Russell Moore

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court retirement throws the spotlight on one of the most influential players in Washington, D.C., when it comes to deciding what individuals inhabit the centers of power.  

We are talking about Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and the go-to guy for names of federal court appointees when Republicans rule the White House.

Alongside Leo, journalists should also be taking a close look at another Republican networker and talent-spotter, Kay Coles James, as of January the president of the Heritage Foundation. Both are devout Christians, a fact the media have reported. But few reporters have explored that aspect of their life stories in any depth, allowing good prospects for fresh, religiously themed features or interviews.

The Federalist Society, where Leo has worked since 1991, boasts a constituency of some 65,000 conservative attorneys, jurists, and law school students. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who provided the pivotal vote in three important 5-4 Supreme Court rulings this week, was on the lists from which candidate Donald Trump promised to choose his Supreme Court nominees in an unprecedented campaign gambit.

Trump’s prime resource in choosing those names was Leo, as recounted in New Yorker profile by Jeffrey Toobin last year. Toobin says Leo “has met and cultivated almost every important Republican lawyer” of this generation. In addition to Gorsuch, he was the man behind the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Leo was the chief Catholic strategist for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 and co-chaired Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee. (The Religion Guy covered for The AP his briefing of Catholic delegates attending the party’s New York City convention.) Despite that partisan affiliation, President Barack Obama along with leaders of both parties in Congress appointed him to chair the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Leo tries to attend daily Mass when possible and his “faith is central to all he does,” says Conor Gallagher of the Benedict Leadership Institute.

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Will Southern Baptists do more than pass a resolution on #SBCToo sins and crimes?

Will Southern Baptists do more than pass a resolution on #SBCToo sins and crimes?

The 2018 Southern Baptist Convention is in session and, so far, the news out of Dallas has been pretty predictable. The big news, if you are into that civil-religion thing, is that Vice President Mike Pence will address the gathering tomorrow.

Baptist Press has a live blog here, with the status of resolutions and other votes, and an actual live-cam up is streaming here (and here on YouTube).There's lots going on at several hashtags, such as #SBC18, #SBC2018 and #SBCAM18. The official Twitter feed for the meeting is right here.

As I wrote yesterday, in a high-altitude overview post, I think the key to the meeting will be actions -- not just resolutions -- to change policies in seminaries linked to counseling and reports of domestic abuse. Also, watch for efforts to create some kind of SBC-endorsed clearing house collecting official reports of abuse by clergy and church leaders.

The highlight of the pre-convention events was a panel discussion focusing on domestic violence and abuse in the church. This was the latest evidence of a conservative consensus -- at least among current and emerging SBC officials -- on minimum steps toward reform. A report in The Tennessean opened, logically enough, with remarks from popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, one of the key women speaking out on #SBCToo issues. A key passage:

"None of us want to throw stones, but it keeps us from even responding to a criminal situation because we think, 'Listen, I've had my own sexual dysfunction,' " Moore said. "There is a long, long shot of difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality that we have got to get straight."

Once again, we see a strong emphasis on the difference between sin and crime, a line that lots of clergy and church counselors have struggled to recognize. Continuing, with fellow panelist Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission:

Russell Moore, who is not related to Beth Moore, said he has seen abusers time and again misuse grace in such a way that it hides them from being held accountable. He said that destroys what the New Testament teaches about the meaning of grace. 

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It's wrath of God stuff: Thinking past Paige Patterson and into the Southern Baptist future

It's wrath of God stuff: Thinking past Paige Patterson and into the Southern Baptist future

If you are following the Southern Baptist Convention's #MeToo crisis, with the not-so-graceful retirement of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, then there is no question about the newsiest "think piece" for this long weekend.

But let's pause a second before we get to that commentary -- "The Wrath of God Poured Out: The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention," by Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, Jr.

The big story behind the story of Patterson's fall is a high-stakes showdown between two generations of Southern Baptist leaders.

Patterson is one of the iconic figures in the old-guard SBC wing that is linked to the old Religious Right. While Mohler is 58 years old, he became president of Southern when he was 33 and, ever since, has been a cornerstone personality in a wave of SBC leaders who are very theologically conservative, but have a radically different style and agenda than the old guard, especially on matters of race and other hot-button issues in public life.

So glance, for a few moments, at the YouTube video at the top of this post. It's a 2015 panel at Midwestern Baptist Seminary discussing this topic -- "Passing the Baton: Raising Up the Next Generation of SBC Leaders." The moderator is Paige Patterson. Mohler is one of the panelists. Listen long enough to get the flavor of things.

Then head over to this much discussed Christianity Today commentary by another symbolic SBC leader, the Rev. Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College, who holds the Billy Graham chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism. This piece followed an earlier Stetzer piece asking Patterson to stand down on his own -- pronto -- including his high-profile role as keynote speaker in June at the national SBC gathering in Dallas.

In the new piece, Stetzer added:

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After midnight: Dramatic turn in Paige Patterson drama, with religion-beat pros on the scene

After midnight: Dramatic turn in Paige Patterson drama, with religion-beat pros on the scene

Let's face it, it's going to be hard to do a GetReligion-style critique of a breaking hard-news story in The Washington Post that runs with this byline: "By Bobby Ross Jr., Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein — May 23 at 6:44 AM."

Luckily, Wednesday is Bobby's normal day off here at GetReligion. He was all over Twitter, into the wee, small hours of this morning, waiting for another shoe to drop in this high-profile drama in the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest non-Catholic flock.

So what can I say about a story reported by a current GetReligionista, a former GetReligionista and one of the nation's most experienced religion-beat professionals?

Let's start with the obvious, focusing on the crucial thread that unites those three names: This was a job for experienced religion-beat reporters.

Yes, there will be Southern Baptists -- young and old (hold that thought) -- who may debate one or two wordings in the story that finally ran this morning with this headline: 

Prominent Southern Baptist leader removed as seminary president following controversial remarks about abused women

There are leaders in all kinds of religious groups who, when push comes to shove, want to see a public-relations approach to anything important that happens to them and their institutions. When it comes to bad news, they prefer gossip and PR, as opposed to journalism.

Meanwhile, you can find the following in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke

Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

Let's focus on two crucial decisions that faced the team writing this latest story about the long, twisted tale of Patterson and his views on sexual abuse.

First of all, this story is quite long, for a daily news story. However, it really needs to be read in the context of Sarah's earlier exclusive, the one that you know the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were discussing behind those executive-session doors. You also know that this Post report spend some time being "lawyered up." I'm talking about the story that ran with this headline:

Southern Baptist leader encouraged a woman not to report alleged rape to police and told her to forgive assailant, she says

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(Good) Friday Five: #MLK50, #ChurchToo, Sheep Among Wolves and, um, 'Chris is risen?'

(Good) Friday Five: #MLK50, #ChurchToo, Sheep Among Wolves and, um, 'Chris is risen?'

It's Good Friday.

And Passover begins tonight at sundown.

Enter Greg Garrison, longtime religion writer for the Birmingham News, with informative overviews of both religious holidays.

In one piece, Garrison asks, "If Jesus suffered and died, why is it called Good Friday?"

His other helpful primer explores this question: "What is Passover?"

Be sure to check out both articles.

Meanwhile, let's dive into the (Good) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

In advance of that milestone, Religion News Service national reporter Adelle Banks has an extraordinary story focused on a 75-year-old Memphis, Tenn., sanitation worker who "drives five days a week to collect garbage, even as he spends much of the rest of his time as an associate minister of his Baptist congregation."

A somewhat related but mostly tangential question for the Associated Press Stylebook gurus: Why in the world doesn't Memphis (not to mention Nashville) stand alone in datelines?

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If hundreds of evangelicals gather, but don't talk about Trump, do they make a sound?

If hundreds of evangelicals gather, but don't talk about Trump, do they make a sound?

See that question up there in the headline?

It's kind of a Zen question, isn't it? The reality on the ground is that hundreds of evangelicals recently met for an event called Evangelicals For Life that coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. There were major groups behind this -- the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. It wasn't minor league.

However, if you check out the videos from the conference (click here for some archives), you'll notice that most of the talk at this event focused on abortion and other life-related issues -- but primarily looked at these subjects through the lens of ministry, as opposed to partisan politics.

Oh, there was some political talk about the U.S. Supreme Court, of course. Legislative battles loomed in the background. But if you listened carefully, few people were making references to a certain New York billionaire in the White House. Some of the primary speakers were from the world of #NeverTrump #NeverHillary.

So did anything newsworthy take place at this event?

It would appear not, if you surf around in Google News looking for mainstream -- especially elite -- news coverage. That was the hook for my Universal syndicate column this past week, as well as for this week's "Crossroads" podcast session with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

Why the lack of coverage? I mean, there were influential people there -- some Democrats as well as Republicans. We are talking about real, live, evangelical folks.

Ah, but were they REALLY evangelicals, since it appears that many of them are not part of the massive choir of Donald Trump-worshipping "evangelicals" that we read about day after day in the media? After all, 80-plus percent of American evangelicals worship the ground on which Trump struts, right?

Well, I have a theory about that, one centering on the evidence that roughly half of the white evangelicals who voted for Trump in the election really didn't want to. The way I see it, the "evangelical" tent in American life is currently divided into six different camps.

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Will Trump-Moore nexus be a turning point in history of American Evangelicalism?

Will Trump-Moore nexus be a turning point in history of American Evangelicalism?

Mark your calendars for Tuesday, Dec. 5, when the Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute release results from the eighth  annual “American Values Survey.”

Those in the D.C. area can attend a 10 a.m. presser and panel at Brookings. (Media contact: press@prri.org or 646–823-2216). There will be special interest in the eight-year trend lines and how the Donald Trump Era is reshaping moral and political attitudes among white evangelicals.

Analysts inside and outside the evangelical movement note its famously moralistic past, including excoriation of President Bill Clinton. Countless articles have joined in head-scratching over the willingness of certain old-guard evangelical personalities and so many constituents to pooh-pooh sexual misconduct accusations as they back President Trump and now also  Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who faces Alabama voters Dec. 12.

The Religion Guy won’t rehearse those matters, which are all over the news, or assess the credibility of the two politicians’ denials of wrongdoing.

But let's look ahead. Here’s a big-think theme for reporters: Is the Trump-Moore nexus reinforcing a developing image of moral hypocrisy that could mar evangelical Protestantism the way molestation scandals grievously damaged the moral stature of U.S. Catholicism the past three decades?

You may want to start a research folder on this.

The evangelical plight has been examined by an outside critic, Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina, Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore, and a conservative Catholic, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat’s piece in turn provoked notice from Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher (including a fascinating mini-essay from a reader). In addition, note this GetReligion podcast, featuring a classic Billy Graham take on this issue.

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