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 divorce.
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 time.
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 agency.
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.