Plagiarism, Privilege, and the State of Christian Publishing

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading about the Rev. Bill Shillady and his book, Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Clinton. During the campaign Shillady sent Secretary Clinton daily devotions to strengthen her faith and keep her focused on the work at hand. When I heard the book was coming out, I made a mental note to buy it.

Then I started to hear about allegations of plagiarism, and about how Shillady had used the work of others without properly citing it. I was saddened to hear that, especially given how easy it is for an author to say “this idea is not mine…it comes from this person”. Giving credit where credit is due should be standard practice, especially among preachers and writers. After a few days, though, I didn’t pay too much attention to the story.

Fast forward to earlier today when I received an email. It turns out that I was one of the writers whose work was plagiarized by Shillady for his book. I am apparently one of many. In particular, a section of one of my pieces written for the United Church of Christ’s Still Speaking Daily Devotionals was used in the book. The original piece came from the fall of 2015, and talked about my work as a trauma chaplain.

At first the email didn’t rattle me that much. I was shuffling through a typical pastor’s daily to-do list at the time. As the day wore on, though, I began to think about my experiences as a Christian writer, and about what it took to get my own book published. In fact, in the fall of 2015, around the time I wrote that devotional that Shillady used, I didn’t think I had much of a future as a writer. I was finally writing my first book but it was the end of a long, exhausting road.

My journey to publication began in 2013. Several pieces I had written for the Huffington Post had gained my writing a large enough following that I was signed with a literary agent in New York City. I put together a book proposal, and she shopped it around to a wide variety of large publishing houses, including those with religious imprints. We especially targeted imprints with more moderate to progressive takes on religion.

The feedback I received back on my writing was good, but there were issues. I am an openly gay Christian pastor in a same-sex marriage. I am also gender non-conforming. I write openly about both of these things in my work, because they are a part of my larger testimony. God has given me incredible grace, and I believe that God has created me to live with integrity and purpose, just as I am.

For Christian publishing houses, even fairly progressive ones, this was too far. One publishing house thought I would be too controversial. Another said they already had one book by a woman pastor, and one by a gay person, so a book by me would be pushing the envelope too much. I’ll spare you the rest of the stories. Suffice to say, I didn’t get a contract. My agent did her best, but I ended up withdrawing from the book-shopping process, and going back to blogging and occasional articles.

A little over a year later, something happened. I wrote a blog that gained a great deal of attention in my denomination. I spoke to Pilgrim Press about turning the idea behind that blog into a book, and they signed me to a contract. My first book, Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, was published in the spring of 2016. A new book, tentatively titled Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is coming out this fall.

The first book has sold well, and I’m extremely grateful to Pilgrim Press. They are a publishing house that produces amazing work despite a small budget and an even smaller staff. They never censored me, didn’t blink when my author photo featured a bow tie, had no issues with me dedicating the book to my wife, and gladly allowed me to use gender-neutral pronouns throughout my work (in what might be a first for a theological book). Above all, Pilgrim is one of the few Christian publishing houses that would sign an openly gay, openly gender non-conforming author.

That’s what makes Shillady’s actions so difficult for me to stomach. As a straight, white, gender-confirming man, he had access to publishers that people like me do not. Certainly he had a bigger pulpit; he was, after all, the self-professed devotional writer to a major presidential candidate, and so I know some of his access came from that fact. Even still, Shillady was able to access publication avenues that many of us cannot.

In the end it comes down to this. I wrote my testimony down, and talked about how God’s grace had worked in my life, and formed my belief. I want to share that testimony to others, to the glory of God. But, I don’t want others to take my testimony and claim that it is their own. Had Shillady asked me if he could quote me, I would have said “yes” in a heartbeat. But he didn’t. And so, we are here.

According to Amazon, Strong for a Moment Like This is currently the number one new release in devotionals. At this moment it’s in the top 2000 books out of millions that are sold on Amazon. This is despite the fact that the book was recalled earlier today and is no longer for sale.

Had Shillady written his own words, I would applaud him. Instead, I’m left with this fact: a man walked into a Christian publisher with my own words – words deemed too controversial for publication – and got those same words published. He took my testimony, and the testimonies of an unknown number of others, and he cashed in on them. I don’t care about the money, but I sure can’t ignore the irony. When privilege is combined with mediocrity and dishonesty, it’s hard not to feel frustrated when it gets rewarded.

I would wager that the woman who received those plagiarized devotionals from Shillady every morning might agree with me on that.

 

The Religious Liberty Quiz, and Why Crediting Original Writers Matters

I keep telling myself that it shouldn’t matter. So long as a good message is getting out there, why does it matter who gets the credit? And in a time when the state of Indiana has passed a law that will hurt so many of my LGBTQ friends and family, why am I wasting my time on an issue of citation?

I keep telling myself that a more spiritual person wouldn’t care about this. But the reality is that I do.

Over the last few days I have seen this graphic shared repeatedly on Facebook, Twitter, and around the blogosphere:

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The first time I glanced at it I realized that I was looking at my own words. Verbatim in many instances. “Oh, someone made that article into a graphic,” I thought. But then it hit me…the article wasn’t being cited on the graphic at all.

In the late summer of 2012 I wrote a blog post called, “How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions.” I shared it on my own blog, in a local paper, and in the Huffington Post’s Religion section, where I often blog. It was at HuffPost that the article took off. It has now been “liked” on Facebook over 225,000 times and shared widely. Here is the original post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-determine-if-your-religious-liberty-is-being-threatened-in-10-questions_b_1845413.html

I have to admit, I don’t think it’s my best writing. It was written quickly, on an iPhone, while watching the Republican National Convention on television during the 2012 Presidential elections. It was also written just over two months before my wedding to my now-wife.

Heidi and I were sitting in our living room, a minister and a seminarian, making plans about the religious marriage ceremony we would be having at her home church in Boston. This was a marriage that would be recognized by our church, but (in the time before DOMA was overruled) not by our country. And we were hearing speaker after speaker coming to the podium saying that their own religious liberties were being threatened by marriages like ours. (You can read more about that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/the-religious-liberty-qui_b_4878040.html)

It made no logical sense. And so, instead of yelling back at the television, I wrote this tongue-in-cheek quiz to demonstrate the logical fallacies of the “religious liberty” red herring that has been perpetuated for far too long by anti-gay figures.

The piece took off. And, unfortunately, it has been recirculated widely several times in the last few years. I say “unfortunately” because each time that has happened it has been in response to another law like the new “religious freedom” legislation in Indiana. I had really hoped that we could stop having this argument about now, but it seems Governor Pence and others have other plans.

And so, the article is once again circulating. And so is the above graphic, which uses my verbatim wording without crediting the original article. And, like I said, maybe this shouldn’t bother me. But it does.

Here’s why: plagiarism has always bothered me. Maybe the person who created the graphic did not mean to plagiarize. But they did copy exact phrases from an article I wrote and not put my name on it. Deliberate or not, that is plagiarism. Ask your freshman English professor, and they’ll agree.

So why does it matter, especially if the intentions are good? For me it’s because of this: I’m a writer. I’m a pastor first, but a part of my ministry, and a large part of my own spiritual practice, revolves around being a writer. Most of what I write, I write for free. Each month I write two devotionals for the United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals, and donate them to the church. I write blogs for HuffPost Religion and other blogs and I am not paid. I write on my own blog for free. And here’s the thing: I am fine with not being paid. It feels good to me to be able to write, and to share for the benefit of the larger church and others, and to pass on ideas I believe in deeply.

But, writing is sometimes emotionally exhausting work. That is especially true when we are writing about painful things. And that night that I wrote the religious liberty quiz, with a wedding weeks away and people on the screen in front of me saying horrible things about my family, I was feeling some pain. And I took that pain and channeled it into my writing, and into something I believed might help others. I also wrote it both as a LGBTQ person, and as a person of devoted faith, contexts that I believe are crucial to the piece. (Especially as I find most people falsely assume this quiz was written by someone hostile to religion and faith in general, and not someone who deeply loves their faith tradition.)

In the end I don’t need money or fame for it. But, I just think that when anyone writes from their experiences, especially a member of a group being openly and hostility attacked, they should be given the minimal courtesy of being named. For so long my LGBTQ friends and family had to hide because of whom they were. That is, thank God, changing. But the silencing of our experiences comes in so many forms, and even with the best of intentions it is still painful.

UPDATE: This graphic is now being shared at Patheos, Daily Kos, and more. If you see it, please make a note of the source. Thank you.