Black church

A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

From Day 1, folks here at GetReligion have urged newsrooms to pay more attention to liberal Christianity and other forms of liberal faith. There is, of course, lots of coverage of these groups when it comes to politics and social-justice issues. Progressive actions on sexuality make news. 

What is missing is what any of this has to do with the basic building blocks of religious faith and tradition. What do these liberal groups have to say about, well, doctrine?

With that in mind, let's turn to the long, intensely reported Washington Post feature that ran under this headline: "Prominent progressive D.C. church, accused of racism, tries to move on." The church at the heart of this story is All Souls Church Unitarian, a prominent congregation at or near the heart of progressive Beltway culture. Here is the overture:

One of the District’s best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters -- in the church and around the country -- spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.

The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.

Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.

A few lines later, a very interesting word enters this discussion. Let us attend:

Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the D.C. Baptist Convention held a “reaffirmation” ceremony for her, “as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you.”

You read that right. This prominent Unitarian Universalist preacher is a Baptist.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.

Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.

It even contains several references to faith.

So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion. 

Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:

JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists: But the future is starting to look more complex

Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists: But the future is starting to look more complex

So what happens next, in terms of the big issues at the 2018 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

Obviously, there were several hot topics addressed on the floor during the Dallas meetings. However, most of them were linked, in one way or another, to two basic issues -- reactions to the #SBCToo crisis and how Southern Baptists handle political issues and the politicians who seek some kind of symbolic blessing from the nation's largest Protestant flock.

Sure enough, the Southern Baptists were -- #DUH -- the topic we discussed during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in or sign up for the podcast using iTunes.

Host Todd Wilken and I spent quite a bit of time talking about (a) why the folks voting at SBC meetings are "messengers," not "delegates," (b) why the SBC is a "convention," not a "denomination" and (c) how those two realities affect real issues in the lives of real Southern Baptists.

In particular, I noted that the SBC's legal structure -- emphasizing local congregations, rather than a national hierarchy -- may present challenges to those seeking concrete, national structures to warn churches about church leaders who have been accused or convicted of sexual abuse.

Now, we recorded this podcast before the release of a fine Religion News Service story by veteran reporter Adelle Banks, that wrestled with that very issue. The headline: "Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting abuse." This is a must-read story, for those looking ahead on the #MeToo issue. Here is a crucial chunk of this story:

The alleged untoward behavior by Southern Baptist leaders forced many of the messengers, as delegates to this meeting are called, to grapple with how to rein in abuse while respecting the autonomy of the convention’s local churches. One step that the messengers took was to pass a nonbinding statement that suggested that “church and ministry leaders have an obligation to implement policies and practices that protect against and confront any form of abuse.”

The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced that it will partner with a research firm to study the extent of abuse that is occurring in churches. The commission also has been referred a request from a messenger to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an “online verification database” of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel. It is scheduled to respond to that request at next year’s annual meeting.

Ah. But would the creation of a national SBC agency tracking abuse create the potential for lawsuits against the entire SBC, as opposed to local congregations or the trustees of individual SBC agencies or schools?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Well now. It appears we have a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention angle that will draw news coverage, maybe even from TV networks, since many newsroom managers weren't interested in America's largest Protestant flock wrestling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In other words, the Donald Trump angle has arrived -- with Vice President Mike Pence's appearance at the gathering in Dallas. And here is the shocker! It appears that not all Southern Baptists are united when it comes to baptizing their faith in partisan politics. You mean there are divisions among evangelicals in the age of Trump? 

There must be, because I read it in The Washington Post. But hold that thought, because I have a bit of picky religion-beat business to handle first.

If you've covered SBC life for a couple of decades, you know that SBC leaders really need to post a sign over the press facilities at this event that screams: "HEY! The people at this convention are MESSENGERS, not DELEGATES! Please get that right."

Why is this particular burr under the journalism saddle bother Southern Baptists so much? 

The bottom line: The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention, not a denomination. It exists when it's in session, with "messengers" from its rather freewheeling local congregations. In other words, this "convention" is not a formal "denomination" structured like those dang (Baptist speak there) Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and what not.

There's even a FAQ book to help reporters handle these kinds of questions, for sale right here. Item No. 1? 

Who are the messengers? They are the folks who actually compose the convention when it meets. Why “messengers” and not “delegates”? Read the book. 

A decade or so ago, Baptist Press published an "Understanding the SBC" piece that noted:

Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. ...

Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike.

Now, back to what really matters these days -- Trump-era political shouting. The headline on the relevant Washington Post piece proclaims: "Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform is so controversial."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Please read the headline a second time and think about it.

The Religion Guy asserts the obvious answer to this question is Baptists in “historically” or “predominantly” African-American denominations. By out-of-date estimates, their cumulative membership exceeds 12 million. That’s not so far behind the 15 million members in the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, whose Dallas meeting June 12-13 will grab the usual media coverage.

No reporters are likely to staff the June 26-28 Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the Atlanta-based Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Admittedly, with only 800 congregations it’s small compared with the mighty SBC, but there’s an angle: It’s the youngest black Baptist denomination, formed in 1994 by  those leaving the older groups to emphasize Pentecostal-charismatic style “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.  

It can be argued that publications neglect black religion when the majority of their reporters are white.

No question, the “mainstream media” mostly have a narrow interest in black churches as political players, ignoring their central mission as a powerful religious force.

Meanwhile, black churches have a history of expending little energy cultivating visibility. For example, those Full Gospel Baptists don’t provide information for the standard online church listings at  www.yearbookofchurches.org. Nor does the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal body that equals the Baptists in neglect though it claims to be the single largest U.S. black denomination, with 6.5 million members. Datebook note: Its annual convocation is Nov. 5-13 in St. Louis.

Reporters should also be familiar with groups founded two centuries ago, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (headquarters in Nashville) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (headquarters in Charlotte). Neither  provides membership estimates to that online church data base.

Back to the Baptists.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

If parents want to decline cancer treatment for their child in favor of herbs, is that religion news?

If parents want to decline cancer treatment for their child in favor of herbs, is that religion news?

It’s a decision that even Solomon might find challenging.

On one side is a 14-year-old girl with a life-threatening brain tumor and a hospital that wants to save her. On the other are the girl’s parents who also want to save her, albeit through naturopathic methods instead of chemotherapy.

Then take it all to court and you have a fascinating story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about doctors versus parents and a 14-year-old who’s going irreversibly blind in the meantime.

But there’s one huge hole in this narrative. See if you can spot it:

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- On the last Tuesday in March, in an eighth-floor courtroom high above a dense fog hiding downtown Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Magistrate Ginny Millas faced a weeping mother and a father so anguished he struggled to speak.

During two days of testimony, Millas had listened to people argue the fate of a 14-year-old girl with a brain tumor.

Cleveland Clinic specialists say chemotherapy is the only way to treat Zara Ali's tumor, save her failing eyesight and possibly her life.

Her parents have resisted. They've been doctoring their daughter with "natural and holistic medicine," gentler remedies they believe will heal her. Herbal cures have long been part of Zara's family life and are in keeping with their religion, said her father, who came to court each day wearing a red fez, as many Moorish Americans do.

What religion, you might ask while perusing this story. And therein lies the problem. We’re not told. Can we agree that this is a rather essential fact to leave out?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Politicos and reporters: Democrats’ hopes for 2018 and '20 face religious tripwires

Politicos and reporters: Democrats’ hopes for 2018 and '20 face religious tripwires

The biblical preacher laments that “much study is a weariness of the flesh,” which can be said about commentaries without end on why oh why so many white evangelicals back President Donald Trump and his Republicans.

Current examples come from the scornful Slate.com and, on the right, David French, with vigorous National Review jeremiads here and also here. A prominent Catholic journalist, Newsweek veteran Kenneth Woodward, offered his perspective here.

Yet The Religion Guy, and other GetReligionistas, keep reminding everybody not to neglect other religious and racial groups and the dynamics within America’s other party. The Democrats have high hopes for 2020 and for a Nov. 6 rebound, perhaps of historic proportions.  Before pols order the champagne, however, they (and reporters who cover them) should recognize potential religious tripwires.

There’s a disjuncture between liberal whites who pretty much control Democratic machinations and the African-American and Hispanic voters they need in order to win. As GetReligion has noted, Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter warns about contempt for traditional Christianity typified by that New Yorker attack upon “creepy” Chick-fil-A, analyzed here by our own tmatt.

Carter, an African-American and Episcopalian, has bemoaned elite blinders  since “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion” (1993). In this round, he highlights Pew Research data showing Americans of color are notably more devout, more religiously active and more conservative in belief than whites. His bottom line: “If you find Christian traditionalism creepy, it’s black people you’re talking about.”

The Guy adds that you’re also targeting scads of white Catholics and Latinos.   

As The Guy and other GetReligionistas keep noting, and many media keep ignoring, the Democrats’ religion problem shapes their prospects. Which brings us to “The Democrats’ God Gap,” a must-read by the aforementioned French. (French is a prominent #NeverTrump conservative but also a behind-scenes evangelical hero as an attorney defending the right of campus groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to be led by like-minded Christians.)    

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

As you would imagine, folks here in Tennessee are still talking about the Waffle House shootings, even though the national media -- this is the age in which we live -- have moved on to other gun-related stories.

Nevertheless, The Tennessean in Nashville produced a massive story the other day about the lives of the two almost-30 men at the heart of the story -- the hero, James Shaw, Jr., and the troubled gunman, Travis Reinking.

There is all kinds of religious material in this story, and that material was used in a way that raised all kinds of questions -- that the story didn't answer.

Believe it or not, in this case that's a compliment. Once again, we are headed into news territory defined by the theological word "theodicy."

Why does evil exist? Why do some people choose to do good, while others choose to do evil? Why does mental illness exist? Why do some people raised in Christian homes cling to that faith, when push comes to shove, while others fling the faith and lash out at others?

You'll ask all of those questions, and more, when you read this story: "One came to Waffle House to eat. One came to kill, police say. How two worlds collided."

Don't expect answers, especially not about Reinking and his family's years of struggles to understand and manage his mental illness -- which followed him like a cloud, even as his behavior in other parts of life seemed perfectly normal.

Let's start with Shaw, and church:

Nashville is Shaw's home.

He has attended Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church since he was an infant, the same iconic North Nashville church his mother attended as a girl.

The youngest of three Shaw children, and the only boy, he was fun-loving, quiet and respectful to adults. He became humbler as he got older.

Please respect our Commenting Policy