Flashback to Godbeat past: Several symbolic stories from front lines of the SBC wars

Microphones Over White Background

Here is an idea for the current leaders of the Religion Newswriters Association.

What if we held a reunion for the army of Godbeat pros who worked in the 1980s and '90s? You know, gather up the folks who used to trek from one annual denominational gathering to another -- two, three or, for reporters from big newsrooms, even more events -- each summer. Call up Bruce Buursma and let him organize the whole thing. Louis Moore and Virginia Culver can plan the program. Russ Chandler can handle the after-party (more on that in a minute).

Then everyone can get together and tells stories about what life was like back in the age of travel budgets. I promise you that, within 10 minutes, folks would start telling Southern Baptist Convention stories. Everybody who worked the beat during that era has several great SBC civil-war stories.

This is sort of what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

We started talking about the news from this year's SBC gathering in St. Louis -- click here and then here for GetReligion background. But we ended up focusing on how important it is for journalists who cover this kind of gathering to actually know something about the religious group's life, past and present. Try to imagine having a Super Bowl and newsrooms sending reporters who know little or nothing about football.

Of course, very few news organizations spent money to send reporters to this year's SBC gathering. In the 1980s there would be 30-plus religion-beat pros at SBC meetings, scribes with folders packed with background material and notebooks full of sources. This year? At best, some organizations asked religion-beat reporters to watch the video feeds. It's like being a hoops reporter and covering the NBA finals -- without being at the games.

Does this affect the coverage? You think?

Anyway, that's what we talked about. This allowed me to pull out an SBC war story, or two.

One is the story of Russ Chandler, a box of booze and a New Orleans hotel elevator packed with Southern Baptist ladies. The other centers on the climactic SBC gathering in Dallas in 1985, when a record-breaking 45,510 church messengers braved 100-degree heat to take part in tense showdown for control of America's largest Protestant flock.

The story centers on my attempts to find "moderate" SBC voices to interview after their narrow defeat. They didn't want to talk to reporters. But I found some. How? Let's just say that the story involves a cheap taxi fare and the fact that Baptists from Louisville, in that era, have been known to take an occasional sip of strong drink.

But here's one more short story that I didn't think of while we were recording, another story linked to the theme of the podcast.

So the year is 1984 and I am at The Charlotte Observer. I needed to fly to Kansas City for the SBC gathering and, of course, that meant being routed through Atlanta and having to switch airplanes. (Old saying in the Southeast: When Jesus returns, he'll have to go through Atlanta.)

As I boarded the plane in Atlanta, I noticed -- while passing through the first-class cabin -- the presence of the Rev. Charles Stanley and his wife, at the time, Anna. Now, the leader of the massive First Baptist Church of Atlanta and "In Touch" television star was rumored to be the front runner to become the next SBC president. He was said to be praying about it and waiting on a word from God.

During the flight, I did what any reporter would do -- I headed up to first class to introduce myself and to request an interview once we were on site. As I approached him, from behind, I noticed that he was hard at work reading an important-looking document. Well, naturally, I looked over his shoulder to see what it was -- before saying, "Hello."

It was a list of tips -- 10 if I recall -- on relating to the press, as SBC president.

The No. 1 tip? Always take questions from TV reporters, not journalists from major newspapers. The television channels would send general-assignment reporters with little experience. They would ask general questions like: "What are your dreams for the SBC?" and "Do you think you can bring peace to your troubled denomination?"

Those questions were much, much safer than the detailed, tough questions he would have to field from veteran reporters who knew SBC life inside-out. So, reading between the lines, the document said that it was best to avoid questions from the likes of Chandler, Moore and Richard Ostling.

Interesting. Would that advice still work today? What guidance would a public-relations consultant offer to a new SBC leader in this day and age?

Enjoy the podcast.

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