Marriage & Family

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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Saying goodbye to 'The Middle,' a rare Middle Class comedy (and we know what that means)

Saying goodbye to 'The Middle,' a rare Middle Class comedy (and we know what that means)

Anyone who has been alive and watching American television in recent months (or reading mainstream media sources that provide entertainment news), knows that Roseanne Barr has made a spectacular return to the air, with the rebirth of the classic "Roseanne" sitcom.

Whether this is a spectacularly good thing or a spectacularly bad thing depends on how you view the fact that Barr has included some material in the show linked to her belief that Donald Trump is not the Antichrist.

However, some journalists and critics who have attempted to view this phenomenon with a wee bit of objectivity have observed that "Roseanne," the show, is once again offering glimpses of ordinary, Middle and even lower Middle Class American life -- a topic usually ignored by elite Hollywood.

Now, the season finale of "Roseanne" took place about the same time as the farewell episode of "The Middle" after nine years as a successful series that was rarely noticed by critics -- as opposed to millions of American viewers. Variety noticed the timing of these events.

Also, a fine review/essay by Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times dug deep enough to notice that these two shows shared cultural DNA. The headline: "Before 'Roseanne's' revival, 'The Middle' carried the torch for America's heartland." Here is a chunk of that piece:

Set in the middle of the country, or near it, with characters on an economic middle rung, or just below it -- the other "middle" is middle age -- the series stars Patricia Heaton, who had spent an earlier nine years married to Ray Romano on "Everybody Loves Raymond," as Frankie Heck, wife, mother, daughter, dental assistant.

Premiering in September 2009, when the shocks of the Great Recession were still reverberating and the subprime housing crisis was still having its way with the economy, "The Middle" is the sort of show that were it to debut in 2018, would be taken as a network responding to the Trump election. (The series had in fact been in development since 2006.)

The "middle" also refers, of course, to the middle of this nation, as well as the Middle Class.

When you start talking about "Middle-Class values" this is often code language for You Know What. See if you can spot the GetReligion angle in this next passage.

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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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Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

I apologize for going on and on about this subject, but when it comes to the religion beat this is only one of the most important Catholic news stories in the world.

Come to think of it, questions about changing birth rates and demographics are important when covering Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity, Mormons, liberal Protestantism and other major faith groups, as well.

So let's connect some dots here, starting with another one of those formal Pope Francis statements that receives little mainstream news coverage, as opposed to the off-the-cuff or maybe even misquoted Francis statements (click for the latest) that leap into the headlines.

So here is the top of a short Associated Press report that probably didn't appear in your local newspaper. Yes, this is a summary of some very familiar trends:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis voiced alarm Monday at the “hemorrhaging” of nuns and priests in Italy and Europe, saying God only knows how many seminaries, monasteries, convents and churches will close because fewer people are being called to lives of religious service.

Francis told Italy’s bishops he was concerned about the “crisis of vocations” in a region of the world that once was one of the biggest sources of Catholic missionaries. He said Italy and Europe were entering a period of “vocational sterility” to which he wasn’t sure a solution exists.

The number of Catholic priests worldwide declined by 136 to 415,656 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. But according to Vatican statistics, the decrease was greatest in Europe, where there were 2,502 fewer priests compared to 2014. The number was offset by increases in priestly vocations in Africa and Asia, where the church as a whole is growing.

Let's pause for a moment and ask: Why are the statistics for vocations so much higher among Catholics in Africa and Asia? Might this have something to do with that familiar duo of doctrine and demographics?

So what did Pope Francis have to say, this time around, in terms of the cause of the current crisis in Europe?

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Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.

TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.

Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 

In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

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Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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Let us attend: A reminder that Southern Baptists have their own rules when they play chess

Let us attend: A reminder that Southern Baptists have their own rules when they play chess

If you are going to watch religious leaders play high-stakes chess, it helps to know that the rules are quite different in various churches, denominations and other large religious institutions.

Why can't Catholics act more like Episcopalians? Well, there are different doctrines, different rules. Why are Global South believers, and folks in growing sections of the U.S. Sunbelt, so much more powerful in the United Methodist Church than in the Episcopal Church? There are different rules shaping the conventions that make the rules.

Long ago, I watched United Methodists elect new bishops while gathered at the historic Lake Junaluska Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was easy to watch the clergy engage in face-to-face negotiations about candidates while gathered under the giant trees surrounding the open-air sanctuary. Every now and then the politicking would pause, and everyone would bow their heads as a prayer was read for the Holy Spirit to guide the voting. When the prayer was over it was back to business.

Now, the Southern Baptist Convention game is played on several levels -- as journalists are learning during the debates about the future of the Rev. Paige Patterson, in the wake of debates about his statements about domestic abuse, divorce, women, etc.

You have the public game, of course, with activists on both sides doing that thing they do in their own media forums. Then you have the fact that -- as a seminary president -- Patterson ultimately answers to the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (click here and dig into the story). Those trustees are selected by the SBC, through its elected leaders. The SBC meets once a year as a convention to do business.

Note the word "convention." This is not a denomination or "Church." It is a complex association of congregations, with local associations, state conventions and then the big national SBC meetings once a year. There are actions the SBC can only take during the two days in June that it does business.

Rest assured that the most important meetings in this current affair are taking place behind closed doors and in conference calls. At that level, almost all flawed, oh-so-human institutions are alike. Every now and then, however, SBC leaders release public statements that are read like Russian tea leaves.

This brings me to that Baptist Press item at the end of this last week, with the headline: "Gaines addresses Patterson, racial diversity, SBC."

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Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out

Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse: The Philadelphia Inquirer lays it out

Late last month, a crime and justice reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer came out with the kind of religion-and-sex-abuse story that’s sadly become all too familiar these days. What’s unusual about this story is that it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Witnesses are one of the toughest religious groups to cover. In the years I spent in religion reporting, I can only remember one time that the Witnesses cooperated with me as I reported a news story. That was when, as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went door-belling with the Witnesses sometime in the late ‘80s.

Now, they also tried to convert me, but that’s just a typical day in the life of a religion reporter, believe me.

I was amazed at how rude people were to the Witnesses. I connected with them during that time, but since then, I’ve never had any luck getting any response from the Witnesses for any other story. That is why I was impressed when an Inquirer reporter did this lengthy piece on sexual abuse in this very private, even secretive, religious group.

A second was all it took. A second was all he needed.

The little girl was 4, round-faced and freckled and dressed in her Sunday best. She was fidgeting next to her father inside the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Red Lion, York County -- a safe, familiar space for a family that spent nearly all of its free time preaching and praying.

Martin Haugh was momentarily preoccupied, doling out assignments to his fellow Witnesses for their door-to-door ministry work. When he looked down for his daughter, she was gone. Haugh plunged into the slow-motion panic of every parent's worst nightmare.

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Your weekend think piece: David French's painful letter to Trump's evangelical defenders

Your weekend think piece: David French's painful letter to Trump's evangelical defenders

Last summer, I did something that I had been thinking about ever since the first years of this 14-year-old blog.

I read went to this website's archives and looked around a bit, glancing at quite a few topics and then scanning posts inside some key ones. It's pretty easy to spot big, repeating topics, since the press has a pretty consistent worldview when it comes to deciding what is news and what is not. As the old saying goes: The news media don't really tell people what to think. However, they do a great job of telling news consumers what to think ABOUT.

After taking lots and lots of notes, I wrote out an outline for a journalism classroom lecture entitled, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Religion Reporting." This weekend's think piece is linked to Deadly Sin No. 2:

* Assume that religion equals politics -- period. After all, politics deal with things that are real, as opposed to mere beliefs. Thus, whenever people claim that their actions are based on centuries of doctrines and traditions, journalists should assume that those actions are actually rooted in political biases, party politics, economics, sociology, etc. Whatever you do, go out of your way to ignore doctrine.

Examples: Too many to number.

This brings us to this weekend's think piece, which is linked to one of those topics that you know will appear in elite media at least once a week -- Donald Trump's loyal defenders among white evangelicals. Here's a key post I wrote on this topic, just before the election: "Listen to the silence: It does appear that most evangelicals will reluctantly vote Trump."

Now, please check out this National Review piece by David French, a Harvard Law graduate who is a religious-liberty specialist. He is also one of the nation's most outspoken #NeverTrump religious conservatives.

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