Back in June, Pastor Ed Litton was elected the President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in what was a close and contentious election.
However, it wasn’t long after the votes were cast that Litton found himself facing a very different challenge: Accusations of plagiarism.
The allegations began as something of a trickle, with a YouTube video highlighting similarities between a sermon Litton gave and an earlier one by Pastor J.D. Greear. However, soon, more similarities and more videos began to crop up with evidence that many of Litton’s sermons contained work originally by Greear, usually without attribution.
However, so far, Litton has addressed only one of the accusations, the original one. Saying that he asked for and received permission to use the story but should have been “more careful” to provide citation for the sources.
Greear, for his part, has tweeted his support for Litton and largely corroborated Litton’s version of the story.
In an act that threw more fuel on the fire, Litton’s church has removed over 140 videos from its site. According to the church, this was because, “People were going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.”
Meanwhile, a separate YouTube channel has appeared, hosting additional videos that highlight additional similarities between Litton and Greear’s sermons.
However, the controversy seems to have only furthered the schism that preceded his contentious election. Those that were opposed to Litton before the vote have launched a petition calling on him to resign. As of this writing, it has just over 500 signatures.
Still, others have raced to his defense, with some saying they would rather have “good sermons composed by others than bad ones of his manufacture.” Even pastors within the SBC are divided over the incident, with some calling for his resignation and others saying that he should thoroughly account for his deeds but not resign.
The impacts of “Sermongate”, as it is being called by those opposed to Litton, have even turned their focus to the seminary system from which Litton came. According to one professor that taught at a seminary school, the institutions have a relaxed approach to academic integrity and essentially “Mass-produce plagiarism.”
In short, the story is both chaotic and ongoing. Though it’s already been going on for weeks, it shows no sign of stopping or slowing down.
However, this isn’t a new issue, it’s one that many churches have faced over the years and many more will. But this time, there may be enough cause for not just the SBC, but all religious institutions, to pause and think about this issue proactively.
Plagiarism at the Puplit
Strangely, this isn’t even the first significant plagiarism scandal the SBC has faced. Back in 2012, Robert Land, then the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was accused of plagiarism on his popular radio show.
However, even then the issue was divisive for the SBC with many racing both to attack and defend. Ultimately, his radio show was cancelled, but ultimately faced no reprimands other than two statements against him.
The problem is that religion and plagiarism always make for a thorny conversation. There are two primary reasons for this.
First, much as with political plagiarism scandals, people often approach the scandal with a preconceived notion about the person involved. One of the reasons plagiarism is so difficult to agree on is that we often apply different standards to people we like than we dislike, even if we don’t do it consciously.
As such, it’s no surprise that those who supported Litton before the scandal, largely, continue to support him now. Likewise, those that oppose him are doing the same. The battle lines of plagiarism scandal were largely drawn on the convention floor, not after.
The other is because attribution standards in religious settings are, on the whole, very ill-defined. Though students and researchers have strong and precise standards about what must be cited and when, religious leaders, especially at the pulpit, often don’t.
Some churches view any preparation for a sermon to be against their code. Others demand meticulously researched and original sermons from their leader’s voice, while still others feel that plagiarism is wholly acceptable because giving the best sermon, not personal glory, should be what is of the utmost importance.
All three of these approaches are potentially valid. What is important is that the audience, the person being copied from and the person giving the talk are all on the same page. If everyone involved agrees to a certain attribution standard (or lack thereof), then it is not unethical.
After all, plagiarism is about the lie behind it. However, if there is no expectation of originality, then it’s not a lie to present someone else’s work without citation. It’s much like the difference between a novelist who plagiarized and a celebrity that uses a ghostwriter for their autobiography. One has an expectation of originality, the other does not.
For Litton, one of the challenges he is facing is a big change in audience. Where, previously, his work was only viewed by his church, the election pushed him onto the national stage. As this election showed, the SBC is a large organization that is made up of many institutions that are often very different from one another.
What may (or may not) have been acceptable to his audience might not be acceptable to others. Looking at the sharp divide in the SBC, it’s easy to see how that my impact views on plagiarism too.
None of this is to say that what Litton did is right. Instead, it is to say that judging pastoral plagiarism is impossible without knowing the expectations of everyone involved. What this case has shown more than anything is that there is a divide in the SBC on these issues, and one that needs to be addressed.
To that end, this story could become an opportunity for the SBC to actually address these issues and set real guidelines for its members in this area.
An Opportunity and a Challenge
One of the challenges of dealing with pastoral plagiarism is that it’s very frequently not acknowledged. Though many religious leaders do copy from their colleagues, the exact amount and frequency is unknown. It’s simply something that churches do not talk about often.
However, this story is an opportunity to fix that. The SBC could take this opportunity to create firm rules and guidelines about plagiarism at the pulpit and elsewhere. Theoretically, the Land case could have been that moment, but it wasn’t.
To achieve this, the SBC would need to establish a team (one independent of Litton) to draft guidelines on the topic. Those guidelines should cover both the expectations of pastors when giving sermons and the repercussions for when those guidelines are broken.
Those guidelines could be as simple as saying that it’s ok to copy and not cite so long as the message is in line with the SBC’s teachings, or it could take a very strict approach and rule that all such copying without citation is forbidden. It’s a matter of what they want as their standard on this subject.
Though the SBC has an ethics committee, it may wish to establish a new committee specifically for addressing alleged violations such as these.
Regardless, the main thing is to create a standard and enforce it. Right now, there is no such standard and that makes it difficult to hold Litton accountable, even if the majority do believe he should.
In the end, no matter what happens with Litton in this case, it is at least equally important for the SBC to turn around and try to address the issue of pastoral plagiarism head on. If it buries the issue as it did following Land’s case, it’s merely setting the stage for the next one of these scandals.
Though I’ve been critical of the SBC through much of this, I want to be clear that Litton has not carried himself any better. When confronted with a scandal such as this, one such as Litton has an obligation to be open, transparent and honest about what happened.
Removing the videos, addressing only one incident, and generally trying to ignore the issue is the antithesis of that. Even if Litton’s copying isn’t a problem, his response to the controversy absolutely is.
That said, as an outsider whose interest in this case is purely with the plagiarism, I see this as an opportunity. Clearly, the SBC has many divides and this appears to be one of them. Taking this opportunity to draft standards and set expectations could be infinitely valuable in the future.
By ignoring and setting this aside, the SBC merely sets up future controversies, big and small. By creating a firm standard that applies to all members in their various activities could help improve solidarity, at least on this issue.
While this may not be the most pressing issue facing the SBC right now, it is one of the easier ones that they can tackle.
Ultimately, it’s up to the SBC is this is another issue that divides them or the start of some kind of cooperation.