For decades, a battle has waged for the hearts — and souls — of Texas Baptists. I covered this battle during my time as a Dallas-based religion writer for The Associated Press.
More than a decade after I left AP, a new skirmish has erupted in the Lone Star State over some Baptist churches embracing same-sex marriage. I mentioned this clash briefly last week in a post that highlighted the Dallas Morning News' tone-deafness on Baptists who describe themselves as "welcoming but not affirming" of LGBT behavior.
The Washington Post — a national newspaper that, to its credit, devotes multiple full-time journalists to religion news — jumped on the Texas Baptists story with a report published both online and in print:
By referring to the Dallas church "getting kicked out of the Texas Baptists," of course, the headline gives a pretty clear idea of the direction the Post story will take: Rather than a Dallas church voting to "sever ties" with Texas Baptists by defying their theology, this is a case of a heroic, victimized church doing what it considers right and suffering unfortunate consequences for it.
Certainly, that's one side of the story. But shouldn't a fair, impartial news report play it more down the middle?
The Post's lede is equally slanted toward the pro-LGBT side:
A young man came to the Rev. George Mason, wanting to talk about his parents’ wedding.
The youth, of course, hadn’t been at the wedding. But Mason had, and he remembered it well. Some 800 or 900 people. Pillars of the community. One of the largest weddings in the history of Wilshire Baptist Church.
“You performed the wedding of my parents in this church,” the young man said to Mason. “If I fall in love and want to get married, my question is, will my church community support me?”
The youth would want to marry a man. And in that moment, as in other moments in recent years, Mason realized something that would have shocked him when he started out as a pastor 37 years ago: He would want to officiate at that gay wedding.
Now, after putting the issue to a contentious popular vote that has torn his congregation, Mason, 60, can do just that. Wilshire Baptist Church voted 577 to 367 to welcome LGBT people as full participants in every aspect of the church — as members, as lay leaders, as potential clergy, and yes, as brides and grooms.
As soon as the Dallas church completed its vote, the Baptist General Convention of Texas started proceedings to kick the church out of the denominational body. “All Texas Baptists are loving, respectful and welcoming to all people. But while we are welcoming, we are not affirming,” said a spokesman for the denominational association, which often goes by the name Texas Baptists. The spokesman talked with The Post on the condition that his name not be published.
This has nothing to do with the journalistic analysis, but concerning the BGCT spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity: Seriously!?
As one Baptist who emailed me put it, the convention "did itself no favors by having a spokesperson who was apparently embarrassed by its action enough that he/she is was unwilling to have his/her name used in defense of it." Amen!
But back to the Post story itself: On Twitter, one Baptist leader suggested a different headline:
But the problem with that proposed headline — which I know wasn't intended to be taken literally — is that Southern Baptists and Texas Baptists are frequently not synonymous. That's an important wrinkle in this story that the Post fails to acknowledge.
The Post does note:
The Texas Baptists are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but Wilshire Baptist left the national organization — one of the best-known conservative evangelical denominations — about 25 years ago, Mason said. Instead, Wilshire Baptist joined the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a smaller denomination that is theologically and politically more moderate.
What's missing from that background? First, the Baptist General Convention of Texas is just one of two major Baptist groups in Texas traditionally aligned with Southern Baptists. Second, it's the moderate one, often at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention and with many members more closely tied to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The more conservative group, which the Post does not mention, is the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
So the fact that the moderate group is holding to a traditional biblical position on marriage and sexuality is noteworthy, as noted by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.:
Mohler, by the way, might be a great source for the Post or another major news organization that really wanted to delve into what's happening with Baptists down in Texas. As opposed to, you know, only telling half the story.
I'd suggest the Dallas Morning News, but its fallback preference on issues such as this seems to be (1) skimpy news coverage quoting a local TV station and (2) a schmaltzy Metro opinion column praising the brave Baptist pastor taking a stand against bigotry.
Please don't misunderstand me: I've got no problem with opinion columns, but I sure wish the Dallas Morning News would employ a few actual news reporters, too, to tell the full story.
At least the Post has actual religion writers, although — in cases such as the Texas Baptists story — one can't help but wonder if political editors are pushing politically correct storylines and if online clickbait demands outweigh the desire for real nuance and complexity.