More “moderate” than thou (Rumble III)

home leftcol imageRemember that soul-searching June 23, 2005, memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff? This was the one called “Assuring Our Credibility” (PDF) that talked about the newspaper needing to do a better job of covering religion and being fair to people whose beliefs seem strange to people who work in the world’s most powerful newsroom.

I like that memo — a lot. I also think that Keller was rather brave to write it. Here is one of my favorite passages, talking about the work of a committee that is trying to help the newspaper work on its faults and build bridges to its critics. Keller writes:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

GetReligion readers already know how this blog feels about the abuse of the term “fundamentalist,” as defined in The Associated Press Stylebook. So let’s not linger there.

But what about that “moderate” problem? It does seem that, in many religious and cultural disputes, there are “conservatives,” “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” who are forever wrestling with intelligent, sensible people called “moderates.” There are no “liberals” in sight.

Which brings us back to the Episcopal Diocese of California and its election this weekend in San Francisco of Mark H. Andrus, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Alabama, as the new leader of one of the most liberal regions in the U.S. Episcopal Church. There was a somewhat surprising result, which ABC News captured in a rather blunt headline atop a Reuters report: “Heterosexual elected Episcopal Bishop of Calif.”

At the New York Times, reporter Neela Banerjee continued to cover this story, noting that the diocese did elect a straight white male, but one who had bravely stood up for gay rights in the heart of the Bible Belt. So this landslide in Grace Cathedral (photo) was a cautious win for the Episcopal left. Here is a summary:

Bishop Andrus, 49, was not one of the gay candidates. … Nonetheless, in an acceptance statement via a phone call piped into Grace Cathedral, where the voting was taking place, Bishop Andrus said he would continue to support the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.

“We must all understand, and here I address the Diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people,” Bishop Andrus said, referring to continuing in the Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million members worldwide. “My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute.”

So this election did nothing to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion, but it did not make matters immediately worse. You can find a similar template in the solid stories featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

mitre2But before we go, let’s reflect on a passing remark near the end of that Banerjee report, which included fleeting references to other Episcopal elections taking place across America this weekend.

Take the race for a key mitre down in the Bible Belt, for example:

In the Diocese of Tennessee … voting for a new bishop ended in a stalemate on Saturday after more than 30 ballots. Lay delegates backed a conservative minister who they hoped would take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church, and clergy members backed a more moderate choice, said the Rev. William Sachs, director of research for the Episcopal Foundation, the church’s analysis arm.

There are several loaded wordings in that paragraph. It is possible that this “conservative” candidate believes that it’s more important in the long run to keep the Nashville diocese in the global Anglican Communion (majority conservative, on moral theology) than in the U.S. body currently called the Episcopal Church (majority liberal, on moral theology). However, one can be sure that the use of the “moderate” label here — outside of a direct quote — is loaded. The analysis is, after all, coming from the head of the analysis office for the New York City-based Episcopal hierarchy.

And that would certainly sound right to the New York Times. So here is the question for Keller the editor. Does the New York City Episcopal establishment get to determine who is in the “moderate” camp?

P.S. No sign, as of yet, of the Times publishing a correction on Banerjee’s earlier story, which reported that the Anglican Communion (77 million members) is the world’s second largest church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Christian communion (250 million members).

Print Friendly

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.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    There may be people in the Diocese of Tennessee who hoped that the Rev. Canon Neal Michell, who held a solid majority among the laity but not among the clergy, would lead the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. But Michell said clearly, in every diocesan forum I listened to over the Internet, that his long-term commitment is to stay and work from within the Episcopal Church. Indeed, not a single conservative in the Tennessee race even suggested he would attempt to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

  • Michael

    I’m confused. Sachs isn’t the candidate, he’s the one using the word “moderate.” Sachs, who went to liberal places like Baylor and Vanderbilt and who works for the Foundation, which has the liberal purpose of being an “independent, lay-led organization that serves the church by providing innovative resources for philanthropy, education and leadership development.”

    It’s in New York–although Sachs isn’t from NY–so maybe that makes him a liberal who can’t identify a moderate. But is it the reporter’s fault that ther Episcoplal priest who works for an independent organization and doesn’t appear to have a political axe to grind calls him the candidate a ‘moderate.”

  • tmatt


    Thank you for the correction. I misread that last night. My apologies. Please note my rewrite and the comment of the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc above.

    Corrections always appreciated, folks.

  • C. Wingate

    I also question the interpretation of “clergy vs. laity” in the Tennessee election failure. One of the cool things these dioceses are doing is reporting the results in real time; therefore there are a lot of us geeks keeping an eye on them. In Tennessee a lay preference Michell appeared early on; he very nearly held the necessary supermajority when voting was stopped. The clergy voting never seemed to really coalesce around one candidate. It fits the news mold (stupid laity have to be led forward and all that) to cast this as a battle between clergy and laity, but the votes seem to indicate that the real conflict was among the clergy themselves.

  • dk

    It doesn’t matter who uses the terms, liberal, conservative, moderate, progressive, traditional/ist, etc. They only make full sense in a context that situates them in relation to particular issues. They’re fine as shorthand among people who do understand the context and who realize each terms doesn’t translate so well from church to church, and certainly not from religion to religion. But that’s not journalists and many of their reraders, apparently.

  • Dan Berger

    An emphatic second to dk’s post. In just the past few days, I’ve had two people (one from each end of the political spectrum) make assumptions about my politics, not to mention my positions on a number of issues we weren’t discussing, from my position on a single issue that was under discussion.

    My positions on various issues would probably be labeled everything from reactionary to radical by the NYT, depending on the issue in question. So it’s not terribly helpful to just throw out words like “moderate” or “conservative” in a vacuum.

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • Becktemba

    Great points are being made on this Blog.

    Who is the authority on what is ‘Liberal’ and what is ‘moderate’ and what is ‘conservative’ it seems that the news editors at various publications have the freedom to make thier own determination. As for me I think it should be measured against the Bible. Clearly the Episcopal and Anglican Church is a Liberal as you can get – a trusted dictionary-( Take a look, the liberals have even got to the new online Dictionaries to re-define the word. Look here: (
    “Free from Bigotry:intolerance” has been added to the definition. Think about that. That means they would accept any position. Thats contradictory in itself.

    These Churches can in no way be deemed as ‘moderate’ (

    Using these words mean that you are comparing it to some sort of standard. Its seems that the only standard that the papers use is within the Episcopal church itself, in relation to most Christianity the Episcopal ‘church’ cannot be seen as anything but ‘Liberal’

  • Becktemba

    4 entries found for liberal.
    To select an entry, click on it.
    liberal[1,adjective]liberal[2,noun]liberal artslimousine liberal

    Main Entry: 1lib·er·al
    Pronunciation: ‘li-b(&-)r&l
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin liberalis suitable for a freeman, generous, from liber free; perhaps akin to Old English lEodan to grow, Greek eleutheros free
    1 a : of, relating to, or based on the liberal arts b archaic : of or befitting a man of free birth
    2 a : marked by generosity : OPENHANDED b : given or provided in a generous and openhanded way c : AMPLE, FULL
    3 obsolete : lacking moral restraint : LICENTIOUS
    4 : not literal or strict : LOOSE

    5 : BROAD-MINDED; especially : not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms
    6 a : of, favoring, or based upon the principles of liberalism b capitalized : of or constituting a political party advocating or associated with the principles of political liberalism; especially : of or constituting a political party in the United Kingdom associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives
    - lib·er·al·ly /-b(&-)r&-lE/ adverb
    - lib·er·al·ness noun

  • Ben Smith

    Surely “liberal” and “moderate”, when taken at their literal, face value meanings (rather than the venerable library of meanings both words have come to have) both mean the same thing?
    A ‘liberal’ is a person who takes a lot of liberty with his/her politics, theology, etc, on the basis that free-thinking and open-mindedness is a good thing. On the other hand a ‘conservative’ wishes to conserve whatever teaching has been the norm in the past, on the basis that it has been proven, stood the test of time, (in politics) or is really what was originally taught (in history/theology). A ‘moderate’ could be a person that takes not just the traditional view, but all views in moderation, (e.g., emphathises with the gay rights activist and conservative Muslim as well as the conservative Christian) which seems to be a very open-minded, ‘liberal’ (in the literal meaning of the word) thing to do.

  • http://microsoftinternetexplorer m raitt

    The Episcopal Church does not believe in the history, claims, promises,or discipline of the Christian faith in any possible definition of that term. It is substituting general good will
    a sort of social bond, and charity to supplement the charity that socialist governments have learned from the historic faith. It has ritual without content and political conviction without any basis for this conviction. It will be remembered as an aimable fraud.