What would Richard Ostling do?


That would be Richard Ostling, the veteran religion writer for the Associated Press. This is the same Richard Ostling who did such high-quality God-beat work for Time in the days before cover stories on the agony of dog overbreeding and the like.

So we are facing months or even years of escalating coverage of political and religious issues linked to same-sex marriage. There is no way around this. Ink will be spilt.

So, WWROD? First of all, he would remember the roots of the story. This is one of the advantages of being a veteran reporter. He would also read books, reports and articles that very few other reporters read. He would, for example, read the work of truly edgy writers on the religious left and the right. The goal is to find on-the-record ideas that have not been reported to death elsewhere, on-the-record statements that illuminate the current debate and, perhaps, show where events might be headed.

Take, for example, Dr. Marvin Ellison, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) clergyman who teaches ethics at the United Church of Christ’s Bangor (Maine) Theological Seminary.

Ostling wrote a column about this openly-gay theologian’s new work, “Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis,” published by Pilgrim Press. Ellison is more than willing to peer into the looking glass, so Ostling served up a bracing list of these observations. Ellison, for example, thinks:

“… a lively debate is needed,” for instance, on whether marriage should now be redefined to recognize “polyamorous” people, those involved with “multiple partners.” He wonders, “How exactly does the number of partners affect the moral quality of a relationship? … Could it be that limiting intimate partnerships to only two people at a time is no guarantee of avoiding exploitation?”

Besides pondering marriage for bisexuals, he protests that the narrowly “bipolar” definition of marriage excludes “intersexuality, transgenderism, transsexuality and other sexualities.”

And what about the forthcoming national debate on same-sex marriage? This, it appears, is old news. Perhaps the goal of the self-labeled “queer theologians” should be for the state to abolish marriage, not redefine it.

Ellison notes that some Christian liberals who advocate gay marriage hope to stem “gay male cruising and experimentation with multiple anonymous sex partners” and to foster monogamous commitment. … In his view, strong defense of gay sexuality “requires critiquing the notion that the only moral (and legal) sex is marital sex,” because old sexual categories and moral norms should be reconsidered.

In particular, marriage is based on monogamy, which is “limiting and does not reflect the different ways in which couples structure their partnerships.”

These are not viewpoints that make it into daily newspapers on a regular basis. But fierce debates about the meaning of words such as “monogamy” and “fidelity” are not new. For at least a generation, gay and lesbian theologians have debated whether marriage should be abolished or merely changed.

Once again, Ostling knows this because veteran reporters who are committed to a beat never throw away their notes or their telephone numbers. This is one reason the editors who run newspapers may want to consider hiring God-beat specialists who have graduate studies in this field and resumes that show signs of experience.

While this Ellison book may seem edgy, Ostling already knew this theologian’s name. Why? Long ago, Ellison was one of the authors of a controversial 1991 PCUSA report on sexuality, which made some ripples in the mainstream press by saying:

“Rather than inquiring whether sexual activity is premarital, marital or post marital, we should be asking whether the relation is responsible, the dynamics genuinely mutual and the loving full of joyful caring.”

Meanwhile, Ellison and other members of the committee defined fidelity as “an open-ended process of learning” how to “renegotiate” the character of any given sexual relationship “as needs and desires change.” After all, “a reformed Christian ethic of sexuality will not condemn, out of hand, any sexual relations in which there is genuine equality and mutual respect.”

Large choirs of Presbyterians raised their voices to denounce this report. It was, perhaps, ahead of its time. But it was a sign of where the world of edgy, progressive mainline religious leaders wanted to go then and want to go today.

In the meantime, colleagues, we can keep asking: WWROD?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Paul Tillich

    How about a follow-up in the same genre titled: “What Would Jack Kelley Do”? now that he’s been found to have abused his position by fabricating significant parts of major stories, according to USA Today’s blue ribbon investigatory panel in today’s edition (http://www.usatoday.com/news/2004-03-18-2004-03-18_kelleymain_x.htm)

    You might use this as an opportunity to reflect on the question raised on Romanesko back in January by

    Christian journalists and newsroom trust

    1/19/2004 6:57:26 PM

    From JOHN PHILLIP SANTOS: There was a troubling sidebar to the NYT coverage of the Jack Kelley flap, reported by Times media correspondent, Jacques Steinberg. 

    Reporting on an interview with Johanna Newmann, Kelley’s onetime foreign editor at USAT, now at the LA Times, Steinberg reports that Kelley, because he was so widely trusted, was allowed to use only a first name to identify the author of an alleged Serbian girl’s diary that contained murderous anti-Croat vituperations. The story ran on USAT’s front page.

    “That trust, she (Newmann) said, was rooted to some extent in his openness with his colleagues about being an evangelical Christian. ‘He was this very earnest, moralistic Christian reporter,’ she said. ‘It made people trust him in ways they didn’t trust other reporters. If he was reporting he had the diary of a Serbian girl, and no one else had it, you tended to say: ‘He just has a way with people. People just respond to him.’ ”

    Steinberg moves on without probing further the implications of Newmann’s remarks.

    How many newsrooms operate in the shadow world of such an ethic? What kind of an editor would factor a reporter’s evangelical Christian beliefs into whether or not to go with a dubious piece of reporting, much less admit to it in the New York Times?  Would a good Muslim reporter be likely get the same green light from Newmann? A righteous Bahai or a compassionate Buddhist? 

    I guess even the most upright Atheist would have to be willing to account for every fact they want to report to the public.

    God help us.