Pretend for a moment that you're a New York Times reporter. You're going to do a story on churches' reaction to a tough new immigration law in Alabama.
What church groups might you include as part of your reporting?
You may recall a story earlier this year in which The Associated Press suggested that "you can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop in Alabama." Hmmmm, that almost makes me think there might be a few Baptists in Alabama.
But for a Times story over the weekend headlined "Bishops Criticize Tough Alabama Immigration Law," the reporter apparently did not stand on any hilltops or come across any Baptist churches.
Up high, the story summarizes opposition to the law:
Thousands of protesters have marched. Anxious farmers and contractors have personally confronted their lawmakers. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have sued, and have been backed by a list of groups including teachers’ unions and 16 foreign countries. Several county sheriffs, who will have to enforce parts of the new law, have filed affidavits supporting the legal challenges.
On Aug. 1, the Justice Department joined the fray, contending, as in a similar suit in Arizona, that the state law pre-empts federal authority to administer and enforce immigration laws.
And on that same day, three bishops sued.
An Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop, all based in Alabama, sued on the basis that the new statute violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that it would “make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”
“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”
Later, there's this:
To some church leaders — who say they will not be able to give people rides, invite them to worship services or perform marriages and baptisms — the law essentially criminalizes basic parts of Christian ministry.
The politics of this are unusual, with those opposed to the law, mostly coming from the left, arguing that the statute falls short of biblical principles, and the law’s supporters, mostly from the right, arguing that secular laws and biblical law cannot always run on the same track.
And the politics are thorny for ministers, who acknowledge that the immigration law is broadly popular. Congregations are not in lock step behind their leaders.
The story feels a bit too one-sided in its portrayal of the thoughtful religious opponents vs. the seemingly non-religious politicians (although a Methodist lawmaker who supported the law is quoted).
But search the story for these two words — Southern Baptist — and you'll come up with no matches at all. In fact, the only reference to Baptists at all is this one line:
Bob Terry, the president of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, wrote in a column that the state was trying to dictate Christian ministry.
Why does that omission strike me as strange? For one thing, the governor who pushed for the law's passage is a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. Is that fact not relevant in a story such as this?
For another thing, Alabama has roughly four times as many Southern Baptists as United Methodists, eight times as many Southern Baptists as Roman Catholics and 30 times as many Southern Baptists as Episcopalians. Would it not make sense to at least mention Southern Baptists in a story on churches responding to this new law? Of course, Southern Baptists aren't the only Baptists in Alabama.
But including Southern Baptists in the story would have given the Times piece credibility and probably not hurt its story's thesis, based on a mid-July report by the AP. From the earlier AP story:
The state's largest denomination, the Alabama Baptist Convention, hasn't taken a position publicly and likely won't since it doesn't speak for individual churches.
"I am concerned about the language concerning giving a ride in an automobile to an illegal immigrant or allowing children of illegal immigrant parents to ride on a church bus to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or church camp," said convention president Mike Shaw, pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, in a statement.
"Should we ignore people who are injured or have broken down on the side of a busy interstate highway and have small children in sweltering heat with no family or friends to help them?"
Seriously, would the Times do this same kind of report in Utah and neglect to include Mormons?