Baptists

Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

At one time, the Rev. Jimmy Allen was a major figure in Southern Baptist circles.

In 2004, when I did a package on the 25th anniversary of that denomination’s conservative takeover — or “take back,” depending on one’s perspective — I interviewed Allen.

In fact, my main story on that anniversary opened with Allen:

HOUSTON — Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. 

Last week, Allen died at age 91 — and the world of Baptist media took notice.

The mainstream press? Not so much. More on that in a moment.

This was the lede from Bob Allen of Baptist News Global:

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. …

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

David Roach of the SBC’s official Baptist Press wrote this:

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Evangelical leader offers serious reaction to blockbuster #ChurchToo report in Forth Worth

Evangelical leader offers serious reaction to blockbuster #ChurchToo report in Forth Worth

For decades now, conservative religious leaders have served up harsh attacks — often justified — at mainstream news coverage of religion news.

Sometimes these attacks include detailed, accurate discussions of issues linked to accuracy, fairness and balance. At the same time, many of these attacks are simply complaints about stories that religious leaders didn’t want to see in print — period.

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat knows all about both sides of that equation. Here at GetReligion, we have spent nearly 15 years trying to pay attention to all of that, the good and the bad.

Well, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made waves the other day with a massive, stunning report about sexual abuse in the world of independent, fundamentalist — an accurate label in this case — Baptist churches. Our own Bobby Ross Jr., wrote a lengthy GetReligion post on that topic with this headline, “A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches.” Bobby noted:

Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.

In this case, a major evangelical leader — and frequent media critic — has responded with a positive column urging church leaders to dig into the Star-Telegram epic, while taking this topic seriously. I thought this would make a constructive think piece for this weekend.

Here is a sample of this Breakpoint essay by John Stonestreet of the Colson Center and his co-writer Roberto Rivera. The headline: “Another Abuse Scandal in the Church — Sin Isn’t Just ‘Out There’.” Here is a crucial chunk or two of that, opening with a reference to the oceans of ink spilled after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report about seven decades of clergy sexual abuse by Catholic priests:

… The Fort Worth report differed from the Pennsylvania report in one significant detail: The churches and clergy being exposed this time were on the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum. One hundred sixty-eight leaders of independent fundamental Baptist churches, known as the IFBC, have been accused of a litany of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The victims included young children and teens, and stories included some of the most prominent IFBC leaders and churches in America.

This Fort Worth report hit me hard, maybe because I grew up on the outskirts of the IFBC movement.

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Friday Five: Baptist sex scandal, NYT paranoia, Brooklyn bridge, Julie Roys story, drive-thru priest

Friday Five: Baptist sex scandal, NYT paranoia, Brooklyn bridge, Julie Roys story, drive-thru priest

Do you want a hippopotamus for Christmas?

If so, enjoy the video.

If not, what request would you like me to pass along to Santa?

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion of the week: The investigation by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram into sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches nationally is the must-read story.

For additional insight on that topic, check out Kate Shellnut’s coverage for Christianity Today.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly’s analysis titled “Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy” occupies the No. 1 spot.

His intro sets the scene nicely:

ts the scene nicely:

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

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Theology of Baptist seminary's lament: Slavery is the headline, but a few media reports mention sin

Theology of Baptist seminary's lament: Slavery is the headline, but a few media reports mention sin

In inside-the-Beltway speak, by releasing an extensive report on its racist past, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., decided to “hang a lantern” on its problem. (It’s a term that readers of Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” will understand.)

In other words, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s oldest educational institution, wanted part of the story to be about how blunt and candid the seminary was in acknowledging its historic sins.

The basic point is that when something is really bad, you want to be the person who tells the public that it's really bad. 

Mohler did that Wednesday in releasing a report that has drawn — and rightly so — extensive national media coverage.

The lede from the New York Times:

The first and oldest educational institution of the Southern Baptist Convention disclosed in a report Wednesday that its four founders together owned more than 50 slaves, part of a reckoning over racism in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The 71-page report released by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a recitation of decades of bigotry, directed first at African slaves and later at African-Americans. Beginning with the founding of the seminary in Greenville, S.C., in 1859, the report found that the school, with few exceptions, backed a white supremacist ideology.

“The moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgment of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy,” wrote R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the seminary, which is now in Louisville, Ky.

Over at the American Conservative, blogger Rod Dreher praised Mohler for the release of the report:

I have an immense amount of respect for Albert Mohler and the institution he leads, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for having commissioned a hard-hitting report looking into the seminary’s racist past. This is a profoundly Christian act of historical reflection and repentance. Read the report and Mohler’s cover letter here. 

But the Times’ coverage — like that of most other mainstream news reports that I saw — lacked any mention of the theological angle.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches

A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches

On Sunday’s front page, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published the first part of a major investigative report on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches nationally.

Today’s Page 1 of the Texas newspaper brought Part 2.

Part 3 and Part 4 as well as a helpful explainer on how the Star-Telegram undertook the eight-month probe can be read online.

Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.

The chilling, powerful opening of Part 1:

Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”

The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.

At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.

Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.

For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.

More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.

The Star-Telegram took eight months to report this series, titled “Spirit of Fear.” It’s a lot to digest, and I’m still doing so. But I’ll offer a few initial thoughts based on my quick first reading.

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'Deconstructing My Religion' at CBS: Another tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals

'Deconstructing My Religion' at CBS: Another tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals

There’s no question that “Deconstructing My Religion,” CBS’ 26-minute special that aired Dec. 2, was supposed to be ground-breaking. Instead of footage on the evangelical juggernaut, here were folks who had actually left those beliefs and lived to tell about it.

But after sitting through the presentation and re-watching parts of it, I realized it wasn’t news, it was simply a diatribe with three talking heads talking about how they left white evangelicalism. I say “white,” because no ethnic minorities are featured. There’s the requisite academic patched in near the end and a few snatches from people at conferences and panels.

As I watched, I kept on wondering: What is the purpose of this show? There was no survey data presented. There were no alternate points of view. If you wish to view this documentary, don’t watch the version off the CBS site, as it’s full of ads and constant interruptions. The YouTube version is way better.

It started with a nine-minute monologue by Linda Kay Klein, now 39, who became born again at 13. I’m guessing that was about 1991. Her major gripe was the “sexual shaming” she endured. More than one-third of the show was her complaining about how her rigid upbringing constrained her ability to sleep around later in life.

A narrator intones:

“Sex outside of heterosexual marriage in evangelical culture is considered a sin. In the 1990s, an entire industry was created to support this message and it continues today.”

Lord, are they kvetching about purity-themed Bibles, purity pledges and the like again? That complaint was run into the ground some time ago. The “True Love Waits Bible” was published in 1996, 22 years ago. Get over it.

One reason why CBS gave Klein so much air time is because she just came out with “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS.

Of course I am very envious of how Klein got a 26-minute book trailer courtesy on prime time. Guess it’s who you know (and who you want to attack).

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