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Bias is back

News Media | The post-9/11 Talibanization of U.S. religious conservatives continues

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

WORLD reported in our April 27, 2002, special issue that liberal and neoconservative pundits in the news media during the six months after 9/11 had indulged "in broad religious profiling.... The New York Times and its disciples would have us believe that conservative Christians are major threats to domestic tranquility." Four news stories in June (concerning Southern Baptist Convention speeches, a book tour by ex-Afghanistan captives Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, and the Supreme Court school-choice decision) created a good opportunity to see whether press biases had diminished-but regrettably, the bleats go on.

1: UnMerritted disfavor

On June 11 at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual gathering, SBC President James Merritt said, "We love homosexuals. God loves homosexuals. But He loves them too much to leave them homosexuals."

Mr. Merritt told of how he "had the privilege of leading two lesbians to Christ. We baptized one of them two weeks ago. I sat in their home and had one lesbian look at me with tears coming down her cheeks after she had prayed to receive Christ." He quoted the second lesbian as saying, "Our lives have been radically changed. Our desires have been radically changed."

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Mr. Merritt concluded, "Christ has the power to change anybody. And so I urge you never ever condemn a blind man because he cannot see. These people are lost. They need Christ. Except for the grace of God, it would be us."

The Associated Press reported the address as follows: "ST. LOUIS (AP)-The head of the Southern Baptists condemned homosexuality from the podium yesterday .... 'Stop killing us. Stop the spiritual violence,' one [gay demonstrator] shouted.... 'You need Jesus,' shouted back the Rev. Robert Smith, a pastor from Cedar Bluff, Ala. Others hissed...."

Words like condemned and hissed convey an impression of hatred. But the overall story died quickly, in part because bigoted reporters could not do much with Mr. Merritt's actual statements; the tone was strong but compassionate. Mainly, though, that story died because a better example of Southern Baptist "bigotry" soon emerged.

2: Swinging at Vines

Also on June 11, Rev. Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., told the SBC gathering: "Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives-and his last one was a 9-year-old girl." This was very tough language (I personally prefer the pastoral emphasis of Mr. Merritt) but it arguably had a factual base. In Islam the Hadith-stories of Muhammad's life-have canonical status alongside the Quran; the most revered collection of Hadith, the one edited by Bukhari, notes that Muhammad had many wives, including 9-year-old Aisha (Vol. V, nos. 234, 236).

Whether that made Muhammad a pedophile could be debated among psychologists, and whether he was demon-possessed has been debated among theologians for almost 1,400 years-Muhammad himself at one point thought he might be-but there was no reason for journalists to be shocked, shocked that Mr. Vines, a former SBC president, took a strong stand against Islam. Nor was it big news that he spoke colorfully; when a pastor is talking to other pastors and church leaders at a conference, a preach-off-somewhat like a Pillsbury bake-off-is common. Everyone at such conferences rolls out the rhetorical cannon.

Reporters and Muslim lobbyists, though, made Mr. Vines's statements a big deal. A New York Times news story cited Mr. Vines's remarks as an example of "hate speech against Muslims" that has "become a staple of conservative Christian political discourse." The Associated Press quoted Muslim complaints about "hate-filled and bigoted language." Journalists, instead of attempting to determine objective fact, merely emphasized subjectivity, as did a publication with an honest title, PR Week: The Baptist leader had uttered what "was deemed hate speech by Muslims and condemned by Jewish groups, other Christian denominations, and moderate Baptists."

Hate, hate, hate, emphasized an Associated Press reporter who came up with a nifty quotation from Islamic Studies professor Ingrid Mattson: The Vines statement "makes me wonder what's the hateful religion right now that we should be worried about." A Washington Post news story attacked Mr. Vines in similar terms, but at least cited the book that was the basis of Mr. Vines's charges (Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, brothers raised as Muslims who embraced Christ in 1982 and are now professors).

The Post ran an editorial on its editorial page to accompany the editorial in its news section. The editorial's first paragraph gives a sense of the whole: "Some people who follow these things say no one should be surprised by the anti-Muslim bigotry of a former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe that's right; maybe when the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the convention, called the prophet Muhammad a 'demon-possessed pedophile,' we shouldn't have been shocked, only disgusted." The editorial then took President Bush to task for not having blasted Rev. Vines.

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