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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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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

So it is Thursday afternoon. And next Monday is Christmas Eve, which will be a holiday for gazillions of people.

In front of that Monday, we have an ordinary weekend. #DUH

That means that lots of folks can skip work on Friday, as in tomorrow, and end up with how many days off in a row? Five or six — for the cost of one vacation day — depending how their office managers handle The Holidays?

So that sound you keep hearing outside your window, this afternoon, may be car doors slamming as people toss packages (or their suitcases, if headed to the airport) in the back of cars as they prepare to head hither and thither and yon. Some of us older folks, of course, will be joyfully preparing for cars to pull into our driveways containing loved ones — some wearing tiny shoes, in which to dash around the house.

So, what’s the point of this meditation?

Some of your GetReligionistas are already on the road and others will soon depart. Work here at the website will slow down, but our cyber-doors will not be locked tight. You can expect, as usual, a post a day, or maybe two, during the Christmas-New Year’s Day season.

I will be at home near a keyboard most of the days between now and, oh, Jan. 2 or thereabouts — but will have a chance, as always, to flee to the mountains of North Carolina, where Wifi and strong cellphone signals are often a matter of theory, rather than reality.

Let me stress, that we still want to hear from readers!

This is, after all, a time of year in which even the most cynical editor/producer has been known to gaze at the newsroom and mutter, “Somebody get out there and do a story about Christmas. I hear that has something to do with religion, maybe.”

The results are can be glorious or fallen. We are interested in both. Please keep sending us URLs for news that caught your eye.

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Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

As a rule, controversial statements by the Pope of Rome tend to make news.

As a rule, controversial statements by the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter make news.

Do I really need to note that, as a rule, controversial statements by Pope Francis about sexuality almost always inspire headlines in major news sources?

With that in mind, raise your cyber-hand (leave a comment even) if you have read the following information reported in a mainstream news source in the past few days — especially in elite media, either printed on dead-tree pulp or in any electronic form.

Meanwhile, the following is from the Catholic News Service, as printed in the conservative National Catholic Register:

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case. We have to be exacting. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church,” the Pope says in the book The Strength of a Vocation, set to be released Dec. 3 in 10 languages.

In an excerpt from the book, released Friday by Religión Digital, the Pope said he is concerned about the issue of evaluating and forming people with homosexual tendencies in the clergy and consecrated life.

“This is something I am concerned about, because perhaps at one time it did not receive much attention,” he said.

Francis said that with candidates for the priesthood or religious life “we have to take great care during formation in the human and affective maturity. We have to seriously discern, and listen to the voice of experience that the Church also has. When care is not taken in discerning all of this, problems increase. As I said before, it can happen that at the time perhaps they didn't exhibit [that tendency], but later on it comes out.”

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case,” the Pope reiterated.

Wait, there is more to this nuanced, but still newsworthy, statement.

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Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to give thanks for a recent event linked to racial reconciliation in the deep South, a worship service held in a highly symbolic sanctuary.

I will get to that in a moment.

But first, let’s engage in another “mirror image” experiment. This is a common GetReligion device in which we create a news story — an upside-down or inside-out version of a real story — and then ask what kind of mainstream news coverage it would have received.

So, let’s imagine that the leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, had traveled south to preach at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Readers may recall that Curry delivered a long and spectacular sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It was quite a scene.

Readers will, of course, remember that Mother Emanuel was the site of the massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who gunned down eight worshippers during an evening Bible study.

So let’s say that Curry comes to this holy ground to preach on racial reconciliation. The church is packed and another 400 people watch the service on closed-circuit video in another sanctuary nearby.

My question: Would this event have received significant coverage in local, regional and even national media?

I am guessing that the answer is “yes.”

Now, the mirror-image question: Was it news when Southern Baptists — led by South Carolina Baptist Convention President Marshall Blalock — filled Mother Emanuel for a “Building Bridges” worship service, praying for racial reconciliation in their state and in America as a whole? Yes, 400 more watched a closed-circuit feed at Citadel Square Baptist Church.

Was it news? As best I can tell, with online searches, the answer is “no.” This surprises me, since Southern Baptists statements on race have made news in recent years. Maybe that’s an old story now?

Anyway, here is some key material from Baptist Press:

"I don't know if we've ever been in a more sacred place," Blalock told messengers and guests. "As we gather in Mother Emanuel Church, the place itself speaks to us of the power of faith in Christ Jesus. We're in a place of safety because, while it's where hearts were broken, it's also the place where the life-saving power of God's grace is."

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Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

The end of 2018 is getting closer, and you know what that means. Here come the end-of-the-year features listing the Top 10 stories on a wide variety of topics — including religion.

I expect that one of the most important stories on the global scene will be the Vatican’s decision to accept, just a few weeks ago, a provisional deal with the Chinese government on a process to select bishops.

This was the Communist government’s first indication that it would accept papal authority in the Catholic Church in China. At the same time, Pope Francis agreed to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops — previously excommunicated — raised up by the Chinese government, alone.

Several inches down into the New York Times report on this topic, there was this important note:

China’s Catholics are divided among those who attend government-approved churches and underground churches that are loyal only to the Vatican.

For decades, many Chinese Catholics have risked arrest and persecution by worshiping in the underground churches led by bishops appointed secretly by popes. China’s Communist government has erected a parallel structure: a state-approved, state-controlled Catholic church. For years, dating back three papacies, the Vatican has sought to unify the two communities.

Later, there was this sobering information:

The Vatican took a step in January in its efforts to unify the two Catholic communities in China, asking two underground bishops to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. One of the two preferred by the government was a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.

The state-sanctioned bishops who took the places of the two underground bishops were among the seven the Vatican formally accepted on Saturday. It was not clear what would become of more than 30 underground bishops working in China who were chosen by the pope but not recognized by the Chinese government.

With that in mind, consider this headline from the conservative Catholic News Agency: “Underground bishop in China reported missing.”

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What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

The next gathering of the U.S. Catholic bishops is only days away.

Obviously, the topic of clergy sexual abuse of teens and children is going to get lots and lots of attention from the press. There is the outside chance that the bishops may also talk — thinking about Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick about the abuse of seminarians and young priests by those who have power over them.

Thus, reporters are looking for stories right now — new information about these issues to serve as background for what is ahead.

So, the other day I sent a URL to some Catholics in journalism. The massive double-decker headline proclaims:

Is Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Related to Homosexual Priests?

An interview with sociologist Father Paul Sullins, whose new study documents a strong linkage between the incidence of abuse and homosexuality in the priesthood and in seminaries.

One reporter’s reply went something like this: I predict this study will not be covered by The New York Times.

That’s a #DUH comment. For starters, check out this conservative priest’s mini-bio at The Ruth Institute. Spot any landmines?

Dr. Paul Sullins has a Ph.D. in sociology and is recently retired from teaching at the Catholic University of America. He is a married Catholic priest, and has written a book on that subject, Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests.

My question here is not whether this sociologist’s study — combining material from several different sources — is beyond debate. I am well aware that many Catholics will debate his conclusions.

That’s my point. The question is whether this study deserves mainstream press overage AND DEBATE.

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It's a new fact of news life: Reporters have to start reading the alternative Catholic press

It's a new fact of news life: Reporters have to start reading the alternative Catholic press

The scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church the past few months are only intensifying.

The allegations to come out of Pennsylvania (as well as Ireland and Australia) and accusations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick not only revealed how much the church is hurting, but also the stark ideological split within it. These events have also seen a rise in the power of online media.

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here. Depleted newsrooms and not wanting to do negative stories about the pontiff have spurred conservative Catholic media to fill the journalism void.

Indeed, it’s a small group of influential blogs and news websites that has helped to inform millions as well as drive the debate.

The sex-abuse scandals that dominated news coverage over the summer are not going away. In the latest allegations to hit the U.S church, John Jenik, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New York, is under investigation after being accused of sexual abuse. First to the punch with the story soon after Cardinal Timothy Dolan made the announcement was CruxNow, a Catholic news site, and not any of the three competitive New York City dailies.

The revelations regarding Jenik could be just the start of a new flood of allegations going into 2019. The Justice Department recently sent a request to every Roman Catholic diocese in the country ordering them not to destroy documents related to the handling of child sexual abuse cases. The request to preserve those files, first reported by the blog Whispers in the Loggia, is yet another sign that the prove is expanding after the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

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