EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on keeping secrets in church.
Reporter Louis Moore didn't know much about the Lutheran Church-Missouri
Synod when he began covering its bitter civil war in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, as a Southern Baptist with a seminary degree he knew a
biblical-authority battle when he saw one -- so he caught on fast. Soon he
was appalled by the viciousness of the combat between "moderates" and
"conservatives" as the 2.7 million-member denomination careened toward
Things got so bad he told a Houston Chronicle colleague that if the
Southern Baptist Convention "ever became embroiled in such a heinous war, I
would rather quit my job than be forced to cover it," noted Moore, in
"Witness to the Truth," his memoir about his life in the middle of some of
America's hottest religion stories.
"Regrettably, years later, I was an eyewitness to SBC behavior that made
the Lutherans' battle look like a Sunday school picnic."
The Lutheran fight was his "learner schism" and Moore witnessed many other
skirmishes in pulpits and pews before -- like it or not -- he was engulfed
by the battle to control America's largest non-Catholic flock. He also
served as president of the Religion Newswriters Association during that
The Southern Baptist Convention's return to the theological right would be
near the top of any journalist's list of the pivotal events in American
religion in the late 20th Century. This Bible Belt apocalypse also affected
politicians ranging from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, and anyone else who
sought national office in the "culture war" era following the 1960s and,
especially, Roe v. Wade.
After leaving daily journalism, Moore saw the Southern Baptist world from
the other side of the notebook for 14 years, serving as an SBC media aide
on policy issues and then with the convention's giant foreign missions
Moore said that in the "best of times" he saw believers in many flocks who
were so "servant-hearted and so demonstrative of Godlike virtues" that the
memory of their faithful acts -- in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for
example -- still inspires tears. But in the worst of times?
"I have seen church people ... violate every one of the Ten Commandments,
act boorish and selfish, be prejudiced, broadcast secular value systems and
in general behave worse than the heathen people they tried to reach," noted
Moore. In fact, just "name some sin or some act the Bible eschews, and I
could pair that vice up with some church leader or member I have known."
Moore said his career affirmed basic values that he learned as a young
journalist, values he saw vindicated time after time in the trenches. Wise
religious leaders, he said, would dare to:
* Adopt "sunshine laws" so that as many as possible of their meetings are
open to coverage by journalists from the mainstream and religious press.
"When you're dealing with money your people have put in the offering plate,
you should be as open as possible," he said. "The things that belong on the
table need to stay on the table."
* Acknowledge that "politics is a way of life and they need to make it
clear to the people in the pews how the game is played," he said. "I truly
admire the people who let the covert be overt."
* Come right out and admit what they believe, when it comes to divisive
issues of theology and public life. "Say what you mean and mean what you
say," he said. "Way too many religious leaders take one position in public
and say something completely different somewhere else."
It's easy to pinpoint the root cause of these temptations, said Moore. At
some point, religious leaders become so committed to protecting the
institution they lead that they are driven to hide its sins and failures.
There's a reason that clergy and politicians share a love of public
relations and have, at best, mixed feelings about journalism.
"People who get caught up in this kind of group think spend so much of
their time testing the waters and floating their trial balloons," he said.
"I prefer to deal with the people who are honest about what they truly
believe . . ..
"Of course, the other side of that equation is that these authentic
believers are often politically naive and that means that they don't
survive the realities of the political process."
NEXT WEEK: Why Catholic doors kept closing.
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center