'Faith-filled' Carter has his say

I understand. No, really, I do.

Reporters love to share former President Jimmy Carter's stories and opinions. As the nation's 86-year-old grandfather-in-chief tours the nation promoting his latest book, "White House Diary," he's generating a fair amount of ink. No surprise there.

A telephone interview by Carter with the Salt Lake Tribune resulted in a story with a strong religion angle. From a GetReligion perspective, that's terrific.

But here's the problem: The headline makes it clear immediately that this will be more of a puff piece than a meaty news story:

Religion, politics getting too cozy, warns a faith-filled Carter

Any idea where this story might be headed?

OK, I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the top of the report:

For a man who evangelized foreign leaders and taught Sunday school while U.S. president, Jimmy Carter has some strong words for what he sees as an "excessive melding of religion and politics."

And it began, he said, with the denomination he called home for more than seven decades: the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It's now metastasized to other religions, where an actual affiliation between the denomination and the more conservative elements of the Republican Party is almost official," Carter said during a phone interview while he was in Salt Lake City this week promoting his new book, White House Diary.

"There are pastors openly calling for members to vote a certain way," the 86-year-old ex-president said. "That's a serious breakdown in the principle of separation of church and state."

Now, if there are any curmudgeonly old editors out there, they probably noticed at least two groups that might deserve a chance to respond to the lovable old president. Those groups would be, of course, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party.

Alas, there are apparently no such editors at the Tribune. Or at Religion News Service, which picked up the story and distributed it nationally. Now, RNS prides itself on being "the only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics -- exclusively."

Back in March, a compelling RNS profile of Carter at his church in Plains, Ga., impressed me as the kind of personality feature that didn't require traditional he said/she said treatment.

But in this case, RNS went so far as to pitch the story this way on its Tuesday blog roundup of religion news (you might recall that Tuesday was, um, Election Day):

Former President Jimmy Carter criticized Republicans' and Southern Baptists'"excessive melding of religion and politics."

Does Journalism 101 no longer apply? Do those criticized -- or expert sources sympathetic to their position -- no longer deserve a chance to respond? Or are the rules different when the one doing the criticizing is a "faith-filled" former president?

To be fair, the 400-word RNS version of the story appeared on its daily digest of shorter news items, so maybe space was an issue. Still, basic journalistic principles should take precedence over word counts.

Keep reading, and the story gives background on how Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention to escape its "conservative politics and new doctrinal statements that are, in Carter's view, more creed-based and anti-woman." Again, no need for a response from anyone who might disagree, right?

I'm trying to understand. Really, I am.

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