With Southern Baptists meeting in the Big D this week, religion is suddenly front-page news again in the Dallas Morning News.
As regular GetReligion readers know, the Dallas newspaper once boasted an all-star team of religion writers. For years, those Godbeat pros produced top-caliber journalism both on the front page and in an award-winning weekly special section.
But in more recent times, the Morning News — which no longer has a full-time religion writer — has struggled mightily in its coverage of faith, sometimes embarrassingly so.
Which leads me to discussion of the lead Page 1 story in Sunday's Dallas paper:
Like many major news organizations across the nation, the Morning News reported on the debate over the role of women in the Southern Baptist Convention. That's certainly a timely and appropriate angle, even a mandatory one for the Bible Belt city hosting this much-discussed meeting.
But see if you notice anything strange in this lede:
Growing up in the 1960s, Ted Elmore considered the turmoil that roiled a generation to be a spiritual cry for help.
Now a prayer strategist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, he sees growing pains of another sort.
As the national organization prepares to gather in Dallas for its annual meeting this week, the #MeToo movement has made its presence felt firsthand among Baptists.
Leaders and congregants are debating the role of women in ministry. Prominent Baptists are speaking out against some of the most deeply held beliefs of the denomination. Paige Patterson, once a glorified leader enshrined in a stained-glass portrait, has been removed from key roles in a controversy over his treatment of women.
"This convention," Elmore said, "will likely be a turning point in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Don't get me wrong: It's not a terrible opening. In fact, in some ways, it sets the scene quite nicely. But if the story is about the place of Southern Baptist women, why not quote a woman — if not in the opening paragraphs, at least somewhere in the story?
The only woman quoted in the story is a religion scholar who is not identified as Southern Baptist:
Don't expect any seismic shifts, however. Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists, after all.
Other church leaders and observers say most of the dialogue likely will be a confirmation of the denomination's commitment to the Bible's "inerrancy," or absolute truth. That includes a theology of “complementarianism,” which places men and women in separate roles and reinforces patriarchal authority, said Karen Seat, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona.
Am I being too hard on the writer? I hope not. The journalist is someone I've praised in the past.
My criticism is meant mainly for the newspaper itself, which offers surface-level religion coverage (see Monday's front-page report on the Harvest America event featuring pastor Greg Laurie) in lieu of hiring an experienced, full-time religion writer who could delve much deeper into such debates.
The lack of institutional knowledge shows, too, in a reference to the Southern Baptist timeline:
In the 1980s, conservative SBC leaders including Patterson orchestrated a systematic takeover of the convention’s leadership. Throughout the decade, Patterson fought against more moderate members in what supporters called the “conservative resurgence.”
Actually, the key meeting for the takeover (or "takeback," as some preferred to call it) occurred in 1979 in Houston.
As for women's voices, they are prevalent in some of the excellent coverage being produced by full-time Godbeat pros:
• Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein have owned this story and wrote a front-page piece for the Washington Post on "How women led to the dramatic rise and fall of Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson."
• CNN religion editor Daniel Burke quotes Southern Baptist women in his SBC annual meeting preview headlined "Wave of scandals confront Southern Baptists."
• And Religion News Service national reporter Adelle M. Banks quotes women — including Paige Patterson's wife, Dorothy — in her story on SBC events in Dallas on Monday.
Women figure prominently, too, in the advance by Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigative reporter Sarah Smith. Like its Dallas rival, the Star-Telegram has no full-time religion writer. But Smith has been following the Patterson story for weeks and quickly has become a force on the beat — and a must-follow Twitter account.