"Pastor's message: Vouchers are evil."
OK, Dallas Morning News, you've got my attention with that front-page, above-the-fold Sunday headline.
Spoiler alert: The newspaper never gets around to explaining why the pastor believes vouchers are evil.
But believe or not, that unanswered question is not even the most frustrating part of this Page 1 profile: That would be the story's failure to specify whether the pastor in question -- whom the Dallas newspaper three times describes as a Southern Baptist -- actually still leads a Southern Baptist congregation.
Or is the pastor -- Charlie Johnson -- a former Southern Baptist, a la Jimmy Carter? More on that question in a moment.
First, though, let's back up and consider the lede:
AUSTIN -- Quoting Bible verses and calling the school vouchers proposal by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other lawmakers “sinful,” Fort Worth minister Charli Johnson has been driving feverishly round the state before the March 6 primary.
At rallies and impromptu meetings arranged by friendly school superintendents with local ministers, the longtime Southern Baptist preacher delivers a fiery message on behalf of public schools. His get-out-the-vote crusade has irritated GOP state leaders and staunchly conservative activists who favor using tax dollars o help parents of children enrolled in public schools pay to attend private schools.
Johnson, pastor of the small, interracial Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, does not mince words. Christians have an obligation to embrace public schools as a social good, especially for poor children, he says.
As he said in a sharp exchange with a leading House voucher proponent at a legislative hearing just over a year ago, “You have the right to home-school your children. You have the right to ‘private school’ your children. You don’t have the right to ask the people of Texas to pay for it.”
Let's see: The piece opens with a reference to Bible verses that Johnson uses to characterize vouchers as "sinful." As I kept reading, can you guess what I was expecting to see? That's right -- I assumed the paper would mention a specific verse or two to help readers understand the theological case that the pastor makes.
More background: Johnson's Pastors for Texas Children group supports candidates aligned with retiring Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican whom the Dallas Morning News editorial board recently named "Texan of the Year." The front-page profile declares that the pastors group is fighting for control of the House, "the last bastion of moderation in state politics."
The profile itself is generally glowing, at times bordering on breathless. It's difficult to imagine such a positive, unskeptical treatment of a conservative pastor by the Dallas paper. But I digress.
Back to the Southern Baptist question: The paper seems intent on portraying Johnson as a different kind of Southern Baptist. Except that -- for those who read closely -- the article gives the distinct impression that Johnson may not even be Southern Baptist anymore. That's an important distinction, right?
From the story:
Pastors for Texas Children “is a pro-abortion heretic and a fraud,” tweeted Deer Park GOP Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Freedom Caucus member. On Facebook, Sullivan called Johnson “Pastor Creepo.”
In two more recent email blasts, he said Johnson “was kicked out of his denomination for his liberal views” and runs a “fake ‘pastor’ group” that’s a “radical leftist organization.” Bedford Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland, another Freedom Caucus member, replied to Johnson on Twitter, “You don’t care one bit about children. You care only about $$$ and perpetuating a broken system. Fraud.”
Johnson said his group takes no position on abortion. Because Baptist congregations are autonomous, Sullivan’s assertion that he was “kicked out” of the denomination “is not theologically possible,” he said.
Ri-i-i-ght. Because Baptist regional associations never expel congregations over theological disputes ... (Yes, that link is to a previous story in the Dallas Morning News.)
Later in the story, there's this:
Though Johnson earlier was pastor of 6,000-member Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio and 2,000-member Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, the Bread Fellowship he launched in 2010 is different. Starting with six people in a Bible study, it has grown to 100 “partners.” Modeling itself after the early Christian church described in the New Testament, it doesn’t own property. In three separate groups, it meets in small, borrowed spaces in various Fort Worth neighborhoods.
Bread Fellowship has ties to more theologically moderate groups that were spun off the Southern Baptist Convention, as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination was swayed in recent decades by pastors and churches who argued that the Bible is “inerrant” -- that is, literally true. Johnson’s flock has formed partnerships with the Fort Worth school district's De Zavala Elementary and Metro Opportunity High.
First of all, it's interesting that Bread Fellowship doesn't have "Baptist" in its church name. That, of course, is no indication of whether it is or isn't affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Among other prominent congregations in this non-denominational era, the Fellowship Church megachurch in Grapevine, Texas, where Ed Young Jr. preaches, does not advertise its Southern Baptist affiliation.
But the story's reference to Bread Fellowship's affiliation with groups spun off the Southern Baptist Convention (I'm assuming the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is one of them) makes it sound like the congregation is not tied to the Southern Baptist Convention. If that's the case, is it really accurate to describe Johnson as a Southern Baptist pastor?
Now, Texas is a rather complex place, when it comes to Southern Baptist life. For example, Texas does have two competing state conventions (click here for the conservatives and then here for the "moderates"), each made up of congregations with long histories of Southern Baptist life.
There does seem to be a Bread Fellowship in the more progressive Baptist General Convention of Texas, but -- interestingly enough -- the convention's website does not list Johnson as its pastor.
Perhaps there needs to be some clarity here? Perhaps someone needed to ask a few follow-up questions? For example, who allegedly tossed Johnson -- as an individual person -- out of Southern Baptist life?
For some reason, asking these kind of questions always makes me long for the days when the Dallas Morning News had multiple full-time religion writers. Today, of course, the paper has no one devoted to the Godbeat. Yes, in one of America's most important cities, when it comes to large and powerful religious congregations and organizations.
In stories such as this, that journalistic gap is all too obvious.