Ongoing drama of Southern Baptists and race: Who was there to cover alt-right debate in Phoenix?

For quite a few hours now, the most popular article at The Atlantic website has been Emma Green's strategic piece with this double-decker headline: 

A Resolution Condemning White Supremacy Causes Chaos at the Southern Baptist Convention
At its annual meeting, the evangelical denomination initially declined to consider a statement of its opposition to the alt-right.

Look for this right there on the website's front page, under the advertisement for "The Handmaid's Tale."

I'm waiting for the update on that timely piece and I have no doubt that it's on the way. It appears to me that her piece was a key domino in this coverage.

It has been a remarkable day, watching journalists tune into the 2017 gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. Better late than never. In this day of tight travel budgets, and fewer slots for trained religion-beat professionals, it's appears that there are few journalistic boots on the ground there in Phoenix (see Julia Duin post here), in terms of mainstream media.

But you know what? It's hard to tell, with the SBC streaming the main proceedings and with a waterfall of #SBC17 tweets pointing reporters, those with the eyes to see, to all kinds of voices and perspectives.

The pre-convention buzz centered on the fate of the Rev. Russell Moore, leader of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Instead, the story of the convention turned out to be a bumbling, but ultimately convicting, SBC effort to deal with race and one of the hottest of hot-button labels in current American life -- "alt-right." The end result was a major win for the convention and, in particular, the SBC's growing number of black church leaders -- who are among Moore's strongest supporters.

Moore stood to deliver a sure-fire soundbite for the night. Look for this in news coverage tomorrow.

Basically, he said the resolution in question has a number on it -- 10. Then he added that the alt-right has a number on it -- 666.

So what was the truly crucial material in the Atlantic piece? Here is the overture:

Leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention were divided over a resolution affirming the denomination’s opposition to white supremacy and the alt-right during their annual meeting in Phoenix this week. On Tuesday, they initially declined to consider the proposal submitted by a prominent black pastor in Texas, Dwight McKissic, and only changed course after a significant backlash. The drama over the resolution revealed deep tension lines within a denomination that was explicitly founded to support slavery.
A few weeks before the meeting was slated to start, McKissic published his draft resolution on a popular Southern Baptist blog called SBC Voices. The language was strong and pointed.
It affirmed that “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing.” It identified this “toxic menace” as white nationalism and the alt-right, and urged the denomination to oppose its “totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.” It claimed that the origin of white supremacy in Christian communities is a once-popular theory known as the “curse of Ham,” which taught that “God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos” and was used as justification for slavery and segregation. The resolution called on the denomination to denounce nationalism and “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘alt-right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system.”

The emphasis on the SBC's roots in the Civil War was understandable and accurate.

However, there was one crucial note missing. In an era in which SBC numbers -- especially baptisms and membership -- have been in a slow decline, the convention has also been seeing rising numbers among its ethnic churches. It's a crucial power bloc -- in this case "power" means several things -- that SBC leaders know will only grow in importance in the future.

The current estimate is that about 20 percent of SBC worshippers are non-white and that number is headed up. While reporters have reason to talk about white Southern Baptists, they may want to compare SBC numbers on race and ethnicity with those of many more "progressive" flocks (like these Episcopal Church stats).

The Atlantic piece did offer this:

Over the last several years, the Southern Baptist Convention has made “racial reconciliation” one of its priorities, building on work begun in 1995 when it first apologized for its role in sustaining and promoting slavery. In 2015, the denomination passed a resolution supporting racial reconciliation, and in 2016, it called on Christians to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag.
But to many in the denomination, any progress was significantly undermined by the 2016 election. With 81 percent of white evangelicals supporting Trump, African Americans in particular felt like they had been betrayed.

While it's easy to debate a few points in this article, I think it is yet another example of what happens when editors allow religion-beat professionals to do their job. And I say that without knowing, for sure, whether Green was on the ground in Phoenix or not.

The dominos started falling, in coverage that was -- I think even Southern Baptists would agree -- remarkably solid.

As I write this post, the evolving coverage of this issue at The Washington Post has been updated to reflect the night's events. I won't comment much on that, since the reporter behind the coverage is former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. The opening of the early-evening piece:

A Southern Baptist Convention proposal to condemn a white nationalist group was passed and received a standing ovation during the convention’s annual meeting Wednesday after the denomination saw fierce backlash when it looked like it wasn’t going to go to a vote.
After a day of chaos over whether the proposal would see the convention floor, Southern Baptist leaders worked on the language of the proposal late Tuesday night. On Wednesday, about 5,000 Southern Baptists seemed to vote overwhelmingly positive on the resolution condemning the alt-right movement -- a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. The debate over the resolution highlights the many divisions within the denomination around the election of President Trump, which put the spotlight on white supremacists among his supporters.
Just before the proposal was passed, one member asked Southern Baptist leaders whether a study of the “alt right and the alt left” could be done this year. But then several Southern Baptists stood before the convention urging the convention to adopt the resolution before it passed.

On my computer screen, I saw few votes against the resolution. The one amendment only made the language stronger, calling the alt-right a "scheme" of Satan.

Over at CNN, there was this headline early in the evening (just ahead of the vote): "After high drama, Southern Baptists denounce the 'alt-right'." I won't address the details of that one, since it was written by a former student of mine at Palm Beach Atlantic University and the Washington Journalism Center. I will say that this reporter speaks fluent Southern Baptist.

Now I am watching for the Associated Press update. Surely, the national news desk dispatched a regional reporter to get over to the convention center to gather some dateline-friendly material for a story by the religion-beat pro?

But stop and think about that: We live in an age when the national gathering of America's largest Protestant flock doesn't receive on-site coverage from AP, even with controversial (even kind of political!) issues on the docket.

Thank God for streaming video.

I kind of mean that. But, trust your GetReligionistas: We all know that the SBC is one giant octopus of an event that deserves live coverage. Some reporters need to be there.

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