There's little doubt the Rev. Dr. William Barber II has a following that extends well beyond the confines of the Greeleaf Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Goldsboro, N.C., population 35,792 according to a 2017 estimate.
Barber has, for the past decade, organized and led "Moral Monday" protests at the North Carolina state legislature, agitating on issues including health care and immigration. Those protests have generated many arrests, including the 2013 arrest of religion reporter Tim Funk, and have also generated many headlines and features such as the PBS NewsHour clip above.
The pastor was recently the subject of a Washington Post profile that was exceptionally complimentary and uncritical. The basic journalism question here: Was this news or public relations? Can anyone imagine a conservative minister, from a doctrinally conservative flock, receiving this kind of glowing coverage in the public square?
Forget the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., it is Barber who's on track to build a true "moral majority," according to the paper:
Then Barber, an imposing 6-foot-2 with the frame of the high school football player he once was, quickly pivots from Jesus to present-day politics. ...
You can see it, he says, “when they deny the God-given humanity and the human rights of individuals and then stack the courts to protect themselves and their power and then put pornographic sums of money into the political structure in order to dominate it. I can tell you, Caesar still lives.”
Nearly 200 parishioners crowded into the pews punctuate Barber’s high notes with shouts and “Amens!” All who are able rise to their feet.
But the reverend’s message is not just directed at the enthused people in the sanctuary. A cameraman stationed in the middle of the church is beaming Barber’s sermon to some 20,000 people watching on Facebook Live. For some it’s good church from an eloquent and experienced pastor. But others in this vast virtual audience on Easter Sunday are seeking a different kind of resurrection. Barber’s mix of piety and politics, they believe, may just breathe new life and leadership into America’s political left in time to defeat the agenda of President Trump.
At this point, allow me to quote National Religious Broadcasters spokesman -- and Southern Baptist Convention pastor -- James A. Smith, Sr., via Twitter:
Smith's comment -- with which you may or may not agree -- is the kind of critical voice missing from the Post profile. And Smith is a veteran press-relations professional. You know that he could be a link to other critics, for a reporter seeking diverse voices on this topic.
The newspaper is quite happy to praise this politically active pastor, and not bury him:
More than one person has made the connection between Barber and another fiery southern preacher who, like Barber, deftly mixed religious parables with the uniquely American promises found in the nation’s founding documents. “William Barber is the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst,” said Cornel West, the well-known Princeton professor and author.
Barber’s admirers say his sermons and speeches, which have intertwined the religious tenets of love, justice and mercy that exist in all faiths with an American vision of morality baked into the Constitution, steal the moral high ground long claimed by political conservatives.
But is there anyone concerned about what Barber is doing? Anyone questioning how much he's pastoring versus politicking? The Post happily admits Barber's time is rationed:
On that Easter Sunday, after preaching about Jesus and Caesar, Barber doesn’t stay long after church. He greets parishioners who stop by his office, occasionally reclining on a high stool.
Then, he’s off to a week of travel and speaking engagements. He’s established this rhythm over the last few years: On Sunday, he tends to his flock; on weekdays, he mobilizes his movement.
How do Barber's parishioners feel about that?
We don't really know, except for a passing comment from one congregational leader about the leap of faith Barber and Greenleaf took when it committed to an urban renewal project:
It was a risk, said John Barnes, a deacon at the church who left his job with the public school system to head Greenleaf’s nonprofit community development corporation. The church has only about 400 members, less than half of whom show up every week. Investing in low-income housing or a community center would take away money that could help renovate Greenleaf, or at least fix its aging sound system.
What’s more, the church would have to take out government loans to go through such an ambitious plan. “Some members felt we shouldn’t do it and they left,” Barnes said.
As is too often the case in stories examined here in GetReligion-land, none of those departed members are heard from -- if they oppose the hero of the story. There's no discussion of any criticism of what Barber has done and is doing relative to the task of running a local church congregation.
On one level, I can understand that: A newspaper profile generally isn't meant to be a comprehensive appraisal of a subject's entire life and work. But when the subject is a high-profile individual whose work bridges pulpit and politics, a little examination wouldn't be a bad thing.
Unless the newspaper or the reporter have already decided whether or not the profile subject is a hero. In that case, let the hagiography begin!
Again: Try to imagine a Post story about a conservative pastor who has critics inside his or her own flock and zero attempt is made to talk with them.
I could be totally wrong here, of course. But this article ran 2,500 words (as counted by Microsoft Word) and there's nothing -- not a syllable -- asking any serious questions that might challenge what Barber says and does. There are no critics quoted, no current doubts raised, nor is Barber asked about the kind of church-state issues that have dogged more conservative-minded clergy.
While it is true, as my GetReligion predecessor Jim Davis noted, that the Post two years ago ran a relatively benign piece about the Rev. Franklin Graham seeking prayers to change the mind of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the subject of same-sex marriage, I doubt the paper would run a thoroughly uncritical appraisal of Graham these days. Does prominent Trump ally Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas have critics inside his denomination and his own flock? Of course, and you know the Post team would find them in a story about his work (with good cause).
To be clear, the Post. its editors and its writers have the right to feature whom they wish and to laud those folks as much as they want. But it would be helpful, even with the most worthwhile of profile subjects, for a few critical questions to be asked. For a paper that has made much of its commitment to reporting that challenges the establishment, questioning its heroes as well as its presumed "villains" would be a good thing.
FIRST IMAGE: The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, image captured from a PBS NewsHour video.