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.

That angle would include, of course, reflection on terms such as confession and lament. And, yes, sin.

Mohler’s cover letter on the report is, after all, filled with such language.

“The moral burden” quote is included in the Wall Street Journal’s, which is more thorough and readable than the Times’ account.

Even more in-depth is the Washington Post’s account — not produced by one of the newspaper’s award-winning religion writers. But the Post devotes much of its coverage to those skeptical of Southern Seminary, citing “a lukewarm reaction from experts” and later “critics and other observers.” (“Hanging a lantern” only helps so much, apparently.)

“Sin” does make a cameo appearance later in the Post’s report:

Many Southern Baptists hoped the resolution would be the last time they would have to confront the denomination’s racist past, Mohler wrote in the report.

“At that time, I think it is safe to say that most Southern Baptists, having made this painful acknowledgment and lamenting this history, hoped to dwell no longer on the painful aspects of our legacy. That is not possible, nor is it right,” he wrote. “We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story."

So — if someone is interested in news coverage of the theological side of this story — where should they turn?

Veteran Godbeat pro Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service is known for her fairness, insight and expertise on racial issues. She’s also covered Southern Baptist matters for as long as I can recall. (Full disclosure: I write occasional freelance stories for RNS, but I don’t think that’s influencing my critique of this coverage.)

Here’s what I appreciated about Banks’ story: She asked about the theological ramifications:

Asked if the seminary will apologize for its founders’ stances, Mohler said he could offer “a very clear statement of institutional sorrow,” but it is not possible to apologize for the dead.

“We certainly want to make very clear that we are a very different institution than we were then,” he said, noting its more recent history of inviting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the school in 1961. That visit prompted white Southern opponents in the Baptist denomination to withhold money from the school and the seminary’s president at the time to issue an apology.

Asked if the seminary is repenting for its ties to slavery, Mohler said “to the extent that repentance rightly applies, we surely repent.”

“The problem is theologically repenting for the dead,” he said.  “We cannot repent for the dead.”

I came across a link to additional coverage of this story by NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. However, I only see one paragraph. Perhaps there’s a longer audio? (Update: Gjelten sent me a better link to the full version of the story.)

I Googled but didn’t see any coverage from the Louisville Courier-Journal, which offers hit-and-miss (too often miss) on Baptist issues in Kentucky ever since all-star religion writer Peter Smith left for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

What other coverage — good and bad — are you seeing on this important story? Please share links.

Also, what else did you notice in the reporting? Anything else that stood out or was missed?

Any crucial follow-ups that you’d recommend?

As always, we’d love to hear from you.

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