Well, 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.
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?