What does it mean when a religious leader—a recognized moral leader—is discovered to have used the unattributed words or ideas of others? Is the message’s truth diminished by plagiarism?

Students are catechized to believe there is no greater sin than copying another’s work. Moral outrage, perhaps tinged with self-righteousness, is a predicable, personal response.

But the roots and practice of plagiarism are complex: Information is widely and conveniently available, results are more valued than procedures, and disciplines and protocols regarding the effective presentation of material in our culture are negotiable.

For example, we are confident that Lincoln composed the “Gettysburg Address” himself. But since then most presidents—and many other leaders—have offered speeches and publications completely or mostly created by others.

The publishing world is populated by “ghost writers” who provide others with their autobiographies, histories, policy proposals, cookbooks and tips for personal success. Many professionals advance their careers by publications which have been researched and written by colleagues and subordinates on company time—with barely a thanks in the acknowledgments.

The present focus on plagiarism is linked to a new vigilance regarding personal integrity. But it is also surely connected to a heightened awareness of “intellectual property.” Fed by the instantaneous availability of information on the Internet, concern about plagiarism is likely as much a focus on economic self-interest as it is truly a consideration of ethical purity.

The consequences of plagiarism can be severe. More than mere embarrassment, professional scholars have lost positions and even careers as a result of it. And in medicine, we might ask, “Would you want a neurosurgeon who used crib notes to get through his exams?”

Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of plagiarism in writing his dissertation. His critics heightened their assault on the righteousness of his cause, as if borrowing the words and phrases of others negated the fundamental truth of his message. But is the power of God’s Word diminished by a lack of footnotes? Clearly not. But the Word may become confused in transmission.Clergy, especially, face a dilemma. No other profession is served by as many resources. Mediocre “sermon services,” published sermons of past and present preachers, commentaries and endless volumes on biblical and theological themes—all provide enormous help, and great temptation, to the practicing preacher and the scholar alike.

Plagiarism is not new. Robert Moats Miller, one of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s biographers, claims that the great liberal preacher’s sermons were frequently preached verbatim, even by fundamentalists who publicly attacked his theology. Some preaching and writing teachers even suggest mimicking the style of “great preachers” in the process of developing one’s own style. But in preaching, as in art, the line between “mine and thine” is thin.

Christianity itself has been enriched by material “handed” from one generation to the next. “If you should ever experience what you consider to be an original idea,” advised one of my professors, “go and see what St. Augustine had to say on the subject.” And scholars generally agree that at least three of the four Christian Gospels were derived from a previous “Q” text which they paraphrased or used verbatim. Were Matthew, Mark and Luke “plagiarists” at the beginning?

There may be such a thing as “spiritual property.” Perhaps the gospels and their antecedent are an example. If so, to whom does it really belong? Surely it belongs in part to the listener. “A congregation doesn’t come to church on Sunday morning needing to believe that what they hear will be authentically delivered from the original pen of their minister,” Verlyn Klinkenborg editorialized in the New York Times. “They need to believe that whatever he or she has to say to them will be true and full of solace, applicable to the days and weeks ahead.”

Congregations served by preachers and writers of modest ability no doubt welcome and certainly benefit from “guest editorials” and “borrowed sermons.” But regardless of others’ habits, there is no substitute for integrity in preaching and writing.

Preachers usually know when they have spoken from their own experience and perspective, and when they have reported the insights of another. Even the weakest nod of attribution—the ubiquitous “as someone once said”—saves them from outright theft. Full attribution confirms their scholarship as well as their integrity.

It is God’s truth that matters. But religious writers and preachers should practice the same standards of attribution expected of others, even if those standards are at times contradictory and unevenly observed.

In fact, they should practice a higher standard, because God has a hard enough time gaining a hearing. Failure to distinguish our personal experience and understanding from what we have gained from others provides an excuse for some not to listen at all.

Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.

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