N.Y. Times Obit Illustrates How Media See Religion Through Political Lens

The media don't get religion, often portraying intra-denominational struggles within American Protestant churches through a purely political lens, rather than as substantial debates touching on the core tenets of Christian doctrine or ecclesial discipline. What's more, in this political narrative, conservative defenders of Christian orthodoxy are invariably the bullies.

A recent example of this comes in the form of an April 30 New York Times obituary for "Cecil Sherman, Who Led a Faction of Moderate Baptists" within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Times writer Douglas Martin painted Sherman as a reluctant leader of a "moderate" faction that organized itself in a purely defensive posture against conservatives intent on "taking over" the denomination (emphasis mine):

In 1980, Mr. Sherman became worried after reading in a Baptist newspaper that a prominent Baptist conservative was developing plans to take over the convention. He wrote to 25 ministers, and 17 of them came to Gatlinburg, Tenn. They became known as the Gatlinburg Gang and organized many moderates to go to the convention’s annual meetings.

“We became the first group to be called moderates,” Mr. Sherman wrote in a book edited by Carl L. Kell, “Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War” (2007).

The moderates succeeded in increasing the percentage of ballots going to their candidates to 48 percent in 1988. But ultimately, Mr. Sherman and his allies concluded that they had no chance to win.

“Moderates feel dirty when they do denominational politics,” he wrote. “They have no heart for it.”

Of course, conservatives were trying to, well, conserve the historic Christian faith, including the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, which Sherman criticized. Even so, Martin painted conservatives as the troublemakers and opponents of church unity:

In 1985, he was appointed to a “peace committee” intended to narrow the differences between the two factions of Southern Baptists. He soon came to believe that the conservatives would never compromise and resigned.

The final straw came in 1986, when leaders of Baptist seminaries met to declare the inerrancy of Scripture “in any area of reality.”

Mr. Sherman had clearly stated his own views on the question in 1981, when he said, “I actually do think parts of the Bible are more valuable than others, more inspired than others.”

Perhaps to a secular Times reporter, Sherman comes off as "moderate" in the sense that he never argued that the Bible was complete bunk, but on a theological plane, it's quite a liberal attack on orthodoxy.

What's more, as Baptist theologian Albert Mohler explained in his April 23 Sherman obituary entitled, "This Man Was No Moderate," to label Sherman as a moderate or to hold him out as a reluctant combatant for his challenges to orthodoxy is not just an inaccurate portrait, but a discredit to his memory (emphases mine):

Patterson was courteous but clear in his responses. Cecil Sherman’s view of the Bible was stunningly out of step with Southern Baptists. More importantly, it was horribly deficient by any standard of biblical orthodoxy.

Years later, Dr. Sherman would tell Christianity Today that he would not want to see any professor removed from a teaching position in one of the seminaries simply because he denied the Virgin Birth. While affirming the Virgin Birth himself, he offered one of the most remarkable statements of recent Baptist history: “A teacher who might also be led by Scripture not to believe in the virgin birth should not be fired.” Led by the Scripture not to believe in the Virgin Birth? By then, Sherman was serving as Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of moderate Baptists who separated from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Throughout his years as a leader among more liberal Baptists, Cecil Sherman never hid behind a claim of moderation. He was a man of deep principle who seemed incapable of trimming his sails for the sake of politics or public relations. There was no lack of irony in the fact that such an immoderate man was destined to lead a group of people who insisted on being called “moderates.” He attempted to lead moderate opposition to the conservative resurgence in the SBC, even calling together a group of moderate pastors later known as the “Gatlinburg Gang” and orchestrating a sophisticated political strategy and machinery. His political efforts met with no electoral success. Writing years later he said, “I have a pretty good grasp of the obvious. We lost.”

[...]

Dr. Cecil Sherman was a man of many parts and a serious man of ideas. We must respect his bravery and courage in confronting the reality of racism. No one who knows his life story can respond with anything less than total admiration for the love and devotion with which he cared for his beloved wife Dot when Alzheimer’s disease struck. When Cecil Sherman gave his word, he kept it. When he pledged his faithful love in sickness and in health, he meant it.

[...]

We are not likely ever to see the like of Cecil Sherman again. No one will be able to understand the history of the Southern Baptist Convention in the twentieth century without reference to him. No one who had a meaningful encounter with him will ever forget him. Cecil Sherman may have led the moderate movement in the SBC, but this much is clear — Cecil Sherman was no moderate.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters