"Church vs. Church in a Town Split by an Immigration Raid," said the headline on a front-page article in Wednesday's New York Times.
That certainly sounds like a religion story.
To its credit, the Times highlights the faith angle right up top and devotes a fair amount of ink to it. There's much to like about this in-depth report. But for a reason I'll explain in a moment — a reason not entirely the newspaper's fault — the piece failed to satisfy me completely.
Before I get into that, though, let's start with the strong lede:
MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — In the days after immigration agents raided a dusty concrete plant on the west side of town, seizing 32 men from Mexico and Central America, the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, got into an impassioned argument on his Facebook page.
“The Bible doesn’t promote helping criminals!!!!” a Trump supporter wrote.
Mr. Hegar answered with Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
The Trump supporter came back with the passage in the Gospel of Mark about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and added for good measure: “Immigration laws are good and Godly! We elected our leaders and God allowed it.”
President Trump’s immigration crackdown has been promoted with biblical righteousness by senior members of his administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And in heartland communities where the president is popular, the crackdown is often debated — by supporters and critics alike — through the lens of Christian morality.
After offering background both on the Iowa town and the national immigration debate, the Times returns to the Bible question:
Mr. Hegar, a Texan who served four years in the Marines before attending a Presbyterian seminary, finally asked the Trump supporter he was debating on Facebook: “Which Scripture do we obey?”
He answered himself: “The one from Jesus to ‘Do unto others’ is what we choose.”
That's good stuff — the kind of excellent detail found in the best journalism.
But here's what kept me from loving this story: There was no strong voice on the other side. The print headline says "Church vs. Church," but really, the Times only profiles the Presbyterian church. Readers never really get a feel for what really makes Christians in Mount Pleasant who support the president's immigration policies tick (for a story that does a better job of that, the Texas Tribune had a good one this week).
Now, is that missing element entirely the Times' fault? Nope.
Here's a breaking news flash: When people won't talk to a reporter, the reporter can't report what they believe.
In this case, the story notes:
Pastors of three leading evangelical churches in Mount Pleasant declined repeated requests over several weeks seeking comment for this article.
Keep reading, and the paper does quote one evangelical pastor — but that pastor gets only two paragraphs. :
One evangelical pastor who did agree to an interview in the days after the raid was Jim Erwin, the head of Wellspring Evangelical Free Church. He said no one from the mainline churches had suggested he raise money; if they had, he said, he might have chipped in.
But Mr. Erwin added that he believed the detentions were justified: “Because they’re breaking the law, I recognize the authorities do need to come in and do that.”
Is that all Erwin said? If so, that's all the Times could report. But did that pastor make any statements about the biblical debate referenced by the paper earlier? If so, why not quote him?
The Times does quote a custodian from the Presbyterian church who supports Trump's immigration policies, and there's another quote from a Facebook user who opposes illegal immigration.
But without a strong voice on the other side, the story ends up feeling slanted and incomplete. Again, that's not necessarily a criticism of the Times, given that the paper seems to have made a strong attempt to talk to pastors on the other side.