One of the most interesting parts of journalism, in my experience, is the never-ending search for new and unique voices to pull into familiar stories. It's like that famous scene in one of my all-time favorite movies: It's easy to run out and round up the usual suspects, but why should journalists settle for that?
So here is the story for today: Editors at The Washington Post national desk decided to do a profile of an emerging hero in the gay-rights fight in Mississippi, which is one of those states that, as the story stresses, "embodies the values of the Bible Belt."
The man in the spotlight is Rob Hill, who until recently was a secretly gay pastor serving at the altar of United Methodist congregation in a part of the country where most bishops defend the teachings of their global denomination. Now he has left the closet, left the ministry, rarely goes to church and is the face of the gay-rights movement in Mississippi, working as a representative of the Human Rights Campaign. This powerful network, which is based in Washington, D.C., is pouring $9.5 million into a countercultural effort to promote gay rights in the Deep South. Here is an early scene in this morality tale:
But the road forward is steep. ... That was apparent even in Natchez, a community of graceful antebellum homes huddled along the Mississippi River, known to be relatively welcoming to gays. But neither the mayor nor a well-known liberal alderman had accepted an invitation to meet with Hill on this trip. At a coffee shop, card-carrying liberals nodded vigorously as Hill spoke but hesitated when asked if they would propose an anti-discrimination ordinance.
Even many local gays expressed a reluctance to rock the boat, satisfied with a kind of truce that had been struck. At the Cotton Alley Cafe, a funky little restaurant with mismatched chairs and artwork cluttering the walls, owner Guy Bass said he was sympathetic to Hill’s efforts but unsure of how aggressive he wanted to be in asserting his presence.
“We’ve just lived our lives here,” Bass, 55, told Hill. “We’re not out, I guess, but everyone knows we’re gay, and they support our restaurant, thank God. We don’t shove anything down people’s throats, and it’s worked out for us.”
The Southern voices in the story speak on both sides of this debate, kind of. Most of the "conservative" voices are kind of defending what is presented as a gently oppressive status quo and that part of the story is interesting and informative.
However, I must admit that -- as a mountains of Eastern Tennessee guy myself -- I kept waiting to hear from the articulate, "small-o" orthodox voices in churches on the doctrinal right and even from the region's mainline churches. If this is a story about the Bible Belt, I kept waiting for people who would make any kind of case -- at all -- that was related to the Bible.
Once again, the emphasis is on making political changes, while the locals keep talking about culture and something that sounds kind of like tradition. That tradition, by the way, sounds -- to a surprising degree -- like live-and-let-live tolerance. I am sure that this is not always the case down South, but the Post team just lets the locals talk and the result is, well, kind of a don't ask, don't tell compromise.
But, surely, there were locals who could address the political and cultural implications of all this? After all, everyone in this drama would admit that major legal changes linked to gay rights consistently impact the work of religious nonprofits, Christian schools, day-care centers, food banks, homeless shelters and other semi-public institutions that, especially in the deep South, have religious roots. Can you say "religious liberty"?
Case in point: There are a few Baptists in Mississippi. You think? I kept waiting for local Baptist leaders -- black, white, Latino, you name it -- to surface in this story. This is where the story could have found some new, unique, untapped voices to add to the story of Hill and his post-ministry crusade.
But who do we get in this story? Round up the usual suspects. (Yawn.)
“States of the so-called Bible Belt are kind of the stronghold for our position for holding firm against some of what we sometimes refer to as the homosexual agenda,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. “We intend to work closely with our allies there to resist some of these efforts.”
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., that owns more than 200 radio stations across the country, said he was skeptical that the Human Rights Campaign would be successful. “Mississippians are not going to be swayed, I think, by this group coming in, in terms of their personal beliefs on GLBT,” he said. But he challenged the organization to try.
Honestly. Where are the new and unique voices, the people actually involved in these discussions in Mississippi? Yes, Wildmon is from Mississippi, but he is a very, very, very, very familiar voice on the national scene in stories of this kind. Maybe give him a rest?
The bottom line: Are the traditional religious voices in that state, in that Bible Belt region, really so shallow and lacking in nuance? The answer, of course, is "no." The South is a complex place. It is very disappointing that the members of the Post team chose not to listen to complex, articulate voices on both sides of this story.
Why settle for the usual suspects?