Sometimes the best way to cover an address -- or a sermon -- by a very controversial figure is to set out to accomplish one basic, but essential task.
Just. Quote. What. Was. Said.
In this case, if there are people who will be angered by this controversial Southern Baptist preacher's words, then quoting the text accurately and at length will probably make them angry. Can I hear an "Amen"?
At the same time, quoting his words at length -- in context, with minimal editorial framing -- will probably please the preacher's supporters. Of course, there are plenty of preachers who won't be happy with what journalists write, no matter what. That's just the way things go, sometimes.
This brings us to Sarah "Yes, she used to be a GetReligionista" Pulliam Bailey's quick take in The Washington Post on the pre-inauguration sermon by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the lightning-rod (for pretty much everyone, including many young evangelicals) leader of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.
This sermon was delivered in the small sanctuary of St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the White House. It was not a major media event and, thus, it is significant that the digital version of the Post report ends with the verbatim text of the sermon. Bravo.
After offering a lede that stated the obvious (but didn't drown readers in venom, like CNN) -- Jeffress has a "history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays" -- Bailey launched into a combination of direct quotes and paraphrases that let Jeffress speak for himself. The political angles were highlighted, but not pounded into the reader's head with a mallet. Thus, readers learned that Jeffress:
... compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel.
Israel had been in bondage for decades, Jeffress explained, and the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God did not choose a politician or a priest but chose a builder instead. The first step of rebuilding the nation, Jeffress said, was the building of a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack.
Yes, that led to the Jeffress quote that will show up in each and every media report that mentions this sermon: “You see, God is not against building walls."
What Bailey demonstrated, however, was that the preacher unfolded this biblical story into a metaphor in several other ways. This is, needless to say, tricky business and sure to offend many and raise the spirits of others. This is also easy material to screw up in a news story.
Nehemiah, according to the biblical account, completed the project in 52 days. Why was Nehemiah so successful in building the wall and rebuilding the nation? Jeffress said that Nehemiah refused to allow his critics to distract him, noting how some people still don’t believe Trump will succeed in his agenda.
Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said. “They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”
He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. ... Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”
Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens. “The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said. “And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”
This is, of course, a lot of sermon material to include in a news story. But this was not your normal sermon, in a normal setting on a normal day.
It was good that the Post let Bailey show readers several layers of the message. They could read what was there and make up their own minds.
That's a radical idea, I know, but journalists can give it a try every now and then.