Monday, May 16, 2011

Southern Baptist Good News -- Sightings

News accounts regarding religion, so says Martin Marty, focus on bad news, and he suggests that in that vein, he highlights the "bad news" in this column.  But features, on the other hand, focus on "good news," and such "good news" was recently highlighted in the New York Times regarding faith based disaster relief -- with the Southern Baptist Convention in focus.  Now, the SBC tends to be rather conservative these days and doesn't get as much positive press from us more progressive types, but when they deserve their kudos, we need to give them their due.  So, here's Marty's report:


Sightings 5/16/2011

Southern Baptist Good News
-- Martin E. Marty

We have to wear virtual sunglasses when we do our too-rare Sightings of positive religion news in public media, so bright are these exceptions to the down and depressing accounts. Since most religious people and those who benefit from their doings see and experience more bright sides than down sides, we ask: is there something wrong with those who report and publish or broadcast the depressing and scandalous stories? As someone who has hung out with the Religion Newswriters Association types for a half century, I’d argue that the problem results not from villainy or bias so much as from the nature of things, and have come up with a formula: if religion is covered as news, the bad stuff will predominate; if it appears as features, the good side gets a chance to show.

News waits for someone to embezzle or kill or seduce another in the name of God. Features allows for creative reporters to get up close to believing and behaving people who use their imagination, faith, energy, and communal spirit to serve others. Let me document this sort-of thesis by reference to the largest Protestant body in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention. Size alone commends it to the public eye; there are more Southern Baptists in the United States than there are Jews in the whole world. They often fight in Convention meetings; many of them engage in aggressive political moves that rouse reaction, and a few produce enough celebrity scandals to keep the media folk busy. But the total of all those doings doesn’t cancel out or properly portray the other sides of such Baptist life. In this case, witness the New York Times, which devoted almost a whole page under the headline “For Some, Helping With Disaster Relief Is Not Just Aid, It’s a Calling.” The Times even gave author Kim Severson space to explain what a “calling” is, and even to explain “faith-based” practices which are borderline transgressions in respect to some “church-state” issues and some no-no proselytizing.

Nor did Severson neglect mention of the specialty of other faith-based church bodies on the public scene: Mennonites (emergency supplies), Presbyterians (counseling), Lutherans, (shelter and long-term relief work), National Baptist Convention members (African-American church connections with governmental agencies), etc. But the main story featured the work of Southern Baptists, 95,000 of them trained at their churches to do instant disaster relief, accompanied by S.U.V.s (“spontaneous untrained volunteers”). Yes, they make up a news story, because they are vital, often first on the scene and last to leave, when hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or fires strike. An elaborate “war room” in Alabama directs operations, but the bases are local churches and homes.

“Churches are literally, honestly, the first ones there” said one Alabama official. “We’re the best-kept secret out there” said a Baptist cleanup man to Severson. She featured a retired couple who use their “leisure” to work; the writer, who observed and listened to them concluded: “And they did it all for God.” “I thought when we were done working that I wanted to travel,” said the featured Mrs. Blankenship, a former flight attendant. “I just never thought it’d look like this. But it’s our calling.”

There is much more in this story and there are many features like it elsewhere, accounts which can but should not be dismissed as “feel good.” If I go on much more in this vein I may lose credentials as a reporter on the way “things really are.” But Severson’s story illumines another dimension of the way “things really are,” apart from denominational controversies and from believers who have not yet learned “calling.”


Kim Severson, “For Some, Helping With Disaster Relief Is Not Just Aid, It’s a Calling,”New York Times, May 9, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


Editor’s Note: Sightings is now on Twitter! Follow @DivSightings and retweet our columns.


Can American Muslims be both loyal to their tradition and full participants in American civil society? In this month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum, Vincent J. Cornell argues that an embrace of the tenets of Shari‘a fundamentalism has led even would-be moderate Muslim leaders to reject the principles of American constitutional democracy. Consequently, they advocate (often unintentionally) a retreat from full participation in American civil society into sectarianism and “millet multiculturalism.” Against this tend, says Cornell, it is necessary for Muslim thinkers to find an “overlapping consensus” between Shari‘a and constitutionalism—one that gives warrant for the exercise of “unsupervised reason.”


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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