When a sermon goes viral: Pastor finds himself in middle of social media storm over Kavanaugh

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I don’t believe I’ve ever met the Rev. Bob Long, even though my time as religion editor for The Oklahoman overlapped with his tenure as pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.

But I know his voice.

For years, I’ve heard Long on the radio, often while driving to work. Long is a mini-celebrity here in Oklahoma, known for inspirational radio messages that include cheerful music and a quick life lesson from the pastor.

“That’s something to think about,” he concludes each 60-second segment. “I’m Bob Long with St. Luke’s Methodist Church.”

This week, Long has gained notoriety for a different reason — for a sermon in which he put the face of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on his church’s big screens.

As The Oklahoman’s Carla Hinton (who succeeded me as religion editor in 2002) reported on Wednesday’s front page, a social media storm erupted with a tweet from a churchgoer who was not pleased with Long’s choice of optics:

The church posted both written and video messages from Long apologizing for the hurt feelings his sermon caused:

In the video, Long characterized the sermon as part of a series on dealing with incivility and outrage in modern America.

“It wasn't a sermon that was supposed to be dealing with (Kavanaugh) or about the issues of sexual abuse,” he said. “It was a sermon to deal with the incivility in society at this time.”

Hinton (full disclosure: my former colleague and I remain friends) has built a well-deserved reputation in Oklahoma for fair and factual reporting on the religion beat. Her latest story is no exception, as she gives both Long and the woman who posted the tweet ample space to explain their perspectives. (Online, the paper publishes full statements from Long and Nicole Nelson-Iven.)

The Oklahoman’s lede:

The Rev. Bob Long said he's sure that his recent message on the need for more civility will probably be "the-most-listened-to sermon" of his 27-year career as leader of a prominent Oklahoma congregation.

But not necessarily for the reasons he intended.

Long, senior minister of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, showed a picture of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh during his sermon at the church's contemporary service on Sunday. In doing so, he quickly found himself in the middle of the fiery national debate about whether or not Kavanaugh is guilty of attempting sexually assaulting a woman in his youth in Maryland.

The word “attempting” was not in the print version of the story. I’m not certain of the reason that it was added, but whoever did it must have done so quickly because the sentence hasn’t been fully edited.

In any case, here is some of what Nelson-Iven told the paper:

In a statement to The Oklahoman, she said: "I have received an apology for the insensitivity of the sermon. However, I want to be clear that this is not only about my personal feelings. I am more concerned with the problematic ongoing assumptions held in our society and even in our places of worship about the unbelievability of women and sexual assault survivors.

"Instead of apologies or attempts to defend the message on the claim of 'misunderstanding context,' I hope this incident will spark a conversation that helps all of us listen to each other and do better. A true apology isn't words but rather better behavior moving forward."

In the video, Long noted that he uses a variety of pictures — about 10 to 15 per sermon — to illustrate his message. But he said he failed to appreciate the “incredible, visceral response” that Kavanaugh’s face would evoke in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation. He said he didn’t “take into account the sensitivity of how deeply the feelings were running in our country” and how hard it would be for some people to separate any mention of Kavanaugh from those feelings.

I’ve experienced a small taste of that myself: A dear friend contacted me last week to voice concerns about Twitter posts concerning the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing that I had “liked.” I tried to explain to my friend that I was “liking” tweets — across the spectrum — as a way of bookmarking them for reference as I put together a GetReligion post.

But as my friend saw it, I had exposed myself as someone uncaring about the feelings of women who have experienced sexual assaults. I’m not sure my explanation satisfied her. I have written about the #ChurchToo movement and noted on Twitter my wife’s experience with sexual harassment during her time as a journalist. Bottom line: I am trying my best to understand my friend’s concerns and be sensitive to them.

Back to the Rev. Long: Hinton’s story noted that the pastor was pleased with the way the Washington Post (in a roundup by religion writer Julie Zauzmer) quoted from his sermon. This is part of what Zauzmer referenced:

So what is the truth? It’s according to who you ask because everybody seems to have an opinion of what is the truth, and they’re opposite of one another, and they are so strong in their beliefs. We will probably learn more. I don’t know. What I know is in the framework of how we’re dealing with the issue, we seem to have lost a sense of civility.

As Long himself might say, that’s something to think about.

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