Does the "Baptist left" really exist?

BroadwayBaptistThere's a story unfolding down in Fort Worth, Texas, that raises an old issue about journalistic style. It's one we've talked about here at GetReligion quite a bit, because New York Times editor Bill Keller raised it in his response to his newspaper's self study not that long ago. It's that old word "moderate" and another word that is rarely used these days, which is "liberal." The key is that journalists tend to use the word "moderate" to describe people that they like, people whose views seem sensible to journalists. The result is a kind of glass half full, glass half empty situation that bothers some people.

The story that has got me thinking about this issue again is the whole controversy at Broadway Baptist Church about the full inclusion of Lesbigay church members into the life of this famous "moderate" Baptist congregation. Click here for the previous GetReligion post on the topic. And here is a link to a weblog on the Baptist left that includes all kinds of links to basic coverage.

The latest development is that, after the church reached a compromise on the issue of photos of homosexual members in the congregation's phone directory, the heat refused to die down. Now there will be a vote on the future of the Rev. Brett Younger, the pastor who has been driving these issues.

Here is some info on that, care of the conservative Baptist Press. I will keep looking for an MSM story on this development.

On Feb. 10, a group calling itself "Friends for the Future of Broadway" submitted their petition calling for a termination vote on Younger, who has led the congregation since April 2001. In response, more than 200 church members signed a statement opposing Younger's ouster. One deacon, Walt Hatter, offered Younger $50,000 to resign.

Over the years, Broadway Baptist Church had adopted a position of "welcoming" gays into membership and even leadership roles, without "affirming" homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Younger's critics feel he is moving the church toward an "affirming" position on homosexuality and took issue with his inviting liberal theologian Marcus Borg to preach at the church.

Now, what kind of church is Broadway? In the Dallas Morning News coverage of the church directory dispute, we saw a classic example of the language most newspapers have used in the Baptist wars. Here it is.

Broadway Baptist has had gay members for years and is widely recognized for its moderate views and inclusion of women in leadership roles, as well as its outreach programs.

In other words, Broadway is "moderate" from the point of view of the Dallas Morning News.

This implies that Broadway is in the middle of a spectrum of Baptist life. There must be churches to the right -- think Southern Baptist churches as a rule -- and churches to the left. Now, who would that be, in light of the doctrines and issues being discussed in this case? Who is to the left of Broadway Baptist and how many of those churches exist, let's say, in Texas?

Now I was part of the "moderate" Baptist world for years and speak fluent Texan. There are one or two churches to the left of Broadway. But should those churches be called "moderate"? How about "liberal"? I've struggled with this issue as a journalist for a long time.

The other day, in a post here at GetReligion, I made a reference to a story from the Associated Baptist Press as coming from "the Baptist left." I also referred to Baptist Press as being "over on the right side of the Baptist aisle."

day2 glass half fullThis drew a challenge from reporter Robert Marus:

February 20, 2008, at 5:42 pm

Terry, thanks for the shout-out, although I would mildly quibble with your characterization of ABP as "the Baptist left." I would consider us -- as do an awful lot of other Baptists as well as secular journalists -- more accurately described as "the Baptist center," or at the very least "the only Baptist news service independent of a particular denomination." ....

Pax Christi, Rob

Among secular journalists, I have often heard reporters make precisely this case about the "moderate" Baptists. The implication is that Baptists are, as a rule, so conservative that there are no true "liberals" in Baptist life. Thus, for years, journalists have tended to use two labels in covering the Baptist wars -- "moderate" and "fundamentalist."

Now "fundamentalist" has been showing up in print less often, perhaps due to an outbreak of Associate Press Stylebook reading. Click here for more on that. But the "moderate" label lives on and on.

I have decided that it is best to try to cover the Baptist conflicts be describing where the different groups and churches fit into a spectrum of Baptists -- period. In a spectrum of Baptists, is Broadway "moderate"? No way. It would be more accurate to say that this congregation is on the left side of Baptist life, especially in Texas.

Does this make sense? Does this work? I would be anxious to hear from some other journalists who have been covering the Baptist wars for years. That story is not as hot as it used to be. But, as the Broadway conflict shows, it is not going away.

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