When I was the religion-beat pro in Charlotte in the early 1980s -- first at The Charlotte News and then at The Charlotte Observer, as well -- the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war was coming to a head.
Charlotte was and is a great religion town. When one of your main drags is the Billy Graham Parkway, you live in a town that gets religion.
When I was there, Charlotte was the only major city south of the Mason-Dixon Line in which there were more Presbyterians (several brands of those, however) than there were Baptists. The town was also a power center for the "moderate" Southern Baptists who turned out to be on the losing side of the great SBC showdown with those preaching "biblical inerrancy."
I spoke fluent Southern Baptist, since I grew up the home of a well-connected Southern Baptist pastor in Texas. I was ordained as a Southern Baptist deacon when I was 27 years old. In the Charlotte news market -- in which I urgently attempted to cover both sides of the SBC war -- some local conservatives concluded that I was a liberal.
Then I moved to Denver, which was a fading liberal mainline Protestant town in a region that was evolving into a power center for evangelicals. I did my best to cover both of those camps fairly and accurately and the old powers that be soon concluded I was some kind of Bible Belt fundamentalist, or something.
Why bring this up? Because there is a fascinating passage in a recent Washington Post "Acts of Faith" newsletter that, for me, called these experiences to mind.
But first, what is this newsletter thing? It's digital, but it's not really an online thing. The Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein use it as an email platform for sharing insights behind the news. Since your GetReligionistas just love that kind of info, I think everybody should sign up for this digital newsletter.
So here is the URL for this edition of the newsletter. Go to the end and there's a place to manage Post online newsletters and features.
Now, back to the SBC material, from Boorstein, that reminded me of the old Charlotte days:
In the last couple weeks the Post religion team has been unusually focused on Southern Baptists, as one of the giants in their movement fell from power dramatically because of various comments and actions related to women. Longtime seminary president Paige Patterson lost his job and benefits after a video surfaced of him preaching that he'd advised an abused wife who came to him for help to pray and not leave the abuser, along with an e-mail in which he reportedly told seminary security officials he wanted to meet alone with a female student who alleged she’d been raped so he could “break her down.”
A couple readers responded on Facebook and Twitter to these stories in a way I suspect may resonate with many of you. One self-described evangelical man wrote on Facebook to a Post religion reporter that he’d “hate” to see her focus on “always exposing moral failure in our (too often failing) movement." Another wrote on Twitter: “How many truly believe that the WAPO, or any other secular media source, have our best interests at heart?”
In both cases, conservative Christians quickly responded that journalists had helped “their movement” by exposing problems that were long hidden.
Here's the phrase that hit home in my memory banks: "have our best interests at heart."
The question, of course, is this -- who is this "our" group?
At the moment, there are all kinds of Southern Baptists who are involved in debates about how to handle the legal, moral and theological questions linked to domestic violence, sexual abuse and other related issues. There are very, very, very theologically conservative women and men who are aligned with both sides in the debates about some of the actions taken (or in some cases alleged to have been taken) by Patterson and other members of the old-guard SBC.
When it comes to SBC tensions, right now, which "our" are we talking about here?
My point is that old-school, American Model of the Press reporters are sincerely trying to listen to voices on both sides and quote their statements accurately.
However, here is the bottom line: There are SBC people who want these painful stories covered and there are those who do not. Some people want to see good journalism done and some oppose coverage of these issues, period. And, yes, there are always people who will try to manipulate the press.
But as I have said many times here at GetReligion: If your goal is good journalism, then journalism will be improved by people who love it, not by those who hate it.
Back to Boorstein:
Journalists are driven by news. Often that is defined by: conflict, change, newness, drama, or the extremely high value we place on holding the powerful accountable. But another, equally important part of our job is to simply understand how religious identity and belief drive humans. And we know people feel protective of their faith tribe, however you define it. It’s not like journalists are immune from tribal feelings.
However we have to do our best to focus on stories that are revelatory about our era, and that affect a sweep of people -- especially people who are disenfranchised and may not have another outlet for their stories. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant group (and the second-largest faith group overall) in the United States.
In other words, how do reporters avoid covering the shifting lines of conflict inside the various SBC tribes? How do you ignore that, if you are a religion-beat professional?
Read it all. And click that URL and sign up. Then give lots of feedback to the Post team. They want it and they deserve a chance to hear from readers who love journalism.