What’s the standard?

1034fec8-73f4-4f78-9e48-dd5d753b11acimg100Well, Lisa Miller certainly made a splash with her Newsweek cover story advocating for same-sex marriage on religious grounds. It was probably not the splash she intended.

It is no exaggeration to say the piece was an embarrassment. My analysis of the belly flop is here. On a radio show yesterday, the host asked me whether the piece was more offensive to my sensibilities as a journalist or a Christian. I went with “journalist” since the piece wasn’t anywhere legitimate enough, theologically speaking, to be considered seriously. As a journalist, it violated almost every rule in the book. It failed to accurately represent the viewpoint being scrutinized. It was riddled with errors. It was driven by emotion. More than a few journalists — one at a competing weekly news magazine — wrote to me yesterday asking, “Where was her editor?”

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is no dummy. He has written extensively on religion, everything from magazine cover stories to a book on civil religion that sits on my bookshelf. He co-edits the Washington Post/Newsweek religion site “On Faith.” He is a liberal Episcopalian and tends to advocate that approach in his journalism and essays.

So where was her editor, then? A good editor helps shape the story, makes sure it’s well researched and reported, notices blatant mistakes or errors in logic or of bias. Well, I have bad news. Based on his editor’s note, Meacham completely failed Miller and her readers. His note introduces and praises the piece.

Here’s a sample:

No matter what one thinks about gay rights — for, against or somewhere in between — this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt–it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yes, that’s right. The editor of Newsweek thinks that argument from the Bible is “the worst kind of fundamentalism.” Can you believe that? Can that be serious? Proper exegesis is difficult and requires a great deal of understanding of languages, types of writing styles, history and tradition — but determining what the Bible teaches is very serious work. Lutherans such as myself believe that Scripture is the only divine source and the norm for our teachings. That may be shocking to a liberal Episcopalian but to call such exegesis intellectually bankrupt is ignorant. And Biblical exegesis sort of defines the “great Judeo-Christian tradition.” Perhaps Meacham’s focus on civil religion and American history has made him blind to this fact.

We’ve noticed the tendency of the media to use the term “fundamentalist” to describe any conservative Christian. There was a particularly bad example of this in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year when I think the author was using “fundamentalist” to mean “people whose politics I disagree with.”

But if the worst kind of fundamentalist is someone who quotes Scripture in a policy discussion, the word fundamentalist has no meaning. I also question whether, say, Meacham considers religious liberals who use, say, the Sermon on the Mount to argue for domestic policy to be the worst kind of fundamentalists. Based on past coverage, I’m going to say no. In fact, this piece — and Miller’s — basically skirt the fact that the vast, vast majority of religious groups share a support of heterosexual marriage.

But apart from that, this bizarre preachment suffers from the same ignorance of the Miller piece — that opposition to same-sex marriage is based on Scripture instead of a wide variety of sources and tradition. Opposition to same-sex marriage is mostly based in Natural Law. I feel as if I’m doing a public service by repeating this for journalists but conservatives support defining marriage as a sexual union between a husband and wife, based around the ideas that babies are created via intercourse, that procreation is necessary for the survival of society and that babies need fathers as well as mothers.

Meacham’s note is an unserious response to conservative Christian views or conservative political views related to homosexuality. He assumes that Miller in any way understands Scripture when her piece was riddled with obvious errors. He compares world-wide, millennia-long support for heterosexual marriage with the post-Civil War anomaly of racist marriage laws (What I have called the Loving Corollary to Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies).

And then . . . and then he tells anyone who disagrees with Newsweek‘s shoddy advocacy journalism and unfair agenda-driven hackery to buzz off:

Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their “agenda,” a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.

What a scold. And the fact that, as a progressive, he seemingly doesn’t realize he’s a scold makes it so much worse. Has he ever spoken with a conservative? Does he know anyone who disagrees with his religious views from a more orthodox perspective? Doubling down on Miller’s hackery with this arrogant editor’s note reveals that Newsweek is willing to sacrifice everything from factual accuracy to basic civility in service to its agenda. And if the word “agenda” isn’t appropriate, it’s only because it understates what we’re dealing with.

Here’s what I wonder, though. Why is Newsweek considered mainstream media when it has a doctrinal agenda like this? Why do we consider publications such as The Weekly Standard and The Nation to be outside the mainstream media but Newsweek to be in it? What is our standard for making that distinction?

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  • Tyson K

    Mollie, did you just call The Nation a conservative publication? Surely not. I think what you meant was “conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and [liberal publications such as] The Nation…” But your meaning isn’t very clear.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is no dummy. He has written extensively on religion, everything from magazine cover stories to a book on civil religion that sits on my bookshelf. He co-edits the Washington Post/Newsweek religion site “On Faith.”

    So what? Lots of people have written extensively on religion. That doesn’t qualify any of them to be an editor of what is supposed to be a weekly news magazine. “On Faith” is a joke, as it the rest of Newsweek‘s coverage of religion. Meacham isn’t just letting it happen, he is directing it.

    Let the letters and e-mails come.

    Why bother, when he and his staff have demonstrated time and time again that they don’t care about the point of view of anyone who disagrees with them? To paraphrase Meacham, this is the worst kind of journalism.

  • NW Ohio former Anglican

    Meacham may be theologically unserious. But his analysis is lifted right out of the Episcopal Church’s approach to exegesis (or should I say eisegesis?)

    Been there, heard that, analyzed it, got the T-shirt.

  • Stoo

    And if the word “agenda” isn’t appropriate, it’s only because it understates what we’re dealing with.

    What kind of fiendish liberal plot do you see here? (apart from one to write iffy bible analyses) Really, i’m curious to know what’s so ominous that the word agenda is an understatement.

    Anyway I read the guy’s comments more as saying that argument *solely* from the bible should be rejected. But hey, if it’s time to batter on the gates of Natural Law instead then that’s great.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Tyson:

    MZ was not responsible for that editing error. The blame is mine. It’s fixed.

  • Stephen A.

    I heard Lisa Miller’s name on the news today, but not the same one. This Miller is an EX-Lesbian from Vermont who split from her gay partner and took the child they raised together from birth to Virginia and didn’t let her former partner have custody. A judge gave both partners custody recently.

    (from a Google search: see “Court rules…”)

    One wonders if THIS Ms. Miller at Newsweek simply wanted to be as outrageously biased as possible as if to shout “I’m not THAT Lisa Miller!!!” from the rooftops.

    Call it a case of overcompensation. Or a favor by the editor, allowing her rant to be the cover story because she’s being mistaken for the infamous (in her liberal circles anyway) “ex-gay”.

    Just a theory.

  • Mark Ward Jr

    Mollie, I’ve appreciated your two posts on this topic today and yesterday.

    I encourage you, however, to read what theologian John Frame has to say about natural law. He expresses deep appreciation for the work of J. Budsizsewski on the topic, but he argues strongly that natural law isn’t sufficient to govern culture.

    For a fuller but very readable explication, check out his new book, The Doctrine of the Christian Life.

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  • Tyson K

    Thanks for fixing it, Terry. I suppose next time somebody makes a mistake like that I’ll spread the blame around :)

  • Dale

    What kind of fiendish liberal plot do you see here? (apart from one to write iffy bible analyses) Really, i’m curious to know what’s so ominous that the word agenda is an understatement.

    “Agenda” doesn’t necessarily mean something fiendish. I took Mollie’s comment to mean that Newsweek’s viewpoint on same-sex marriage is so strong that it’s taken the magazine’s writing beyond advocacy into self-defeating hyperbole and polemics. “Worst kind of fundamentalism”? “Intellectually bankrupt”? When you call that kind of writing “news”, you discredit journalism.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    tmatt:

    Typos, typos, typos…;-)

  • Jay

    Why is Newsweek considered mainstream media when it has a doctrinal agenda like this? Why do we consider publications such as The Weekly Standard and The Nation to be outside the mainstream media but Newsweek to be in it? What is our standard for making that distinction?

    Newsweek is mainstream media, just as the NYT, WP, LAT etc. are mainstream media. It’s just that since Vietnam and Watergate, the goal of the MSM has been social change rather than reporting the news.

    Time and Newsweek stories have always had more opinion than a newspaper story, but I agree that proper editing would mean that they would at least be factually accurate.

  • Harris

    In defense of Meachum:

    His point on Scripture was correct. Naked appeals to Bible with their flat, decontextualized reading are a classic mark of fundamentalism (and I might add, of error). The point he makes for consideration of the character of Scripture and its exegetical history is pretty much what Mollie in her snark-mode makes in the following paragraph.

    For Protestants, and I suppose especially for those in Reformed traditions, the question on Scripture and homosexuality turns on hermeneutics: the manner in which biblical words are culturally translated for today. While the Princetonian’s appeal to Reid’s Common Sense philosophy is seen to be an exegetical key, an excuse for this flat reading, the reality is that even there its use was much more supple in practice as any reading of BB Warfield will demonstrate.

    Of course, this flat fundamentalist reading has been rejected by those who embrace or hold a place for Tradition. They have often recognized, as the Anglicans did of the Westminster Divines, that appeals to Scripture are often but appeals to Self, a blindness.

  • Jerry

    Why did you not discuss Jon Meacham’s own words on the controversy? http://www.newsweek.com/id/172688

    Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color. The analogy with race is apt, for Christians in particular long cited scriptural authority to justify and perpetuate slavery with the same certitude that some now use to point to certain passages in the Bible to condemn homosexuality and to deny the sacrament of marriage to homosexuals. This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts. The Devil, as Shakespeare once noted, can cite Scripture for his purpose, and the texts have been ready sources for those seeking to promote anti-Semitism and limit the human rights of women, among other things that few people in the first decade of the 21st century would think reasonable.

    This is, of course, a theological viewpoint that many will agree with and many will find objectionable. But his perspective is clear.

  • Jerry

    sorry – please scribble the above note- I was totally distracted.

  • Dave2

    Mollie wrote:

    But apart from that, this bizarre preachment suffers from the same ignorance of the Miller piece — that opposition to same-sex marriage is based on Scripture instead of a wide variety of sources and tradition. Opposition to same-sex marriage is mostly based in Natural Law.

    Mollie, do you have any support for this claim? For example, are there polls/surveys/studies showing that conservative opposition to same-sex marriage stems more from a concern for Natural Law than from a concern for Scripture (or from personal disgust with homosexuality)? Given my experience growing up in the South, I’m inclined to find your claim implausible, but I recognize that personal experience and anecdotes means nothing compared with actual empirical evidence. So, do you have actual empirical evidence?

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  • FW Ken

    the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color.

    As always, I feel bound to note the bait-and-switch tactic in Mr. Meacham’s words. Skin color is certainly not the only thing “intrinsic” to our humanity. There are all sorts of genetic defects. What Mr. Meacham means has nothing to do with the cause of sexual orientation, but it’s nature. In short, he is arguing that because something is biological in origen, it’s “normal” or “god-given”. Tell that to the parents of an anencelphalic baby.

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  • Ron

    What I find so remarkable is that Newsweek characterizes itself as a mainstream publication while expressing with such vitriol its contempt for mainstream opinion. Proposition 8 won, and in California of all places. Where exactly is the wisdom in spitting in the face of the majority of voters? Is Newsweek nuts? Has it ceased to be a business and become a pulpit instead? If this isn’t an instance of Dan Quayle’s “intellectual elite” rum amok then I have never seen one. You can’t even argue that the intent is to change people’s minds, since the tone of contempt is too strident for that. What I get from this is that the definition of mainstream has changed from “common opinion” to “common ELITE opinion.” Non-elite opinion is of no consequence. The intent is one of de facto disenfranchisment, and since its inspiration is an electoral VICTORY, I find this alternately sinister and childish.

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Newsweek a mainstream news magazine because like the National Enquirer and People they are on the racks at the supermarket check out line. There is nothing more pto it.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    Unless everyone who would cancel has already canceled, surely essays like this one hurt subscription numbers. Do editors anymore tally up the angry letters to determine what or what not to publish?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Curious….

    So the pope is a fundamentalist?

    The whole of Eastern Christianity is fundamentalist?

    The vast majority of the world’s Anglicans are fundamentalists?

    Don’t we need another word here?

  • Martha

    “Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color.”

    Ladies, gentlemen, others: this is the whole point of the objection to Mr. Meacham’s piece. When he states that clergy of a Christian denomination basing their church upon what they believe is the command of God as given through divinely-inspired Scripture is “the worst kind of fundamentalism”, and the best case for a religious defense of the opposite side comes down to genetics, then we’ve got a problem.

    It’s not even that he isn’t comparing apples and oranges, it’s like saying “Briefly put, the Anglo-American common law legal case for supporting the decriminalisation of Schedule I drugs begins with the recognition that addiction is not a choice – a matter of behaviour – but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin colour.”

    If any judiciary based their opinion on such a foundation, how long do you think it would stand? Thirty seconds? Ten?

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  • Brian Walden

    Dave2 asked:

    Mollie, do you have any support for this claim? For example, are there polls/surveys/studies showing that conservative opposition to same-sex marriage stems more from a concern for Natural Law than from a concern for Scripture (or from personal disgust with homosexuality)?

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the John Paul II’s Theology of the Body are examples of arguments built primarily on understanding the nature of man (and scriptural support from the Catholic perspective is more likely to come from the creation stories in Genesis than the laws of Leviticus). On a personal level, I was in favor of homosexual marriage for most of my life and reasoned my way into the contrary position. While my reasoning could be wrong, unless I’ve got some kind of subliminal feelings going on, I didn’t reach my conclusion out of a personal disgust with homosexuality.

  • Alberto

    In response to Mark Ward Jr., I think that Natural Law theory may be a good and even biblical idea. But by this I don’t mean that everything that is presented as Natural Law is good. I lean towards the Reformed tradition, the tradition to which John Frame belongs, and it has a long history of people that held Natural Law; from John Calvin to Princeton theologians like B.B. Warfield, Natural Law has been advocated overwhelmingly until the 20th century. I should point out that the Reformed understanding of Natural Law is significantly different from that of Roman Catholocism. Here are some links to a professor with information on Natural Law in the Reformed Confessions and some Natural Law resources.

    http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/natural-law-and-light-in-the-reformed-confessions/

    http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/resources-for-reformed-approaches-to-natural-law/

  • Asinus Gravis

    It will be a striking change in American journalism when the principle developed here for mainstream journalism gets fully worked out.

    Since majority opinion is now the criteria for what counts as facts and truth, it will apparently not be long before majority spelling, terminology, and grammar are requisite for our papers and other media.

    Anything other than those features of common usage and views would be too uppity and judgmental and political and liberal to pass muster. That would be even more so if they deviate from long lasting preferences.

    It should go without saying that there should be no comments about the attire of the Emperor.

  • Dave2

    Brian Walden,

    I wasn’t asking for evidence that natural law arguments are out there. I know they are. What I’d like to know is why we should think that such arguments are actually behind conservative opposition to same-sex marriage. That’s why I asked for polls or surveys or studies or something like that.

  • http://www.colombianito2.blogspot.com Sergio Méndez

    “Lutherans such as myself believe that Scripture is the only divine source and the norm for our teachings.That may be shocking to a liberal Episcopalian but to call such exegesis intellectually bankrupt is ignorant. ”

    Well, Why can´t the case be made that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is indeed inetelectually bankrupt? I think it is not only those evil progresives that seem to think so, but also catholics.

  • Charming Billy

    Mr. Meacham’s thinking about scriptural authority is confused and confusing. Christians of every confession cite scriptural authority to justify foundational claims about their beliefs. But what principle does Meacham provide that would allow one to distinguish between this common appeal to scriptural authority and the specific appeal to scriptural authority in the case of gay marriage? If the really quite modest and ecumenical claim that scripture is “final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life” is untenable, then what standard remains for authoritative for Christians? In effect Meacham declares any appeal to scriptural authority “the worst kind of fundamentalism”. But Meacham can’t have his cake and eat it, too. If he judges the appeal to scriptural authority “intellectually bankrupt”, then what could be more bankrupt than his own “Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage”?

    Furthermore, the appeal to the “intrinsic” nature of sexual orientation in a Christian case for gay marriage is problematic. For even if sexual orientation is biologically intrinsic, it does not follow that this exempts an individual from the spiritual or moral consequences that might follow from his or her orientation. For example, it might very well be the case that psychopathy is somehow biologically intrinsic. However, it does not follow that an individual who is “intrinsically” and humanly incapable of experiencing or appreciating basic moral categories and personal relationships is exempt from the redeeming power of God’s personal, loving presence. Such an individual, having experienced such redemptive love, is therefore not exempt from responding in ways, such as gratitude and love of neighbor, that run counter to his or her “intrinsic” responses.

    Moreover, while classical Christianity has never maintained that humanity is “intrinsically” sinful, it has taught that humans are flawed in such a way as to be fundamentally alienated from God and that therefore we lack both saving knowledge of God and of ourselves as created beings. Hence the resort to biblical authority: without a witness to God’s redeeming work in Christ, we remain alienated both from God and from ourselves. Such a witness is found principally in scripture. However, Meacham has already ruled out such an appeal, making it impossible for him to argue for gay marriage based on knowledge of human nature in light of God’s purposes.

    Perhaps Mr. Meacham would not reject biblical authority so completely if he had not such difficulties with biblical exegesis. For instance, he writes that scriptural prohibitions against homosexual activity “are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts.” It is true that passages teaching the sinfulness of homosexual activity are sometimes found among apparently irrelevant and prima facia absurd cultic prohibitions. However, prohibitions against homosexual activity are related to a doctrine of divine purpose for humanity in a way that tonsorial requirements are not. These latter requirements are related to the specific response of Israel as God’s chosen people; the Christian application of these now abrogated requirements is teach that the appropriate response to God’s redeeming activity is one of gratitude and obedience, expressed generally in love of God and neighbor, rather than in a specific hairstyle. However, the prohibitions against homosexual activity are “part and parcel” of a wider and more foundational understanding that humanity is made in the image of God and that this image is completed in the union of both man and woman. It is in light of this understanding of human nature and divine purpose that Christianity finds gay marriage problematic. Might I venture to suggest that if Mr. Meacham were “in full possession of the relevant cultural and religious history and context” he would avoid these kinds of exegetical difficulties?

    So, while it may be true that Mr. Meacham has “history and demographics” on his side he cannot, having rejected biblical authority, claim that scripture or the Judeo-Christian tradition reinforce his views; nor can he speak credibly of his opponents views as “unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.” Indeed, it is not wise for Mr. Meacham, as a Christian, to rely on sheer numbers or the brute inevitability of history to support his Judeo-Christian case for gay marriage.. Both Jews and Christians believe that God is the God of history, and that God works through history to teach His people – often the hard way—His purpose for them. But the course of history is not identical with God’s revealed purpose. That purpose in revealed in history only through God’s word, and God’s word is, for Christians and Jews found principally in the Bible.

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  • http://www.fatherhollywood.blogspot.com Rev. Larry Beane

    Well reasoned, Mollie.

    I agree with you that Meacham is a “scold.” He is also a Barbarian. For a man who makes his living with words ought to understand the meaning of “agenda” – a Latin word that means “it is to be done.” The “progressive” and “inclusive” viewpoint is, by his own admission “that which is to be done” – the default position of rags like Newsweek – which can be counted on to trash Christianity every Christmas and Easter just as surely as a man who can’t hold his liquor can be counted on to spew vomit all over the floor.

    In fact, his pronouncement that “history is on our side” calls to mind Nikita Khrushchev saying the same thing about communism. All that was missing is the pounding of his shoe on the table and the promise to bury us. Birds of a feather…

    When it comes to history of more than one generation, an appeal to logic and natural law demonstrates that history is on the side of “the breeders” as opposed to those who are forced to improvise an unnatural form of sexual activity that is incapable of producing those who move history along.

  • http://christiananswersforthenewage.org Marcia

    What if Meacham had written something like this:

    __No matter what one thinks about gay rights — for, against or somewhere in between — this conservative resort to Buddha’s (or the Koran’s) authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of Buddhism (or Islam) the making of the Buddhist texts (or Koran) and critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Buddhist texts (or the Koran, to argue that something is so because it is in the teachings of Buddhism (or the Koran) is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Buddhist (or Islamic) tradition._____

    I imagine that a lot of people would have been stirred up over that, including those who agree with Meacham’s original statement.

  • Barnes

    Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this thoughtful and pointed response to what was a completely ridiculous article. I recently subscribed to Newsweek again after a long absence, and am starting to wonder why, what with its shameless journalistic stumping for Obama (who I supported, but nonetheless, shameless!) during the election to their condescending take on a view held by the majority of the voting public. I hope they receive a flurry of thoughtful responses that engage with this issue in a way Newsweek’s staff was not willing to do.

  • Charming Billy

    I’m always suspicious of facile psychologizing and try to avoid ad hominem caricatures. (Really I do.) But the outstandingly poor quality of Meacham’s editorial, in comparison with his other quite good and admirably disinterested writings, suggest that maybe this is just a tantrum in response to the newest, and possibly most successful, Anglican split up in Wheaton.

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  • Zach

    I would just like one person to find a quote in the bible in which Jesus states, “Marriage between two beings of the same sex is against the will of God.” Without this statement any biblical argument agasint same-sex marriage is only an interpretation of the bible.


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