Earlier this week, I lamented the religion-free media coverage as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after a sex scandal.
Honestly, I expected to see the phrase "Baptist deacon" up high in all the day-after political obits of Bentley.
After all, the hypocritical nature of his religious emphasis after his inauguration vs. how he actually behaved while serving in the state's highest office had sparked in-depth magazine pieces from publications such as GQ.
On my personal Facebook page, my friend Alan Cochrum, a former copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, commented:
On the other hand, if the governor's piety had been pointed out, the news sources would get lambasted for piling onto a Christian. I think this is one of those "damned if you do/don't" situations.
I get your point, and it might be true in some cases. But in this case, you've got a former Baptist deacon in a state where Southern Baptists are 1 in 5 residents and whose sex scandal involved a woman from his church. Seems relevant to me.
The next day, I was pleased to see the New York Times do a follow-up story delving into the response of Alabama Christians to Bentley's downfall:
This is one of those pieces that I read several times attempting to figure out what rubbed me the wrong way. Here's what I came up with: The story makes broad statements and draws sweeping conclusions without a whole lot of evidence to back them up. The report, in some ways, impresses me as a mile wide and an inch thick.
For example, the details (opinions?) presented as facts in the second paragraph are never verified or elaborated upon:
This is a state that knows well how mixing faith and politics can lead to disappointment. When Mr. Bentley on Monday resigned from office and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in the wake of the sex scandal that ended his 50-year marriage, his downfall reflected both enduring and contemporary challenges for evangelical voters.
Meanwhile, some of the sources quoted are vaguely identified — to the extent that it's difficult for readers to gauge their agenda:
But others said it had become clear that for conservative Christians, the cultural and political issues that define modern conservative politics mattered at least as much as moral piety. That was why, they suggested, Mr. Bentley was able to cling to his job for nearly 13 months after his reputation as a paragon of probity came under fire.
“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”
Is Flynt an evangelical? If he a Republican? Is he a Southern Baptist? Is he a Republican (or a Democrat)? Is he critiquing evangelical voters from within the fold or as an outside observer (and frequent go-to critic for reporters)? Answers to these questions would seem relevant, but the Times does not provide them.
At the same time, give the Times credit for quoting a variety of sources and showing a willingness to let them explain — in words that will be familiar to evangelical readers — their reaction to Bentley's downfall:
“I think he’s just like all of us: He’s made of flesh and bone, and he’s temptable,” said the Rev. John Killian, a former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. “I believe it was the devil, and I believe the devil knew he was bagging big game.”
Mr. Bentley’s public demise, Mr. Killian said, held lessons.
“There is nothing Governor Bentley’s done that any of us couldn’t do if we’re not on guard,” he said. “People always saw him as a godly man. They’re disappointed, yes, but honest people need to realize we’re all susceptible.”
The Times' headline describes Bentley's resignation as a "bitter setback " (in print) and a "bitter blow" for Alabama Christians. But I'm not certain the story really proves that or even provides direct evidence of it. Sure, evangelicals quoted are disappointed in the governor's discretions, but they seem to characterize them as one man's sins as opposed to a setback or blow for all Christians.
I wanted to like this story. Really, I did.
And I suppose I found it mildly satisfying. But overall, I felt like the Times served up hors d'oeuvres when I was hungry for a steak dinner.
Agree with me? Disagree? By all means, please join the conversation by commenting below or tweeting us at @GetReligion.