylor drops ban on 'homosexual acts'." That led to this GetReligion post -- "So Baylor University made a massive change to its policies on sex? Really?"

Let me repeat the main point: Yes, Baylor dropped a direct reference to homosexual acts. But did that change doctrines on sexuality? The revised policy clearly stated that:

Baylor will be guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity. Thus, it is expected that Baylor students, faculty and staff will engage in behaviors consistent with this understanding of human sexuality.

See, no reference to "homosexual acts." However, the statement also says: "This policy will be interpreted by the University in a manner consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963." As I explained a year ago:

Now, the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 (yes, that date matters to "moderate" Southern Baptists) is a sort-of creedal document that has the following to say about marriage, in keeping with several millennia of traditional doctrine and human history:
Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is Gods unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

So let me note, again: Does that wording suggest that the Baylor administration has redefined marriage and endorsed gay sexual activity? So why are the Chronicle editors still proclaiming that Baylor has changed its core teachings on sex?

Of course, it is one thing for leaders of a university to know what they believe about sexuality. It's another thing to build a campus community that -- in this sinful, fallen world -- attempts to live out that ethic in a truly Christian (and legal) manner. That's the struggle that is at the heart of the current Baylor crisis, along with the ethical challenges that come along with millions of dollars of revenue from big-time college sports.

Hey, at least the Chronicle editors attempted to produce a story that looked at the moral and religious elements of this story. Contrast that with this totally haunted, religion-free report at The Dallas Morning News.

The new Chronicle report ran under this solid double-decker headline:

Baylor’s Baptist core is shaken
Boosters shocked by sex scandal but say school now doing its penance

The story also has one very solid source with some authority to speak on the current Baylor crisis. That leads to this early block of material:

“Baylor sold its soul to the devil for gridiron glory,” one headline read as news broke about the report. While that may be true, university boosters said Friday that the college board’s response -- including the imminent firing of well-respected head football coach Art Briles -- shows they are willing to finally begin to repent for the school’s sins.
“I was afraid it might be whitewashed a little bit, but it wasn’t,” said Joe Trull, a Baptist ethicist near Dallas who has served as a pastor at numerous Baptist churches. Trull is the brother of legendary Baylor quarterback Don Trull, an All-America football player in the early 1960s who later played professionally.
“I think what I would call faithful Baptists -- Baptists who are not just Baptist in name, but support the church and Baptist causes and Baylor and other Baptist schools -- I think they’ll be embarrassed, saddened, hurt,” Trull, the ethicist said. “But at the bottom of the equation, they’ll say, this all being true, this is what should have been done.”

Yes, it would have helped to have known a bit about Trull's academic and professional background, working during the era defined by the Southern Civil wars (it's a long story and the opening battle was in Houston). However, I think we have already established that the newspaper's current editors and reporters don't know much about the fault lines among Southern Baptists in Texas.

As for the rest of the new Chronicle article, it's a strange mix of quotes from various pieces of paper (including a 2011 story in another publication) and a strong quote from an articulate Baylor critic (from Texas Christian University, no less).

The presence of that critical voice, of course, is highly appropriate in this story. However, it would have been nice to have had a response from someone with direct knowledge of what life is like at Baylor. In fact, where are the up-to-date Baylor sources in this story -- period?

Anyway, check out this crucial statement near the end of the story:

It’s not surprising that a sex scandal erupted at the Southern Baptist school, said Claudia Camp, a professor of religion at Texas Christian University.
“There’s this underlying assumption that things can’t go wrong sexually in a pure place like this,” Camp said. “Then there’s the rub -- if there’s a hint of it, where does the problem lie? It’s the women.”

As I stressed in that very personal post last week about this scandal, I have been following Baylor debates on these topics -- including evidence of cover-ups of sexual assaults -- closely since the mid-1970s. I have paid close attention to similar debates on other campuses, secular and religious.

To be blunt: Nobody thinks Baylor is a "sexually pure place." It's one thing to say that a school is attempting to defend Christian teachings on moral theology. It's something else to say that it has found a way to convince young people (and old folks, too) to honor those teachings in an increasingly post-Christian and post-Woodstock America.

In terms of Baylor debates about sexuality, this story just didn't get its facts straight. It's also way, way too simplistic when it comes to describing what Baylor is supposed to be all about, in terms of providing a solid, consistent, compassionate witness to Christian doctrines on sexuality.

Someone needed to spike this story and start over.

Meanwhile, there are errors of fact that need to be corrected -- pronto.

IMAGE: Photo illustration from a Baylor Lariat report in 2014.

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