The New York Times Magazine

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court retirement throws the spotlight on one of the most influential players in Washington, D.C., when it comes to deciding what individuals inhabit the centers of power.  

We are talking about Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and the go-to guy for names of federal court appointees when Republicans rule the White House.

Alongside Leo, journalists should also be taking a close look at another Republican networker and talent-spotter, Kay Coles James, as of January the president of the Heritage Foundation. Both are devout Christians, a fact the media have reported. But few reporters have explored that aspect of their life stories in any depth, allowing good prospects for fresh, religiously themed features or interviews.

The Federalist Society, where Leo has worked since 1991, boasts a constituency of some 65,000 conservative attorneys, jurists, and law school students. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who provided the pivotal vote in three important 5-4 Supreme Court rulings this week, was on the lists from which candidate Donald Trump promised to choose his Supreme Court nominees in an unprecedented campaign gambit.

Trump’s prime resource in choosing those names was Leo, as recounted in New Yorker profile by Jeffrey Toobin last year. Toobin says Leo “has met and cultivated almost every important Republican lawyer” of this generation. In addition to Gorsuch, he was the man behind the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Leo was the chief Catholic strategist for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 and co-chaired Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee. (The Religion Guy covered for The AP his briefing of Catholic delegates attending the party’s New York City convention.) Despite that partisan affiliation, President Barack Obama along with leaders of both parties in Congress appointed him to chair the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Leo tries to attend daily Mass when possible and his “faith is central to all he does,” says Conor Gallagher of the Benedict Leadership Institute.

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