Martin Luther said the meaning of the eighth commandment (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor) is that we "should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything." Reporters, bad apples aside, tend to tell the truth. Understanding that not everyone agrees with Luther's explanation, how often do reporters put the best construction on what their subjects are doing? How often do they cynically portray the facts of the matter or snipe or snark about the subject? Not lying is easy compared to putting the best construction on the subject of an article.
I thought of this when reading the Associated Press report on Ted Haggard's return to the pulpit as a guest preacher:
The former superstar pastor, disgraced two years ago in a sex-and-drugs scandal, had returned -- this time as a Christian businessman preaching a message that was equal parts contrition and defiance. Haggard linked his fall to being molested in second grade and apologized again.
His two sermons were posted, fleetingly, on Haggard's Web site under one word: "Alive!"
While his exact plans remain unclear, Haggard is unmistakably making himself a public figure again, nine months after his former church said he walked away from an oversight process meant to restore him. The man who confessed to being a "a deceiver and a liar" is asking for another hearing, finding encouragement from a loyal circle of supporters, skepticism from those evangelical leaders who think it's premature and complex emotions at the Colorado Springs church he betrayed.
Reporter Eric Gorski gets all the facts out there: Haggard resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and was fired from New Life Church amid allegations he paid a male prostitute for sex and used methamphetamines. He describes the requirements of the severance package he received from his former church and how he prematurely ended the relationship he had with a spiritual oversight team. The reporter puts Haggard's actions in context of other evangelical figures who have returned to the spotlight after spectacular downfalls.
Many different theologians and experts on evangelicals are consulted for the piece and give a wide variety of views about whether Haggard's return is appropriate, predictable and spiritually-sound. These quotes are interspersed with Haggard's own views from the pulpit. He tells of being sexually abused as a young child and the effect of his sinful behavior on his marriage.
Evangelicals believe God can change hearts, yet Haggard also must be held accountable and should not return to ministry early, if ever, said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine.
"It's like someone who has announced he's an alcoholic and they've got that under control and are dry now," said Neff, a National Association of Evangelicals executive committee member. "You don't want to chance putting them back in the situation where it could happen again."
The article even includes conflicting views from parishioners of New Life Church. One member says Christianity is all about second chances. Another says she thinks Haggard is promoting himself.
The reader isn't directed how to feel but given a lot to think about. That's journalism.
The article is neither a puff piece nor a hit job. It's just a fascinating account of an intriguing figure. I'm impressed that Gorski has been able to keep on the Haggard sage with intermittent updates that add value to the overall story.