Attention media folks: That White House PR event upset many on Southern Baptist right

Attention media folks: That White House PR event upset many on Southern Baptist right

To understand what's happening at the top of the Southern Baptist Convention these days, you really have to be willing to believe that, in the end, many religious believers truly believe that religious doctrine matters more than partisan politics.

Yes, I know. The headlines insist otherwise. Headlines tend to increase a few picas in size the minute the word "evangelicals" gets connected to the words "Donald Trump."

Here's a case in point. This past week, The New York Times basically ignored the dramatic national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention -- with lots of developments linked to women and Baptists of color -- until it was possible to write a story with this headline: "Pence Reaches Out to Evangelicals. Not All of Them Reach Back."

But, hey, at least that one story did make an important point: One of the crucial tensions inside this particular SBC gathering was between clashing camps of solid "evangelicals." Actually, lots of people on both sides of that SBC debate about the Pence appearance would, under other circumstances, be called "fundamentalists" in the sacred pages of the Times.

This brings me to this weekend's think piece, which was written by Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the 9Marks Journal and an active leader at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of a new book entitled, "How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age."

The headline: "Truth, Power, and Pence at the SBC." Here's how this essay opens: 

I’m sitting here at the Southern Baptist Convention. Earlier today Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention. We were told he initiated the offer to speak. I wish we had not accepted.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful to God for our nation. I want him to bless it. But here’s a question for my fellow Southern Baptists and evangelicals more broadly: can you name a place in the Bible where God sends a ruler of a (non-Israelite) nation to speak to God’s people? Is the pattern not just the opposite?

Now, what's this all about? Is it a missive from a "moderate" (which means "liberal," in current SBC speak) at an urban church in a blue-zip DC zip code within shouting distance of the Capitol dome? 

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What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

THE QUESTION:

Here’s one for July 4th:  What were the religious beliefs of the three founding presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence, was the date when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died.

What were the odds?! The two served on the five-man Continental Congress committee responsible for the Declaration of Independence, and Adams, who recognized Jefferson’s golden pen, ensured that his younger colleague would be the author.

The immortal prose had a distinctively religious flavor, with non-sectarian affirmation of peoples’ unalienable human rights that were “endowed by their Creator,” citation of the laws bestowed by “nature’s God,” appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and with “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” during the improbable and risky rebellion against mighty Britain.

These two Founders coincided otherwise in life, as in death. Adams was the nation’s first vice president and Jefferson its first secretary of state in the administration of the first president, George Washington. Adams was then elected president in 1796 with runner-up Jefferson as his vice president. After the nasty 1800 campaign, during which Jefferson was assailed as a religious infidel, he turned the tables and defeated the incumbent Adams.

Adams was so furious he even boycotted Jefferson’s inauguration. Though these allies of independence had become fierce rivals, they reconciled later in life and exchanged fascinating letters that enrich the recent book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (Penguin) by prize-winning Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood.

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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?

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Friday Five: Southern Baptists and Catholic bishops and White House Bible verses, oh my! What a week!

Friday Five: Southern Baptists and Catholic bishops and White House Bible verses, oh my! What a week!

Looking for religion news? It's "Everywhere" this week.

Southern Baptists in Dallas? Yep.

Roman Catholic bishops in Florida? Yep.

Bible references at the White House? Of course.

"This week has been a religion writer's dream," said Bob Smietana, veteran Godbeat pro.

"When 'Bible' is trending in one of the most secular regions of America [San Francisco], you know you need to hire more religion writers," said Kaya Oakes, who writes for a variety of publications.

Preach it!

In the meantime, let's dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Obviously, there's no shortage of possibilities this week. But given our half-dozen posts on the Southern Baptist Convention (just since the last Friday Five), it's hard to argue with the annual meeting in Dallas as the week's top story.

To catch up here are those posts (with Terry Mattingly's podcast post still to come):

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Are there really 139 religious freedom bills out there? Deseret News offers an ambitious round-up

Are there really 139 religious freedom bills out there? Deseret News offers an ambitious round-up

With religious freedom in the news these days (from cake bakers in Colorado to imprisoned Christians in North Korea), it’s only right to call attention to a mammoth project the Deseret News just kicked off.

Calling it “the first in an ongoing series of in-depth stories and analyses dissecting and understanding religious liberty in America and the place of faith in the public square,” the newspaper -- owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- offered readers the journalistic equivalent of an Excel sheet of religious liberty lawsuits and legislative efforts in response.

It lists 139 bills in six categories: Adoption, college campuses, service refusals, LGBT rights, health care and miscellaneous. The piece begins:

The turf war over the place of faith in the public square is accelerating, and the stakes are rising like never before. Today, nearly every strata of society is affected, from kids in foster care outside Detroit, to college freshmen in Arizona, to florists and cake shop owners in America's heartland. 

On one side are believers who say their faith communities are threatened by an encroaching secular and godless movement seeking to silence and shun them. On the other side are LGBT and women's rights activists who say Americans are being denied basic human rights and enduring ongoing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

Many others, including long-time religious liberty advocates, both gay and straight, are alarmed by the direction of today's religious freedom debates, arguing that this value is meant to unify, not tear people apart. 

What’s interesting is that reporter Kelsey Dallas found 139 bills debated in one year.

The latest battlefield affects kids in need of new homes. State lawmakers are deciding whether faith-based adoption or foster care agencies should be allowed to receive government funding if, for religious reasons, they won't serve same-sex couples.

As for campus free speech, the issue isn’t religious per se, but some bills include prohibitions against treating religious organizations different than other groups or penalizing their wish to appoint leaders who hold certain religious beliefs.

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Wrapping up Southern Baptist annual meeting: Did we witness the return of the so-called 'moderates?'

Wrapping up Southern Baptist annual meeting: Did we witness the return of the so-called 'moderates?'

So the most newsworthy Southern Baptist Convention in years is history.

Rather than try to analyze all the coverage -- even a fraction of it -- I'm going to offer up a tweetstorm of links and analysis. After all, your GetReligionistas have been all over the coverage of big SBC events for weeks. To catch up with recent events (and some history), click here, here, here and then here. For starters. And there's a podcast on the way, too.

But before today's tweetstorm begins, I want to nitpick a specific word choice by a respected Godbeat pro: Tom Gjelten of NPR.

In this headline, see if you can spot the word I'm talking about:

Pence Speech Riles Some As Southern Baptists' Moderates Gain Strength

A veteran religion writer emailed me the link to that story with this comment: "I don't think moderate means what Tom thinks it means." I hope Gjelten sees this post and responds with a comment on what he thinks it means. I'd welcome that.

Here's how NPR used the term in the context of the story:

In general the meeting showed moderates within the denomination in ascendancy, particularly on immigration issues. Resolutions were passed that called for more acceptance of immigrants, criticized the separation of families at the border and urged more generous treatment of refugees.

The question: Are those pushing for immigration reform accurately characterized as "moderates" in the context of the Southern Baptist Convention?

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Fake News? The Economist team doesn't know where Liberty University is located

Fake News? The Economist team doesn't know where Liberty University is located

If you were going to create a Top 10 list of high-quality journalism institutions in our world today, surely The Economist would be in there somewhere.

Now let's put a different spin on that. If you were going to create a list of prestigious publications that do not deserve the label "Fake News," I would imagine that The Economist would make that list.

So what are you supposed to do when you hit the spew-your-coffee moment in this new piece that was published in that elite magazine over in England, the feature that ran under the headline:

Faith and higher education can intersect in many different ways

An ever-shifting relationship between campus and church

The piece opens with a discussion of a recent address at Oxford University by Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, on the subject of academic and intellectual freedom.

Then there is this piece of analysis, which contains the spew-worthy error mentioned earlier. Wait for it.

To some American conservatives, this emphasis on free-ranging inquiry, rather than the axioms of faith, will only confirm what they suspected: that Notre Dame and other historically Catholic colleges are drifting far from their Christian roots and are on the road to becoming virtually identical to secular places of learning. But the real situation is more interesting. In the ecology of American higher education, there are many different relationships with religion. There are zealously Christian establishments like Liberty University in Tennessee, which may be the largest non-profit college in the world, with 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus and another 110,000 engaged in online learning. First-year students take Bible classes and there is a “code of honour” that bars extra-marital sex.

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Another journalistic take on Brazilian tribes killing their young? Consider this cautious view

Another journalistic take on Brazilian tribes killing their young? Consider this cautious view

This post may -- but is by no means calculated -- to tick off some GetReligion readers.

That possibility is undoubtedly magnified by my taking an alternative position to one of last week’s most popular GR posts, one I believe was so well received because readers identified strongly with its moral point of view.

I’m referring to my colleague Julia Duin’s post on a Foreign Policy story about the Brazilian government’s efforts to outlaw infanticide as practiced by a handful of indigenous tribal groups.

This paragraph gets to the core of the debate tackled in the Foreign Policy piece:

The controversy over child killing has raised a fundamental question for Brazil — a vast country that is home to hundreds of protected tribes, many living in varying degrees of isolation: To what extent should the state interfere with customs that seem inhumane to the outside world but that indigenous peoples developed long ago as a means to ensure group survival in an unforgiving environment?

It comes as no surprise to me that Brazil’s burgeoning evangelical Protestant community is leading the legislative effort. It’s no surprise because as you’d expect, this comports with traditional Christianity’s reverence for human life.

Now, I'm not here to argue theology or public policy. Rather, there’s a journalism point to be made.

Specifically, it's about  journalists' ability to mentally and emotionally distance themselves from their core beliefs about religious and cultural mores long enough to intellectually grasp an alternative viewpoint that's very different than their own -- and even strikes them as appalling.

I'll say more about this a bit below. But first I think it's important to explain my biases.

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Sin and money: In the Deep South, why one state seems more willing to embrace gambling

Sin and money: In the Deep South, why one state seems more willing to embrace gambling

In my time with The Associated Press in Nashville, Tenn., I spent months covering the 2002 battle over a proposed state lottery.

Before Tennessee voters went to the polls that November, I wrote a story explaining why religious opponents had avoided portraying the referendum as a "moral issue."

From that story, which ran on the national political wire:

“To win, we could not make it a preacher issue,” said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “We had to make it a truth issue.”

The campaign’s lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans – those in the pews and otherwise – see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.

“Since 47 states have gambling, I would have to think God’s not really against it,” said state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat and the state’s chief lottery proponent.

As it turned out, the lottery proposal passed easily — winning support from 58 percent of the nearly 1.6 million Tennesseans who voted.

I was reminded of the Volunteer State's experience when I read a New York Times piece Sunday making the case that "Alabama's Longtime Hostility to Gambling Shows Signs of Fading." Among those pushing for a lottery vote: both major-party gubernatorial candidates nominated last week.

The Times' lede:

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