'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

"This is truly, truly an awful story to report,” tweeted a Dallas Morning News sportswriter involved in the coverage of a child sexual abuse charge against former baseball star John Wetteland.

Actually, it’s beyond awful.

It’s sickening, especially for a diehard Texas Rangers fan like myself who remembers cheering for Wetteland and appreciating his focus on his Christian faith.

According to the Dallas newspaper, the former closer is accused of sexually abusing a young child:

Wetteland, 52, is accused of continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14, according to Denton County jail records. The Trophy Club resident posted $25,000 bond and was released from custody the same day as his arrest.

He had forced a young relative to perform a sex act on him, according to the arrest warrant affidavit, beginning in 2004 when the child was just four years old.

The abuse occurred at Wetteland's home in Bartonville, the affidavit stated. It happened twice more over a two-year period, the victim said.

And sadly, there is a strong and absolutely relevant religion angle as Wetteland — who was the 1996 World Series MVP while pitching for the New York Yankees — is well-known for touting his Christian beliefs.

“Wetteland Is Just a Closer Who Walks With the Lord,” declared a 1995 New York Times sports column.

That column opened this way:

John Wetteland is drinking coffee from a large mug with the words "Jesus Lives" emblazoned across it in big, black letters. He grins and nods when someone comments on the mug. His Bible is resting on a shelf in his locker and he has a personal computer at his disposal so he can retrieve morning devotionals from an on-line program and pray before the Yankees begin another day of baseball.

"I honestly try and walk with Jesus Christ every day," he said, describing his most important relationship, more important than his relationship with his wife.

Obviously, the facts of the criminal case are the most important element of the news reports on Wetteland’s arrest.

Since we deal in the nitty-gritty of religion reporting, though, I am interested in the characterization of Wetteland — in most news reports I’ve seen — as a “born-again Christian.” That term seemed to be much more prevalent in the media four-plus decades ago. That’s when Jimmy Carter first burst onto the national political scene. I don’t hear “born-again” nearly as often these days. “Evangelical” is a much more widely used description in the 21st century.

But here is how the Morning News refers to Wetteland’s religious background:

A long-time born-again Christian, Wetteland coached baseball and taught high-school Bible classes part-time at Liberty Christian School in Argyle from 2007 to 2008, Vice President of Advancement Dedra Brynn said. 

And this is the similar way the Fort Worth Star-Telegram puts it:

Wetteland considered himself a born-again Christian and reportedly had coached and taught at Liberty Christian School in Argyle more than 10 years ago. Wetteland was a part-time employee and was a pitching coach and Bible teacher, according to a spokeswoman at the school. He taught from 2007 to 2008.

The Associated Press Stylebook, “the journalist’s bible,” offers no guidance on the use of born-again Christian, except to suggest hyphenating born-again like that. The Religion News Association’s religion stylebook, meanwhile, has this guidance:

born-again

Theologically, all Christians claim to be born-again through the saving work of Jesus Christ; they just disagree over how it occurs. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, say it occurs in the sacrament of baptism, which frequently takes place when the baptized person is too young to recall it. Evangelical Protestants emphasize being born-again as a personal, transformational experience that involves a deliberate commitment to follow Christ. Because the term tends to associate someone with a particular religious tradition, do not label someone a born-again Christian. Rather let the person label themselves, as in, who calls herself a born-again Christian.

If, in fact, “born-again” is the way Wetteland has labeled himself, then the use would be proper. But I’m curious where the term emerged in his case.

Again, that’s a side question — and definitely a minor one given the disconcerting news about Wetteland that is making headlines.

This news is both shocking and sad. Stay tuned.

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