What about church? Washington Post probes Southern roots of Apple leader's 'moral sense'

There's nothing new about Apple CEO Tim Cook being in the news, over in the business pages, but right now he is making front-page headlines because of his standoff with the FBI over iPhone security.

Editors at The Washington Post did an interesting thing recently by digging into Cook's past in the deep South, looking for the roots of his strong convictions on privacy and security. The big idea of the piece is that Cook's beliefs are linked to the life he lived as a young gay male growing up in Robertsdale, Ala. And what about that crucial reference to his family's church?

Over and over, the piece focuses on the development of what Cook calls his "moral sense." Here's the first place the word "moral" makes an appearance in this piece, following a discussion of the Apple leader's support for gay-rights causes:

Now, Cook, 55, has taken another risky stand, this time on privacy. He and Apple are fighting a federal court order demanding the Silicon Valley firm help the FBI crack the passcode-locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. The FBI has accused Cook of only wanting to protect Apple’s brand. But Cook, in his soft Southern drawl, has repeatedly argued the FBI’s request is wrong in moral terms, calling it “bad for America.”
Cook’s experiences growing up in Robertsdale -- detailed by him in public speeches and recalled by others -- are key to understanding how a once-quiet tech executive became one of the world’s most outspoken corporate leaders. Apple has long emphasized the privacy of its products, but today Cook talks about privacy not as an attribute of a device, but as a right -- a view colored by his own history.
For Cook, it was in this tiny town midway between Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., that a book-smart boy developed what he calls his “moral sense.”

Here is the crucial anecdote that locks in place the crucial equation for the Post -- that Cook's experiences as a gay male set him on a path to seeking racial justice, thus clashing with the moral values of many people in the South.

In terms of journalism, please ponder two questions as you read the pivotal anecdote in this news feature: What is the source for the following information? How could the facts of this crucial scene have been confirmed?

Cook’s chance to stand up came early, when he was in just the sixth or seventh grade. In the early 1970s, he was riding his new 10-speed bicycle at night along a rural road just outside Robertsdale when he spotted a burning cross. He pedaled closer.
He saw Klansmen in white hoods and robes. The cross was on the property of a family he knew was black. It was almost more than he could comprehend.
Without thinking, he shouted, “Stop!”
The group turned toward the boy. One of them raised his hood. Cook recognized the man as a local deacon at one of the dozen churches in town, but not the one attended by Cook’s family.

The Post report is clear about the source: The anecdote comes from a 2013 speech by Cook. Was there any way to validate the crucial details of the story? While Cook has shared the story with friends through the years, readers are told, had anyone in Robertsdale heard of this incident?

As you would expect, I am also curious about the religion details in this anecdote. What church did the Klansman attend, if that was crucial to the story. After all, Cook recognized him as a deacon in a specific church. Why not seek that detail?

While we're focusing on religion, there is the even more obvious question that anyone in the South would want to know: What church did Cook attend growing up? Might it have played a role -- good or bad -- in the development of his "moral sense," or did Cook's "moral sense" evolve out of this rejection of a specific church?

This vague church issue surfaces again later, during a length passage on Cook's boyhood admiration for Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (minus "the Rev." in this account, for some reason).

Today, at his Apple office in Cupertino, Calif., Cook keeps two photos of Kennedy on his wall, plus a photo of Martin Luther King Jr.
Those are hardly the typical corporate suite choices. But the lessons of Kennedy and King were not readily available to Cook in Alabama. He had to actively search out “what was right and true.”
“I drew on the moral sense that I’d learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and that led me on my own journey of discovery,” he recalled in one speech.

As you would expect, Cook's stance on gay rights plays a major role in this piece, as it should. It is also not surprising that some of the Southern voices quoted in the piece disagree with him on crucial issues linked to sexuality.

For me, the crucial "religion ghost" (click here for a refresher on this GetReligion term) in this story, a crucial fact that readers need to know, is the name of Cook's childhood church. After all, Cook notes that his unique "moral sense" originated in "my parents, and in church, and in my own heart."

Are we talking about a Roman Catholic parish? Perhaps his parents were United Methodists, Presbyterians or Episcopalians? That would certainly be a relevant fact in the small-town culture of Alabama in the 1960s and '70s. Why not mention that detail? Did he grow up as a liberal or conservative Christian?

Once again, the story noted that Cook knew, by sight, a deacon in a local church that he says harbored KKK members. Perhaps Cook grow up in a courageous congregation in that same denomination that OPPOSED the Klan? That would be a symbolic fact.

Why not name Cook's church or its denomination? Is the faith question irrelevant, when discussing this man's "moral sense"? Cook said otherwise.

Perhaps someone on the Post team could have visited that church? Is the pastor who ministered to Cook as a child still alive? And what is the Apple leader's faith status these days? Is he now a "none"? Is he part of a different faith than the one in which he was raised and, as he said, developed his "moral sense"?

Did anyone ask?

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