Talking Points

The baffling persistence of plagiarism in the internet era

Shortly after the Southern Baptist Convention's prickly gathering in Nashville last month, a video circulated on Twitter showing the SBC's newly elected president, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, giving a sermon with striking similarities to a sermon previously delivered by the denomination's prior president, North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear.

Litton's critics quickly alleged plagiarism, dubbing the controversy "sermongate." In the days since, more videos have appeared with close turns of phrase. Statements from Litton and Greear agreed that the initial clip showed Litton borrowing content with Greear's private permission — but Litton's "church removed sermons from 2017 through 2019 from its website and YouTube," New York Times religion journalist Ruth Graham reports, "attributing the deletions to both a website redesign and a response to people 'going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.'" That explanation seems suspect at best.

Whether the plagiarism label is fair here I'm not sure, and Graham captures well both the difficulty of crafting a good sermon every week and the range of pastoral opinion on how much content can be ethically borrowed. But what strikes me as unambiguously bad — and downright stupid — is the failure to give credit to the source.

Unsourced content use is hardly a problem unique to Baptist pastors. Politicians plagiarize plenty. Prominent political plagiarists include President Biden, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Melania Trump, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and many more. I should hasten to add that we often can't know if politicians who plagiarize do so wittingly. Sometimes the real plagiarist is the staffer(s) who wrote the speech — an often stranger situation, as the staffer is likely to be younger and more internet savvy than her boss and therefore (theoretically) more aware of how search engines and online opposition research work.

That public — and particularly political — plagiarism still happens in the internet era might be the definitive answer to "stupid or evil?" It is stupid, and bizarrely so, for anyone who has used the internet to imagine he can plagiarize and not get caught. Google exists. How does any would-be plagiarist not understand this in the Year of Our Lord 2021? Discovery is an inevitability.