Once again, I feel the need to respond to some emails requesting my take on a sad, but rather interesting, feature story at CNN.
The headline is certainly a grabber, one that wouldn't be surprising at a "conservative" news outlet or two (or more). But it's news, sort of, when CNN is the prime MSM outlet that goes with this: "Hillary Clinton's pastor plagiarized portion of new book."
This is actually a strong feature story, even though -- as readers stressed -- it includes a sort of "this wasn't really all that big a deal" coda. What is looming in the background is a rarely discussed trend, which is that lots of preachers (past and present) have a tendency to quote all kinds of people without getting into the details about sources. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.
So back to that CNN report. Here is the overture:
(CNN) Hillary Clinton's longtime pastor plagiarized the writings of another minister in a new book scheduled to be released on Tuesday.
"Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," is based on emails that the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist minister, wrote to Clinton from April 2015 through December of last year. Shillady described his emails as a way to minister to a candidate in perpetual motion.
The pastor and politician formed a spiritual bond after meeting in New York in 2002. Shillady co-officiated at Chelsea Clinton's wedding in 2010, presided over Clinton's mother's memorial service and blessed her grandchildren. Clinton is a lifelong Methodist.
Clinton appears on the cover of "Strong for a Moment Like This," and wrote a foreword for the book praising Shillady and his writings. She is scheduled to appear at an event next month in New York promoting the book. A spokesman for Clinton did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The key, however, is that Shillady failed to credit the source for some material that ended up in what CNN called an "especially emotional devotion." The source was a March 2016 blog post by the Rev. Matthew Deuel of Mission Point Community Church in Indiana.
The CNN feature -- by religion-beat veteran Daniel Burke -- is unusually specific about the details. I appreciated this careful, precise, section:
... Deuel contacted a CNN reporter, saying some paragraphs in Shillady's writings appeared to be "inspired" by a blog post he wrote in March 2016.
For example, Deuel wrote: "For the disciples and Christ followers in the first century, Good Friday represented the day that everything fell apart. All was lost. The momentum and hope of a man, claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah who was supposed to change everything, had been executed.
Shillady's email to Clinton, published in his book, says: "For the disciples and Christ's followers in the first century, Good Friday represented the day that everything fell apart. All was lost. The momentum and hope of a man claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah who was supposed to change everything, had been executed."
Likewise, Deuel wrote: "Death will be shattered. Hope will be restored. Redemption is coming. But first, we must live through the darkness and seeming hopelessness of Friday."
Shillady's email to Clinton, published in his book, says: "Death will be shattered. Hope will be restored. But first, we must live through the darkness and seeming hopelessness of Friday."
Oh, the Internet is a dangerous place to read, click that copy button on a computer mouse, and then forget when and where you read this or that. As in:
"I do not remember cutting and pasting from a particular column so much as bits and pieces from a variety of places on the Internet," Shillady told CNN. ...
In a later statement, Shillady apologized to Deuel. ...
Deuel said he was "shocked" when he read Shillady's email to Clinton posted on CNN.com. But amid turmoil in the United States and elsewhere, the pastor said he is "not interested in publicly pursuing anything."
"The last thing the world needs right now is two pastors having a public dispute over a blog. The reality is, there's nothing new under the sun."
This brings us to the wider issue that, frankly, more journalists need to explore -- plagiarism in the pulpit (digital or analog). For example, was Deuel actually quoting sources of his own? Burke notes:
Indeed, many Christian ministers have used the phrase "It's Friday, but Sunday is coming," to contrast the sorrows of life with the despair and joy of the Christian apostles. Deuel said his column was inspired by a sermon by the Rev. S.M. Lockridge from the 1950s.
Wait a minute! You mean the original source isn't the sermon that the Rev. Tony Campolo -- a sociologist by trade, but a lion of the evangelical left -- has preached for decades when visiting just about every Christian college chapel service in the United States of America (and plenty of other places around the world)?
Campolo's constant use of that image has become a kind of in-joke for generations of Christian college professors. Walk up to the next Christian college professor you meet and say, "It's Friday!" and they will almost certainly laugh and recite the familiar Campolo anecdote.
So is this just an Internet era thing? Certainly not. There are even academic experts who study this kind of thing and, thus, make great reading and quoting for religion-beat pros. Here's how I opened an "On Religion" column on this topic in 2003.
One thing great preachers enjoy about traveling is that they can hear other people preach.
But the American orator A.J. Gordon received a shock during an 1876 visit to England. Sitting anonymously in a church, he realized that the sermon sounded extremely familiar -- because he wrote it.
"The man in the pulpit was reading it verbatim without saying a word about the source. After the service, Gordon introduced himself and we can just imagine the pastor's reaction," said the Rev. Scott Gibson, director of the Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.
Perhaps the pastor read one of Gordon's books or found the sermon in a journal. He might have lifted it from a major newspaper, because it was common in those days for sermons to be published in Monday editions.
But the preacher never thought the author would cross the Atlantic and land in one of his own pews, said Gibson, who is studying the history of plagiarism in preaching.
So, are religious leaders supposed to just let this stuff pass? Is it really a wink, wink, "there's nothing new under the sun" situation? Are there different standards for preachers who, like journalists, face lots of pressure and deadlines.
Gibson added this memorable quote:
"Some people think the World Wide Web came along and suddenly you had thousands of pastors copying other people's sermons with a few clicks of a mouse. But there has always been a lot of laziness out there.
"Preachers get busy and they run out of time and then they just plain steal."
This was a solid CNN feature. I hope we see more reporting on this important topic.