Kind of a GetReligionista clash: An alternative take on that big AP evangelical feature

The other day our own Bobby "no pickles on my Chick-fil-a" Ross Jr. has some strong words of praise for an Associated Press story that tried to explain why American evangelical Protestants -- a phrase that almost always means white Republican conservatives -- are currently feeling rather down about their place in the public square.

The big idea of Bobby's post was to salute AP for dedicating plenty of space and effort to this topic. This wasn't your ordinary dash-it-off wire story. It offered lots of people space to share their views:

Thus, Bobby noted:

This 2,500-word piece -- about as long a story as you'll ever see on the AP wire -- has it all from a journalistic storytelling perspective:
• Regular people (such as the Kentucky pastor and others at his congregation).
• Respected experts (such as Lifeway Research's Ed Stetzer and Southern Baptist public policy guru Russell Moore).
• Real nuance (as opposed to boiling down the issues and concerns to cardboard caricatures, as so often happens).

Now this is where things get interesting, from a GetReligionista point of view.

This particular AP story has been promoted online for a week or so and people keep writing us with their own opinions of it. As often happens in the social media age, this piece has developed cyber-legs on Twitter and elsewhere. Thus, people keep asking: Will GetReligion offer a critique of the story?

Well, we explain, Ross already did.

Finally, we received a note from a former member of the team who -- in the midst of work, life, etc. -- also missed Bobby's take on this AP "Big Story" feature. However, when push came to shove, Mark Kellner had a completely different take on some specific issues in the piece.

So let's go back to the beginning for a moment (with the blessings of one Bobby Ross Jr. by the way):

BENTON, Kentucky (AP) -- Pastor Richie Clendenen stepped away from the pulpit, microphone in hand. He walked the aisles of the Christian Fellowship Church, his voice rising to describe the perils believers face in 21st-century America.
"The Bible says in this life you will have troubles, you will have persecutions. And Jesus takes it a step further: You'll be hated by all nations for my name's sake," he said.
"Let me tell you," the minister said, "that time is here."
The faithful in the pews needed little convincing. Even in this deeply religious swath of western Kentucky -- a state where about half the residents are evangelical -- conservative Christians feel under siege.

Kellner asks:

OK -- What do we know about the Christian Fellowship Church? Is it independent (seems so)? What is its doctrinal statement? (Absent from its rather disjointed website, BTW.) It appears that a family named Parish ran the thing up until Clendenen arrived. No exploration of any of this.

And here is the key point, methinks:

No idea of how big the church is, how representative of the surrounding community. Lots of implications, though.

Once again, it is so, so, so hard to describe the many ways that the rise of independent Protestant congregations has complicated the work of religion-beat pros. How does one quantity the clout or the social clout of a church with no connections to any other church? Does this one church deserve to be spotlighted in a national story?

Back to the story:

Religious conservatives could once count on their neighbors to at least share their view of marriage. Those days are gone. Public opinion on same-sex relationships turned against conservatives even before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
Now, many evangelicals say liberals want to seal their cultural victory by silencing the church. Liberals call this paranoid. But evangelicals see evidence of the threat in every new uproar over someone asserting a right to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages -- whether it be a baker, a government clerk, or the leaders of religious charities and schools.
At a time when America's divisions -- right-left, urban-rural, black-white and more -- spill daily into people's lives, many Christian conservatives find themselves on the other side of the divide between "us" and "them."

"Liberals" call this paranoia? Several readers have asked for a few examples of that -- a rare complaint about a lack of liberal quotations in a story about the cultural right.

In his email, Kellner also noted:

What about examples of the attempted silencing? Might there be ANY other examples out there? And not only in the "deep South"? In short, is it really paranoia when it's kinda already happening?

And back to the story one more time, and that crucial pulpit voice at the very top:

Clendenen is cut from this mold. Now 38, he came of age when the religious right was at its apex, and he concluded any mix of partisan politics with Christianity was toxic for the church. He said evangelicals are partly responsible for the backlash against them because of the hateful language some used in the marriage debates. "I don't see the LGBT community as my enemy," he said.  

Kellner continues, along the line of his initial thoughts:

What is Clendenen's background? Where'd he go to school? What does he believe the Bible says on the issues? He may not see the LGBT community as his "enemy" (should any of us?) but does he accept same-sex marriage, and if not, why not?

Here's one other final observation, the kind of thing that veteran religion-beat pros -- like Ross and Kellner -- will often note.

You see, the piece contained one piece of information that appears to be out of date (and thus, perhaps, inaccurate). But this raises a question: When was this piece completed? Reporters often finish work, turn it in, and watch anxiously while editors wait, wait, wait to run it.

Is that what happened here? You see at one point the story notes:

"Nobody would have guessed the pace of change. That's why so many people are yelling we have to take our country back," said Ed Stetzer, executive director of Lifeway Research, an evangelical consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee.

Keller noted that he assumes that the veteran AP scribe who wrote this piece reported "this in April and it's been sitting on the shelf for a while. Why? Because it's been three weeks since the widely publicized job change for Ed Stetzer."

In other words, was this reference accurate when the story was filed, but that particular fact has now passed its expiration date?

Friends, that's the kind of editing question that drives reporters crazy.

So, that's Kellner's take. Since we keep hearing from GetReligion readers on this, might there be additional journalism comments worthy of airing in the comments pages?

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