Scooping the Times, With Grim Gratification

For a reporter, even a retired one, there’s a charge of adrenaline in a scoop — getting a story before other journalists.

And if the scooped rival is the Big Kahuna, aka the New York Times, there’s an extra kick to it.

So I’m preening this morning, after noticing that the august Times, fresh off stuffing another Pulitzer Prize into its warehouse full of such trinkets, catching up with reporting that appeared here more than five years ago.

This despite the fact that the story involved mostly delivered grim news.

Seeing the Times headline, “As a ‘Seismic Shift’ Fractures Evangelicals, an Arkansas Pastor Leaves Home,” my immediate reaction was — I admit it — “Well now, it’s about dam time.”

The point of the story was very familiar:

Many churches are fragile, with attendance far below prepandemic levels; denominations are shrinking, and so is the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian. Forty-two percent of Protestant pastors said they had seriously considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year, according to a new survey by the evangelical pollster Barna, a number that had risen 13 points since the beginning of 2021.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, described a “seismic shift” coming, with white evangelical churches dividing into two broad camps: those embracing Trump-style messaging and politics, including references to conspiracy theories, and those seeking to navigate a different way.

In many churches, this involves new clashes between established leaders and ordinary believers.

Sometimes the breaches make headlines, like when Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist, left his denomination in 2021 after publicly criticizing evangelical supporters of former President Donald J. Trump and urging Christians to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

But more often, the ruptures are quieter . . . .

Quieter; yeah. Like the one that destroyed the venerable Quaker association in North Carolina to which I belonged. No big-city media took notice of our agony. But hey — Carolina Quakers are a small group, tiny dots lost in the carpet of flyover country.

Yet we were big enough to be a canary in the coal mine of white American Protestantism. Nor were we newbies: the Carolina association was 320 years old.  Further, our troubles were not just local, but part of a wave that split five such regional associations (Quakers call them “yearly meetings”), from here by the Atlantic across the fruited plain to the Pacific Northwest.

It was a big deal for us, that stretched across the first two decades of the new millennium.  And the issues that lit the fuses were also familiar.

“There’s a great separation taking place,” said Wade Lentz, pastor of Beryl Baptist Church in Vilonia, Ark., a few hours east of Fort Smith. “A lot of people are getting tired of going to church and hearing this message: ‘Hey, it’s a great day, every day is a great day, the sun is always shining.’ There’s this big disconnect between what’s going on behind the pulpit in those churches and what’s going on in the real world.”

A disconnect; that’s for sure, and not heralding many “It’s a great day” messages. Even so, this pastor knows where the future is for his pulpit lies:

Mr. Lentz has seen his church grow as he leaned into topics like vaccine mandates, which he preached against in a sermon titled “We Believe Tyranny Must be Resisted.” In 2020, sensing “so much disruption in the world,” he started a podcast in which he explores political topics with a fellow “patriot” pastor.

“This mind-set that Christianity and politics, and the preacher and politics, need to be separate, that’s a lie,” he said. “You cannot separate the two.”

Lentz appears to be right about that. Among American Quakers the resulting divisions provided enough fodder for many blog posts here, plus reporting which was compiled into a three volume series charting The Separation Generation.

The Times article focused on a once-popular Arkansas pastor, who thought of himself as a staunch, if thoughtful conservative. But in recent years he was increasingly targeted as a BLM fan following a pedophile Marxist agenda, as many in the congregation absorbed and echoed the burgeoning storylines of paranoia and pandemic-fed polarization.

He has now left for California, and:

He also wondered how the next generation of pastors would lead. Seminaries are shrinking, and many in his own congregation seemed to view his theological training as the thing that turned him “liberal.” The next generation might have less training, and be more inclined to turn churches into “an echo chamber of what the people want.”

Among Carolina Quakers, most members of the now-shattered association live in three counties, where voters went for the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 by a three-to-one margin, after previously voting against Barack Obama by similar ratios, twice.

In 2020, three years after the Carolina association folded, vote tallies in those same counties showed that the Republican margin increased.

Anyway, a scoop is a scoop, and if the Times is coming late to this “party,” there should be more such ahead; or as hungry reporters say, By God, this story’s got legs

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