Baptists

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

Unless you’ve been under a rock recently, you know much of the country is fixated on the mess at our border.

What’s not as visible is how evangelical Christians are fighting among themselves over all of this. In the latest development, an old foot soldier in evangelical warfare contacted all his followers to say that President Donald Trump is doing the right thing.

That foot soldier would be Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, now 83. He retired from Focus 10 years ago (although HuffPost says he was forced out), then founded “Family Talk,” a nonprofit that produces his radio programs. More on him in a moment.

With thousands of people each day forcing their way into the United States, there has erupted amongst evangelicals what I like to call the “battle at the border.”

Many of you may have heard of the spitting match between Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore was mourning the border situation on Twitter — specifically conditions endured by children — and Falwell slammed into him for being unqualified to speak about the matter.

The people following this have mostly been religion beat specialists. Amy Sullivan had one of the better descriptive lines in calling it a “tale of two tweets,” as it showed huge fissures among evangelicals. The secular media didn’t do a whole lot with this inside-baseball battle, but there’s now a term, #SBCdeepstate and a lot of grandstanding on What Would Jesus Do At The Border.

Last Friday, a Catholic bishop thought he had the answer to that one, which is why he personally escorted a family across the border even though they’d been turned back once by the border patrol.

Then you have the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who in this Christian Post story tells of his visit to the border and how everything there is peachy keen.

Of course, the Babylonian Bee had to run a piece on the lunacy of it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

I have a fair amount of experience reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention, going back two decades when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman and traveled to the denomination’s annual meetings.

In my time with The Associated Press in Dallas, I did a 2004 series on the 25th anniversary of the 1979 conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year, freelancing for the Washington Post, I covered an all-night meeting at which Paige Patterson was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But I’ll acknowledge that I’m no expert on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. For example, I don’t have a clear idea of whether the Southern Baptist Convention’s president — an elected role generally filled by a pastor — is a more powerful, substantial position than serving as president of one of the denomination’s six regional seminaries. It seems to me that perhaps the seminary presidents are bigger, more major players in the long term.

The reason I bring this up is that the ongoing news coverage of the SBC’s sex abuse scandal — in which Patterson keeps making all the wrong kind of headlines — typically cites Patterson’s past SBC presidency before mentioning his tenure as seminary president.

In fact, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — which should be as informed on this story as anyone — seems somewhat confused about which role Patterson was kicked out of last year.

Here’s the lede of the Star-Telegram’s report on a lawsuit (warning: the details are chilling) filed last week:

A woman who said she was threatened and humiliated after reporting multiple rapes to former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson has filed a lawsuit against him.

The lawsuit, which was filed by a former student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaryin Fort Worth, was unsealed this week. 

It says the woman was the victim of multiple violent sexual assaults on the school’s campus by a fellow student, who also was employed at the seminary, in 2014 and 2015. But even before she became a student, the lawsuit says, the seminary “was not a safe place for young women.”

But here’s the deal: Patterson was president of the SBC in 1999 and 2000. That was 20 years ago.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Neo-tabloid NYT, pro-life Dems, Matt Chandler's 'interview,' Jimmy Carter's pastor, gelatos

Friday Five: Neo-tabloid NYT, pro-life Dems, Matt Chandler's 'interview,' Jimmy Carter's pastor, gelatos

Greetings from the Zagreb, Croatia, airport!

I’m headed home after a Christian Chronicle reporting trip to this Central European nation.

My confession is this: I haven’t had time to pay a lot of attention to the news this week (many thanks to my colleague Julia Duin for producing several extra posts in my absence).

So, if I fail to mention something important, please help me out with details and links in the comments section. In the meantime, let’s dive into the distracted-by-international-travel edition of Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: With the caveat above, let’s just say that I was intrigued by a bunch of the topics I found scrolling through this week’s GetReligion posts.

Terry Mattingly’s piece on the New York Times going neo-tabloid over Jerry Falwell Jr., Donald Trump, South Florida real estate and a colorful array of supporting characters particularly intrigued me. Then there were pieces by tmatt (here) and Duin (here) on the haunted news coverage of pro-life Democrats. That tmatt piece followed up on a key theme in Julia’s post, pointing readers to coverage noting that journalists know where to find pro-life Democrats in the Bible Belt. Just look in church pews, especially in African-American congregations.

The Falwell-Trump story in the Times ignited liberal Twitter (look for the hashtag #Falwellpoolboy), but didn’t inspire significant mainstream coverage elsewhere. Stay tuned, and check out the GetReligion podcast on this topic — right here.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Southern Baptists in Birmingham. Roman Catholics in Baltimore.

Clergy sexual abuse scandals, obviously, high on the agendas in both places. Lots of reporters in the house, in both places.

Yes, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the spring general assembly of U.S. Catholic bishops made lots of headlines this week.

So we better dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer has a nice wrap-up of the SBC meeting, reporting on three ways churches will tackle abuse after the meeting.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey also has an interesting roundup, explaining that while the SBC took action, some question whether it’s enough.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein delve into the pros and cons of the Catholic bishops’ decision to create a hotline for reporting abuse.

Some of the GetReligion posts on the Baptists and Catholics this week:

Please respect our Commenting Policy