Assume the official position

this week in godWhile visiting the blog of Episcopal priest Joseph Howard I came across a link to a new journalism and religion site. Funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, the site has blogs, links to a Second Life community, and other features. Here’s how it’s described:

Stories about religion are too often framed around conflict and controversy, culture wars and holy wars. We want to tell another story — the lived experience of people’s faith.

We are a team of journalists from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley exploring “God, Sex and Family.” That’s where choices about marriage, dating, the building of community, family and faith play out in private life.

And public life, too! I love the idea behind the site, as I’ve long advocated against religion stories being framed around conflict. And I think the current scope of sex discussions (homosexuality, abortion) is far too limited in most media coverage of religion.

It’s just getting started but some aspects are worth looking at. One popular area is the Moral Compass, where you can learn what the “official” positions are for nine major religions: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reform Judaism, Mormon, Muslim (mostly Sunni), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a major world religion, isn’t it? Why not Zoroastrians?

It’s also interesting to note what is missing. Where are the Pentecostals? Where are the non-Baptist evangelicals? Where are the always-forgotten liberal Baptists? Charismatics? Why is Reform Judaism more important than the Conservative branch? How about Hindus? I would love to see the argument for including United Methodists over Hindus. A partial answer is given by one Erin Fitzgerald:

The plan for the Moral Compass was to state the “official position” for nine major religions. We discussed and debated which nine those should be. We wanted Hinduism; wanted to include it very much, but it didn’t fit our parameters, that is, first, stating the official position, then indicating nuances to that position via the videos. I personally contacted several Hindu groups but they said that Hindus do not normally take positions, as a group, on these types of ethical decisions. One of the Hindu organizations I spoke to said that they are currently working with other Hindu groups to prepare those types of statements, but the “official position papers” wouldn’t be ready until well after our deadline. In short, we did what we could given these constraints.

I know these are only grad students, but this journalist has just explained why so much media coverage is lacking. Rather than looking critically at the parameters set out by the project and readjusting to reflect the reality of different religions, the group simply excludes the religion that doesn’t fit. I’m not saying I’m not sympathetic, but it’s just interesting to contemplate how this works in story assignment and development.

When sources don’t say what you want them to say, do you ignore them? Do you exclude them? Do you rethink your story’s premise? I’d say how you answer that question says a lot about the quality of the piece you end up with.

The problem with Hinduism’s lack of “official” positions is legitimate, though. But how well did the journalists do with understanding the official positions of, say, the Episcopal Church? Here’s their answer to the question of what the Episcopal Church’s official position is on whether gays and lesbians can marry and have such unions blessed by the church:

We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

But as Howard notes, that’s not an official position and fails to reflect the true “fuzziness” of the current Episcopal position that is clearly changing:

I think it is important to point out that the response as to homosexual relationships are blessed by the entire Episcopal Church, thereby making it an official position is incorrect. At the most it should be listed as “varied” or “discerning,” since the item you refer to as indicating official blessing was merely a resolution indicating that some Episcopalians are exploring this as a legitimate position and we are not sufficiently of one mind to condemn them. That is hardly a unified and official position, and I would hazard a guess that while the majority of the Episcopal Church voted not to reject such practices at General convention, a majority of Bishops have not approved such rites, nor would they encourage priests in their dioceses to use them. A little more clarity about our confusion would be appreciated.

It’s a good point and one the journalism grad students should keep in mind as they develop their Moral Compass. After all, this is the closest most journalists will come to a moral compass. I kid, I kid. It’s been a long week at work. What do you think of the site? What could be improved? Is this a sufficient improvement over The Daily Show‘s “This Week in God”?

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  • Jerry

    I just had the best chuckle of the week. I went to the site, left the religion in God’s hands, wound up with Buddhism and clicked on the position on masturbation. The answer? “What is the sound of one hand clapping”.

    But seriously, there are questions that I think are much more important than the ones which are asked. Such as “What one precept or commandment is most important in your faith?” Or “What is the biggest sin or mistake that someone of your faith can commit?” I suspect that many don’t know the answers for their own faiths let alone other’s.

    I do agree with the basic idea, that too often religious stories are framed in terms of conflict, but this site to me is only a small step along the way of redressing that balance. And their search for an official, ex cathedra, position on controversial issues is also a mistake.

  • Kathy

    One hand clapping, haha.

    The video representing the Roman Catholic teaching on masturbation gives every impression that the teaching is silly and out of date, based as it is on the faulty biology of a byegone age.

    If this group wants to represent teachings, they should do that, not argue with the religions they’re supposed to be discussing.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Forgive me if I don’t drop everything to read the insights of a group of journalism grad students from Berkeley.

  • Dale

    Beserkeley grad students, eh? They may need a course in reading Anglican fudge recipes. Under the section on premarital sex, the “official” Episcopalian position is that it is “condemned”. What the Episcopalian position actually says is this:

    All parishes are urged to teach and support sexual abstinence, self-respect, resistance to peer pressure and respect to those who say ‘no’ to sex before marriage.

    How does offering respect to those who refrain from premarital sex amount to condemnation? Perhaps they should have contrasted that carefully worded, nonmoralizing response with the Muslim one:

    There is punishment for premarital sex. . . . In traditional literature, the punishment is 100 lashes, but only if 4 people witness the act.

    Now that’s condemnation, although one does wonder how often premarital sex acts are performed for an audience of 4 or more.

    My favorite response to the premarital sex question was the Buddhist scholar:

    ‘The young people of today are not, usually, notably impressed by the wisdom of their elders. They may quite often be perfectly right in this skepticism, but of course it does not follow that they themselves are really any wiser. It may be that their folly merely takes on a different form. Let us remember that basically, if Buddhism teaches us anything at all, it is that almost all human beings are pretty dim-witted, on the whole. That after all is why we are here at all. But still, if those who are parents can succeed in inculcating a sense of responsibility into their young, that in all probability is about all they can do.’

    Replying to a question with a resigned shrug of the shoulders and a comment on the general stupidity of the human race doesn’t impress me as “no position”. It’s more of “Why bother? You won’t listen any way.”

  • rw

    I would hate to see the dialogue about religion coverage fall into the academic morass of framing everything in terms of race, class, sex, and gender. However, if you follow Ravi Zacharias, they may be on to something:

    “Is is possible that somewhere deepest recesses of the human heart, that we are really not battling intellectual ideas as much as we are fighting for the right of our sexual proclivities and our passionate indulgences?… Aldus Huxley said it when he wrote his book Ends and Means: ‘We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”

    Ravi Zacharias, Lessons from War in a Battle of Ideas – 2000

  • Izzy

    They don’t want to sub-divide religions, but accept Reform Judaism as representative of Judaism.

    It reminds me of push-polling. Ask the questions in such a way to get the predetermined answer. Choose the persons to answer in such a way to get the same predetermined (and safe!) answer.

  • Robin Edgar

    “One popular area is the Moral Compass, where you can learn what the “official” positions are for nine major religions: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reform Judaism, Mormon, Muslim (mostly Sunni), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a major world religion, isn’t it? Why not Zoroastrians?”

    Good question. Perhaps Zoroastrianism is not included as a “major” religion because there are so few Zoroastrians left. Apparently there are less than 200,000 Zoroastrians world-wide. OTOH One could exclude Unitarian*Universalism for similar reasons since there are probably not that many more card carrying U*Us in the world. I really do not think that Unitarian*Universalism can pretend to be a “major” world religion when there are so few U*Us in the world.

  • Julia

    I think the grad students snuck in a joke answer under Episcopalian. Interfaith marriage received a rating of “blessed” followed by a citation to Henry VIII !!!!!

    Check out this new story in The Times of London which relates that the Queen’s grandson may have to renounce his place in line to the throne because he’s engaged to a Catholic woman. It doesn’t even matter that she may not practice her faith – it’s enough that she was baptized Catholic. In order to avoid this fate, she must officially renounce the Catholic Church. Interfaith marriage is not so blessed, it seems.

    Two problems with the Catholic answers.
    1) The site says that “divorce” is condemned, but then the citation only says that civil divorce does not dissolve the religious marriage. It’s re-marriage that is condemned not civil divorce.

    2) The site says that women serving as clergy or pastors is condemned. Surely, “condemned” is an awfully strong statement for something that is not allowed by church rules. It sounds like women are being condemned as women. Who can serve as clergy is not a moral issue; it’s a structural or administrative rule having nothing to do with whether women or moral or not. Of course, one might think the rule itself if immoral, but that’s a different question.

  • mim

    Where are the Lutherans?

    On second thought, who speaks for the Lutherans? ELCA, LC-MS, or someone else?

  • Jay

    Yes, I was going to ask, where are the Lutherans, since there’s 3x as many of them in the US as Episcopalians? Also, when we talk about “world” religions, is an Episcopalian a representative of Anglicanism? Is ELCA (or LCMS) representative of the Swedish or Norwegian church (let’s ignore the Prussian Calvin-Luther fudge in Germany). And since Reform and Conservative Jews are neck & neck in the US (at about 40%), why pick Reform?

  • Don Lattin

    As the editor of the UC Berkeley project, let me try to respond to a few of the above comments, some of which are valid.

    Obviously, it was a subjective decision as to what denominations and faiths to include. We based it partly on the size of the Christian groups in the US (top three — Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Methodist). We picked Episcopalians rather than Lutherans because of the current debate among the Anglicans over gay priests and bishops. We choose Unitarians to show another views of these issues. We would have like to include the three major Jewish movements, but didn’t have the room or the time to do that. We tried to pick churches that had official positions and used those whenever we could. We made the calls on “blessed” and “condemned” as best we could. We screwed up on a few, including the Episcopalians on premarital sex — and we’ll change that to “discouraged.”

    As the editor, I argued that Buddhism wouldn’t really work because there are no “official” positions, but the group wanted to include them, so we did the best we could given those limitations. For those who want us to include Hindus, take a shot at it yourself and you’ll understand the problems. This is one of those things that’s much easier to pick apart than to produce. Same problem when you try to include “Pentecostals” or “evangelicals.” We tried to include some alternative voices in the videos, which in many ways are the most interesting elements to the project. Don’t miss those, especially the clips not related to specific questions via the video button on the lower right. For instance, we include a Methodist pastor who disagrees with the denomination on many issues related to sexual ethics.

    Also remember that this is one piece of a much larger project involving four journalism schools called “Faces of Faith in America,” Please look at the rest of our work at Some of this was an experiment, including the Moral Compass, so lighten up, folks. No one could put something like this together and make everyone happy…

    Our students worked very hard over the summer (this was all produced in ten weeks!!!) to put together dozens of stories for print, video, radio and Internet platforms. Check it out at

  • Chris Bolinger

    I find it interesting (and telling) that the only participants who go on record about their religion affiliation are those who don’t have one.