Let’s start with this question: Does the following sequence of events add up to a news story or not?
I. The world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution — Baylor University (I’m an alum) — gets involved in some heated debates about whether the campus LGBTQ group will be recognized as an official campus organization. That would (a) give it student-fee funds and (b) signal that regents consider the group’s work to be in accord with Baylor’s mission.
II. Representatives and “Baylor Family” supporters of the group Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY) start a petition asking the regents to affirm what previously was known as the Sexual Identity Forum.
III. Doctrinally conservative Baylor-ites respond with a petition of their own.
Here’s an interesting point to note: Only the progressive half of that online-petition equation draws coverage from The Waco Tribune-Herald.
IV. Shortly after that, the Baylor regents decline to meet with representatives of GAY. This draws more ink from the Tribune-Herald, once again with the left side of this debate receiving coverage. There is no content from those supporting Baylor’s doctrinal stance on sex and marriage (other than quotes from university policy and doctrinal statements).
V. Things got kicked up a notch, in terms of heat and public conflict, when the Rev. Dan Freemyer of the progressive Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth delivered the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites. Baylor traditionally gives this role to a Baptist clergyperson who is the parent of one of the graduates.
God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.
"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.
It's crucial to know that Freemyer serves as the "missional engagement" pastor at Broadway Baptist, a progressive congregation that in 2010 voted to leave the Baptist General Convention of Texas in a dispute over the moral status of homosexual behavior. Baylor retains BGCT ties, but -- for many decades -- has had many connections to Broadway Baptist.
Ending his prayer, Freemyer stated: "God, you are doing a new thing. Praise be! … It springs forth and we can feel it."
This prayer draws a few cheers and applause — heard on the YouTube at the top of this post. Meanwhile, there are — no surprise — Baylor regents at that graduation rite and they are not amused.
The key: Behind-the-scenes conflicts have been yanked out into the open. Thus, Baylor’s president responds, as noted in my column:
Baylor President Linda Livingstone released a statement noting that she was "caught off-guard … as this prayer is intended to focus on the graduates as they leave Baylor University and make a mark around the world, not to communicate any kind of political statement." She stressed that the prayer had not been "scripted by anyone" in the administration and that Baylor leaders will "review our internal procedures moving forward to ensure the Benediction is offered as intended" at future rites.
OK, was this most recent act of the drama — the Freemyer prayer, with Baylor’s response — worthy of a news story?
I would argue that the answer is certainly “yes,” since graduation weekend is a pretty big deal in Waco under any circumstances.
So has the Tribune-Herald covered that event and, when doing so, did the newspaper’s editors finally decide to quote key thinkers on both sides of this doctrinal dispute?
Well, I can’t find any Trib coverage (I assume “Freemyer” would be mentioned in a story) in the news pages. If I have missed something, please let me know.
However, the Waco newspaper did run an op-ed page piece by a local Baptist — “Will Ward, guest columnist: In defense of prayer at Baylor University“ — about the prayer controversy that it didn’t cover. I guess there was talk in the town at sidewalk-and-pew level.
I find this interesting. Instead of news coverage, readers were given a theological reflection that clearly opposes the stance taken by the Baylor board of regents. Here is a sample:
What is all the vitriol about? … These words brought comfort and inspiration to many who heard them. To others, the words provoked outrage and distress.
While controversy about a prayer may feel “new” for some in Baylor’s leadership, it isn’t new at all for people of faith. …
I don’t know what was on Rev. Freemyer’s heart when he returned home to Baylor to pray. He might have been concerned about those who have suffered from the violence of sexual assault in his “hometown.” He might have been concerned about fairness the university has shown toward its African-American students in light of recent reports that students (including some of the graduates) have been troubled about racial injustice. Perhaps he was concerned about the university’s continued refusal to recognize LGBTQ student groups, leaving many LGBTQ students to suffer silently in the margins while the university empowers others to target them.
While I don’t know what was on the reverend’s conscience that day, I do know that in a tradition that goes back millennia, the Spirit of God was moving his child to pray.
My journalism questions are pretty simple: What role do the editors of the Waco Tribune-Herald see themselves playing in this debate between the theological left and right at Baylor? What is the goal of their “news coverage” of this major story in the city that many have called “Jerusalem on the Brazos”? Why not talk to insiders on both sides of this story?