Baptists

Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

You know your big investigative project has made a major splash when other news organizations immediately follow up on your original reporting.

Such is the case with the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

The Washington Post and Memphis’ Commercial Appeal were among many newspapers that responded to the Houston coverage. I mention those two newspapers because I felt like their stories offered some additional insight into the independent congregational structure of the Southern Baptist Convention that perhaps even the Chronicle didn’t fully grasp.

In any case, let’s dive into the Friday Five (where we’ll see a few more links tied to the SBC):

1. Religion story of the week: Is there any doubt which story will occupy this space?

I wrote GetReligion’s initial post on the Chronicle’s big series on Southern Baptist abuse (“'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse”).

Editor Terry Mattingly delved deeper into the anonymous nature of congregations in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination (“Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse”).

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Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

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'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse

'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse

Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Some might be asking that question after the first part of a bombshell investigative project by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News was published Sunday.

The opening installment of the “Abuse of Faith” series filled almost four entire newspaper pages — meticulously describing the findings of a six-month investigation by reporters for the Chronicle and the Express-News.

The sobering details:

It's not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

So, to repeat the original question: Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Not according to Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who wrote this in response to the newspaper report:

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Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

You do have to wonder at the tone deafness of folks at major newspapers.

Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reintroduced its Column One feature, a “showcase for medium-form journalism,” and the piece is on a valiant doctor who flies to Texas to do 50 abortions in 60 hours.

If you had to pick a piece that seemed to have been created in order to anger a respectable share of the population, this was it. Why not a puff piece on Louis Farrakhan? A feel-good piece about workers at the Diablo Canyon (nuclear) Power Plant? Oh, no, that would offend people.

It’s not unusual for the MSM to glamorize abortionists and this feature is a gripping story. But it goes out of its way to portray Texas as some kind of theocratic Republic of Gilead out of The Handmaid’s Tale being serviced by the enlightened medics from the Golden State.

I’ll get to the actual piece in a moment but I had to first point out the LAT’s unusual history in abortion coverage. Please look at this May 23, 2003, memo by then Editor John Carroll that excoriates his staff for allowing in a biased piece about Texas abortionists being mandated to warn their patients about a possible link of abortion to breast cancer.

(One does wonder why the Times has this fixation with Texas being this medieval place with back-alley abortion laws, but I digress). The Carroll memo says, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

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Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

It’s been 10 years since I published a book on why people quit church and, no surprise to me, the topic is still making news.

The Nashville-based Lifeway Research released some findings last week that I meant to get to sooner. But then the unlucky meeting of some Catholic high school kids, obscenity-spouting Black Hebrew Israelites and drum-pounding Native Americans in Washington, D.C., a week ago pushed everything else out of the news.

Back to the regular news chase, I found it unsurprising that young people drop out of church. I mean, most youth take a vacation from religion during their college years. The journalism issue right now is what has changed. As the Tennessean said:

Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church.

Two-thirds of young people say they stopped regularly going to church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, a new LifeWay Research survey shows.

That means the church had a chance to share its message and the value of attending with this group, but it didn't stick, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

"That's a lot of folks saying, 'No, that's not for me' or 'It's not for me right now' at that young age," McConnell said.

Again, youth have been dropping out of church during their college years for as long as I can remember, so that’s not news. What is?

The reasons fell under four categories:

· Nearly all — 96 percent — cited life changes, including moving to college and work responsibilities that prevented them from attending.

· Seventy-three percent said church or pastor-related reasons led them to leave. Of those, 32 percent said church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and 29 percent said they did not feel connected to others who attended.

· Seventy percent named religious, ethical or political beliefs for dropping out. Of those, 25 percent said they disagreed with the church's stance on political or social issues while 22 percent said they were only attending to please someone else.

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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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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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