Louisville Courier-Journal

Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Before we take a look at what appears to have been the key development at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, let’s pause and discuss a few matters linked to how America’s largest non-Catholic flock does business.

One of the first things reporters learn (.pdf here), when they show up at national SBC gathering, is that the people attending are not “delegates” — they are “messengers” from local churches. Again, this is a sign of the degree to which Baptist identity is built on church authority residing in autonomous local congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention that exists when it is in session. It can vote to create a publishing house, or mission boards or an “executive committee” to do specific tasks in between conventions.

But SBC folks get testy when reporters assume that Southern Baptists are supposed to be organized like Presbyterians, Methodists or, heaven forbid, Episcopalians. What makes SBC meetings so wild is that all kinds of people in that big room can grab a floor microphone. With that in mind, let’s look at a crucial part of a New York Times story, focusing on efforts to handle sexual-abuse issues:

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said on Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

Wait a minute. SBC “pastors” voted to take these steps? Since when are all of the SBC “messengers” pastors?

The Times should correct that error immediately. It appears that the same mistake showed up in a 2018 Times story and I missed it at that time. As in:

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Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

It’s time for another GetReligion post about mainstream press coverage of the Women Priests (or “WomenPriests”) movement. So, all together now, let’s click off the key points that must be made.

(1) As Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway used to say, just because someone says that he or she plays shortstop for the New York Yankees does not mean that this person plays shortstop for the world’s most famous baseball team. Only the leaders of the Yankees get to make that call.

(2) The doctrine of “apostolic succession” involves more than one bishop laying hands on someone. Ordination in ancient Christian churches requires “right doctrine” as well as “right orders.” Also, it helps to know the name of the bishop or bishops performing the alleged ordination. Be on the alert for “Old Catholic” bishops, some of whom were ordained via mail order.

(3) Consecrating a Catholic bishop requires the participation of three Catholic bishops, and the “right orders” and “right doctrine” question is relevant, once again. A pastor ordained by an alleged bishop is an alleged priest.

(4) It may be accurate to compare the apostolic succession claims of Anglicans and Lutherans to those made by Women Priest leaders (although the historic Anglican and Lutheran claims are stronger). This is evidence of a larger truth — that the Women Priests movement is a new form of liberal Protestantism.

(5) It is not enough for journalists to offer an obligatory “Catholic press officials declined to comment” paragraph on this issue. Legions of scholars, lay activists and articulate priests are available to be interviewed.

(6) Sacramental Catholic rites — valid ones, at least — are rarely held in Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries.

Once again, let me make a key point: Would your GetReligionistas praise a mainstream news story on this movement that offered a fair-minded, accurate, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet. Once again: If readers find a story of this kind, please send us the URL.

That brings us to yet another PR report on the Women Priests, this time care of The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Gannett wire service. The headline: “Condemned by the Vatican, women priests demand place at Catholic altar.”

Kudos for the “Condemned by the Vatican” angle in the headline, which — sort of — addresses the New York Yankees shortstop issue. Another careful wording shows up in this summary passage at the top of the long, long, very long story, which opens with — you guessed it — a rite in a Unitarian church office:

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Homosexuality is 'amoral?' Dear newspaper, I don't think that word means what you think it does

Homosexuality is 'amoral?' Dear newspaper, I don't think that word means what you think it does

James A. Smith Sr., a Southern Baptist known to frequent this journalism-focused website, had a GetReligion-like response to a sentence he saw in a Louisville Courier-Journal story.

To set the scene, the news article involves the Kentucky Baptist Convention — “the powerful Kentucky Baptist Convention,” as the Courier-Journal likes referring to it — disassociating itself from congregations dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Yes, these cut ties resulted from a dispute between a Baptist convention upholding traditional doctrinal beliefs and one taking more progressive stands. That’s certainly newsworthy, particular in a state where the Southern Baptist-aligned Kentucky convention reportedly has over 2,400 affiliated churches with more than 750,000 members.

But these type of reports in the Courier-Journal always seem to be slanted toward one side of the debate — the progressive one. (See past examples here and here.)

In the case of the latest story, the language again seems overly loaded, depicting the Kentucky Baptist Convention as “booting” and “targeting” and “kicking out” churches as opposed to standing by its beliefs. And of course, the first quote comes from a critic of the decision:

The Kentucky Baptist Convention on Tuesday cut ties with more than a dozen churches, including at least one in Louisville, for supporting a Baptist religious organization that earlier this year lifted a ban on hiring LGBTQ employees.

The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention, which has long opposed same-sex marriage, ordaining gay ministers and believes homosexuality is sinful, voted to end its relationship with KBC-affiliated churches that also made financial contributions to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at its annual meeting in Pikeville, Kentucky.

The KBC targeted several local churches, including the 1,600-member St. Matthews Baptist, where leaders called the decision ending a 90-year relationship "historic and disheartening."

But I’ve seen worse, less balanced coverage of such decisions: To its credit, the Courier-Journal does quote a few supporters of the move, including the convention’s president:

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Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

There was breaking news this week in the world of religion, as noted by Religion News Service's Aysha Khan.

"We now believe in hell," American Atheists announced on Twitter.

The impetus for this major change in (lack of) theology?

It was a New York Times report that "a television show featuring Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is suing President Trump on behalf of a pornographic film actress, and the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was pitched to two cable networks in recent weeks." 

Yes, I believe we'll all be reassessing the state of the universe now.

In the meantime, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Louisville Courier-Journal's investigative report headlined "Is your church van a death trap?" is the must-read religion story of the week. 

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'Is your church van a death trap?': Kentucky paper shines a bright light on important safety question

'Is your church van a death trap?': Kentucky paper shines a bright light on important safety question

Louisville Courier-Journal print subscribers woke up to this question Sunday morning: "Is your church van a death trap?"

Or, as the headline atop the online version of the Kentucky newspaper's in-depth investigative report put it, "Churches are putting their faith in these old vans that could kill."

This is important journalism, based on the Courier-Journal's analysis of millions of crash records from six states between 2004 and 2017.

Readers — particularly those with a 15-passenger van in their church parking lot — would do well to pay attention to it.

I'll share a longer chunk of the opening paragraphs than normal, but these details are both powerful and crucial:

A Ford Motor Company employee test-driving a 15-passenger van flipped it while swerving through a series of cones in 1990.

He didn’t report it. He blamed himself, not the van — and his superiors agreed. That vehicle, the E350, dominated the large-van market for years.

But a Florida jury in March blamed that same make and model van for a woman’s death, granting her four children and husband nearly $20 million in damages.

The left-rear tire on the 2002 E350 had shredded. The van flipped, and passenger Michalanne Salliotte, 44, was tossed from the vehicle and crushed on Feb. 21, 2014.

Salliotte and the driver, who also died, were among five people thrown out as the van tumbled. One was a teenager who had to repeat a year of school because of brain damage. Seven others were injured.

The jury also found the First Baptist Church of New Port Richey negligent for not keeping seat belts in the van within reach.

Transportation safety officials have known since 2001 that 15-passenger vans like the E350 are prone to roll in a crash when loaded with people. Federal officials have issued repeated safety warnings to carmakers and the public. Some insurance companies refuse to cover them. A major religious denomination advises member churches to avoid them. And at least 28 states prohibit public schools from using them to transport students.

Yet many churches around the country still use the old vans to haul kids to swimming pools, take parishioners to services or deliver members to conferences and revival meetings.

And people still die.

Of course, safety questions about 15-passenger vans are not new.

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Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Words have meanings.

For example, for journalists the word "fundamentalist" has a specific meaning. The Associated Press Stylebook -- the journalist's bible -- notes that "fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself," the stylebook advises.

Those pejorative connotations are why I was surprised to see the Louisville Courier-Journal characterize ordinary Southern Baptists as fundamentalists in a story today. I was prepared to question this original lede in the Courier-Journal:

Fundamentalist Southern Baptists have long opposed same-sex marriage and ordaining gay ministers, arguing that the Bible unequivocally rejects homosexuality as sinful and perverted.
The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention hasn't left that position to interpretation. The powerful Southern Baptist group, which has 2,400 churches and 750,000 members across the state, has ousted congregations that bless gay unions and welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as pastors and missionaries.
That's why discussions on dropping a ban against hiring gay and transgender people by a more liberal group of affiliated churches, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has threatened to trigger an even larger rift.

Why, I wondered, did the Courier-Journal choose to use that adjective in this story?

I was not alone in asking that question:

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A Kentucky judge defies gay couples. So why are readers told so little about his beliefs?

A Kentucky judge defies gay couples. So why are readers told so little about his beliefs?

By now some of you may have heard of the Kentucky judge who is quitting rather than award custody of adopted kids to gay parents.

It’s reminiscent of Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who in 2015 refused to allow her name on marriage licenses for same sex couples -- but was willing to let such licenses be issued under someone else’s authority. She ended up getting a meeting with Pope Francis, thanks to a sympathetic apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Here’s what the Washington Post had on this latest story -- the latest Kentucky court drama, that is:

A Kentucky judge who stirred controversy earlier this year by refusing to hear adoption cases involving gay parents says he plans to resign in hopes of quashing an ethics inquiry by a state judicial panel.
Judge W. Mitchell Nance told the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission in a memo made public Wednesday that he would resign effective Dec. 16 rather than fight the commission’s charges that he violated ethical rules. He also sent a resignation letter to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), the Associated Press reported.
Nance was facing sanctions that included possible removal from the bench.

The first comment in the story is from the opposition.

“Judge Nance must have seen the writing on the wall,” said LGBT advocate Chris Hartman, whose organization, the Fairness Campaign, helped bring a complaint against the judge. “I hope this sends a message to judges across the country that if their conscience conflicts with their duty, they must leave the bench.”
Kentucky law permits same-sex couples to adopt children.

As tmatt has written (but this is an angle often ignored in a lot of coverage), the main players in these dramas often try to engineer compromises by which the petitioners can get what they want, but without the Christian official’s cooperation.

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Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

One of the most challenging assignments in the world is stuffing 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack.

Reporters face this all the time: A carload of details that must be crammed into a small shopping bag.

Such may well have been the lot of investigative reporter Laura Ungar of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a daily now noted as "part of the USA Today network." After six months of reporting, she delivered a devastating three-part series on the HIV epidemic that still plagues Austin, Indiana, a town less than 40 miles north of the paper's offices, in a region known as "Kentuckiana."

Let me be clear: This is important work touching on a vital topic of national interest, and it deserves a wide readership, I believe. How HIV gripped this town, how addictions to opioids opened the floodgates, how transmission the virus is being fought and what the human and policy consequences are should concern every American. After all, as noted in the two-year-old PBS NewsHour video above, one trucker hiring a prostitute in Austin could subsequently carry the infection hundreds of miles away.

The articles focus on the health care and policy issues, subjects well within the reporter's wheelhouse. But we also get glimpses of faith elements at both ends of the series.

The glimpses left me wanting more.

The first piece begins with a discussion of the Christian physician laboring to help save the town, and the final installment boldly proclaims Austin as "having faith" in the midst of the crisis, Ungar -- or her editors -- seem to hold back when discussing the exact nature of faith that's involved.

The final installment's headline, "Healing Austin: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague," could lead a reader to expect a more detailed discussion of just what that faith is, how it is practiced, what it entails. The subhead is equally promising: "As the outside world moves on, [a] small city draws on faith to save itself from drugs and disease."

Everyone who imagines we're going to get a few tales of tent revivals and the old "sawdust trail," please raise your hand.

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Mirror-image time again: So Hillary Clinton went to church and won some endorsements?

Mirror-image time again: So Hillary Clinton went to church and won some endorsements?

It is time for another mirror-image journalism case study here at GetReligion. The URL for this one came from a friend of this blog who is a church-state issues professional in DC Beltway land. Let's just leave it at that.

Let me stress that the following is not a commentary on the Hillary Clinton campaign.

It is also not intended as a commentary on the tricky issue of religious LEADERS, as opposed to non-profit religious ministries, endorsing political candidates (as opposed to religious leaders and institutions making statements on moral and religious issues that may be linked to political campaigns). To tell you the truth, I am not sure where I would draw the free-speech line on this issue of endorsements by religious leaders, especially in the context of worship rites in their own sanctuaries. Yes, think Donald Trump at Liberty University, if you wish.

My goal is to discuss a journalism issue. So here is the top of the recent Associated Press report to which our friend pointed us. Read carefully:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hillary Clinton is making a big final push in Kentucky, where rival Bernie Sanders hopes to extend his winning streak and further delay her clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.
Big-name surrogates have been sent, television ads are playing and Clinton is touring the state in advance of Tuesday’s voting. On Sunday, the former secretary of state dropped in at Louisville churches and held rallies in Louisville and Fort Mitchell. Sanders on Sunday made a swing through Kentucky as well.

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