Covering a national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention can be a wild ride, even in these days when they "only" draw somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 "messengers" -- not delegates -- from local congregations. Back at the height of the historic SBC battles of the late 1970s and early 1980s, these gatherings would draw around 30,000 and up, hitting a high of 45,519 in Dallas in 1985.
These events are highly organized, but the simple fact is that reporters never know who is going to make it to a microphone and speak his or her mind. It could be a pastor from a tiny church in the middle of nowhere. It could be a former SBC president, who is standing alone but may, symbolically, be speaking for thousands.
You can see this practical, journalistic, issue at work at the top of this Religion News Service report on the meetings that just ended in St. Louis:
(RNS) Southern Baptists are usually the first to defend religious freedom. But when it comes to Muslims, some want to draw a line.
At their annual meeting in St. Louis, an Arkansas pastor said Baptists shouldn’t support the right of Muslims to build mosques, especially “when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans.”
“They are murdering Christians, beheading Christians, imprisoning Christians all over the world,” said John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church in Blytheville, Ark., on Wednesday (June 15).
On Tuesday, Wofford offered a motion calling for the removal from office of SBC leaders who supported the right of Muslims to build mosques. He was referring, among others, to Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which joined a legal document supporting a New Jersey group’s fight to build a mosque.
The chairman of the Committee on Order of Business ruled the motion out of order.
Note the word "some" in that lede.
So what did Moore say in response? Well, if you follow his work in op-eds and speeches, you knew what was coming. See, for example, this piece: "Is Religious Freedom For Non-Christians Too?" Of course, in this age of YouTube you can also watch Moore's response for yourself. It's at the top of this post.
The RNS piece used this Moore quote:
“What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody,” Moore said during a report to Southern Baptists at the St. Louis gathering. “And, brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship, then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.”
And also, after a motion to pull an SBC legal brief backing religious liberty for a Muslim organization:
Moore added: “The answer to Islam is not government power. The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new birth that comes from that.” His remarks drew applause and cheers.
The YouTube era, more often than not, is a pretty good thing for journalism.
The Twitter era? That's more complicated. Consider, for example, this RNS tweet promoting that news piece about this debate during the SBC gathering:
Not only is that tweet stating the opposite of what Moore said, and what the SBC did in its actions at this gathering, it totally twisted what veteran religion-beat reporter Adelle Banks said in her story. She said the status of religious liberty was DEBATED at the convention, but made it clear how this issue was resolved in the end.
To its credit, RNS editors pulled that tweet and sent this out:
From my perspective, it is also crucial that the RNS report allowed some of the religious, theological, language of this SBC debate to make it into print. So many mainstream news accounts of these events fail to do that.
Friends and neighbors, if you cover an SBC event and edit out the language about salvation, evangelism and missions, you are not covering the actual event. It would be like going to the opera and ignoring half the words and all of the music.
You may as well attend a national GOP gathering, or something like that. This is, apparently, what the Associated Press thought was going on in St. Louis. Check out the top of this "Big Story" feature wrapping up SBC 2016:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention has been closely associated with conservative politics for years, but at its annual meeting this week the nation's largest Protestant denomination showed that its concerns are becoming more diverse along with its membership.
Where 20 years ago the convention voted to boycott Disney for promoting homosexuality, on Tuesday, delegates passed a resolution extending love and compassion to the victims of the recent shooting at an Orlando gay night club. The resolution also asked Southern Baptists to donate blood and offer other forms of support.
Southern Baptists haven't changed their belief that sexual relations between same-sex couples are sinful, but it is no longer acceptable to denounce gay people.
Are there political implications to much of what takes place at an SBC gathering? Of course there are. You'd have to be blind not to see that. However, it is just as important to listen to the debates about WHY the convention takes some of the stands that it does.
It was nice of AP, in a piece containing very few attributions for quotes from real people, to note that the SBC has not changed its doctrinal stand on the moral status of sexual acts outside of marriage. It would have been nice, however, to have allowed readers to see a few quotes from actual Southern Baptists describing why they supported one type of action for the powerful people who lead the Disney corporation, yet another set of actions for the LGBT victims of a hateful act of terrorism.
Once again, journalists do not have to AGREE with the theological content of these arguments and decisions. But it is inaccurate, flawed, biased journalism to ignore the religious content of these kinds of events. By the way, this happens when journalists cover liberal, "mainline" Protestant events almost as often as it happens with coverage of doctrinal conservatives.
Here is another example of the AP's politics-only approach to this gathering:
During the eight years that George W. Bush was president, he addressed the annual meeting at least four times. Today, Southern Baptist ethics leader Russell Moore regularly denounces presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as lacking Christian values.
While Trump has advocated a ban on Muslims being admitted to the United States, Southern Baptists on Wednesday passed a resolution encouraging Southern Baptist churches and families to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes.
Once again, where are the voices of the Southern Baptists themselves? The AP leadership saw the SBC leaders taking "progressive" political stands, including several emotional issues linked to race (see earlier Jim Davis post), while I guarantee you that the motions passed because the convention leadership successfully argued that they were applying conservative theological convictions on these matters.
The bottom line: If you are going to cover the Southern Baptist Convention you should listen to the voices of Southern Baptists. The RNS report used the voices of real people. The AP? #Fail