Big controversy, little reporting

In the nation’s smallest state, a big controversy is brewing over the keynote speaker for the inauguration ceremony of the new University of Rhode Island president. The reason for the furor: President David M. Dooley has asked a Christian minister to deliver the keynote address at Thursday’s ceremony. The Providence Journal reports that the decision “has triggered a campus-wide discussion about the separation of church and state, tolerance and free speech.”

Who’s the speaker causing so much concern? The Journal introduces him this way:

Dooley invited Greg Boyd, a well-known minister from Minnesota, to deliver the keynote address at the April 8 inauguration, a choice that has sparked all sorts of discussions — online, informally and in campus meetings.

Now, the reference to “a well-known minister” immediately made me snarky — maybe because the name didn’t ring a bell with me. If he’s well known, there’s no need to describe him as such. Unfortunately, that’s as far as the story goes in identifying Boyd. The reader never finds out where he serves as a minister, much less if he belongs to a particular denomination (for the record, he’s the senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church, a megachurch in suburban St. Paul).

The story goes on:

Some students and faculty say they are concerned that Boyd’s views on issues such as same sex-marriage and abortion — he opposes both — and his position as a religious leader make him an inappropriate representative at such a significant public university event.

“Under almost any other circumstance, inviting Greg Boyd to campus to speak would not bother me,” said Lynne Derbyshire, associate professor of communication studies and women’s studies. “But given that the inauguration is supposed to represent what the university is and will be in the future, I’m concerned that [Boyd's] very public views do marginalize a significant portion of the university.”

What are those very public views? The Journal provides no specific details. The story cites no past quotes from Boyd on same-sex marriage or abortion. And the piece includes no fresh quotes from the minister on those issues, although he is otherwise quoted.

Why did the new president invite Boyd to speak?:

Dooley, the son and husband of Baptist ministers, said he had read many of Boyd’s books and was struck by their emphasis on themes Dooley says are relevant to college communities. These include separating politics from religion, advocating nonviolence and refraining from judging others, views that have put Boyd at odds with evangelical Christians.

“I really am leery of people thinking you can easily translate your faith into political categories,” Boyd said. “Because when you start doing that, you start demonizing everyone who doesn’t agree with you.”

OK, apparently, Boyd has written many books. What are the odds that this particular story names even a single one of them? (If you answered “zero chances in infinity,” you win.) But crazy me, I think the title of one of Boyd’s books (the one that got him front-page play in The New York Times in 2006, not to mention a GetReligion post by Mollie) might be relevant in this story. That book was called “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church.”

Suddenly, I’m wondering again about that “well-known minister from Minnesota” description. Would “outspoken critic of the religious right” be more accurate? And if so, is this minister really taking on same-sex marriage and abortion — which tend to be political buzzwords — or has he simply expressed his theological viewpoint within the context of his church? Again, there’s no way to know by reading this story.

Finally, while avoiding any comments from Boyd on same-sex marriage or abortion, the Journal lets the minister discuss what he considers the negative connotations associated with the term “evangelical”:

Boyd said he no longer describes himself as an evangelical as the word “has gotten so wrapped up with so much that I’m against. Jesus does not want to enforce his morality on others. That’s why he attracted prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus has this encompassing embrace. His love for people outruns his desire to control them.”

What do other evangelicals think of Boyd’s perspective? By now, you certainly know that this is not the story in which to go searching for such basic journalistic ingredients. Moreover, I’d be curious to know what evangelicals think of Boyd speaking at the inauguration. Are they pleased with the choice, or — irony of ironies — are they concerned that the university might be pushing a political agenda (one adverse to evangelicals, not left-leaning academics) by inviting Boyd?

It’s a potentially fascinating story, all the way around. Unfortunately, all the Journal piece does is make your head spin.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Shaun G

    Here is one follow-up question that I wish the reporter had asked Prof. Derbyshire:

    Would you be similarly opposed to having a speaker with very public pro-choice or pro-gay-marriage views, given that those views may also marginalize a significant portion of the university?

  • Chris Bolinger

    These include separating politics from religion, advocating nonviolence and refraining from judging others, views that have put Boyd at odds with evangelical Christians.

    Right, because all “evangelical Christians” advocate violence as a solution to everything, judge everyone, and are adamantly opposed to separating politics from religion (whatever that means).

    Kudos to The Providence Journal for journalism at its finest.

  • Jerry

    This story really illustrates the sad state of public discourse in America today. Neither side of controversial issues is willing to listen to an opposing view and reacts to the other side as if they represent the incarnation of evil.

    Of course, as usual, the media only picks up on the outrage and anger and does not look below the surface to the broader issues.

  • Bobby

    Another problem is that controversial issues are so often boiled down to two sides when, in fact, there are any number of nuanced views and positions that don’t fit into tidy little “pro” or “con” boxes.

  • Mike Hickerson

    It’s not MSM, but the Chronicle of Higher Education has also reported on this, focusing on protests from faculty who favor same-sex marriage:

    (Sorry – it’s behind a paywall. If any of the GR writers would like a copy, email me and I’ll send you a PDF.)

    I’m not an expert on Greg Boyd, but, as far as I can tell, his conflict with other evangelicals has very little to do with politics, nonviolence, or tolerance for other religions. Instead, it’s his advocacy for a position known as “open theism.” For example, Boyd is the first person mentioned by name in the Wikipedia entry on open theism. John Piper, another “well-known minister,” has been one of the leading opponents of Boyd’s position.

    Here’s a 2001 Christianity Today article about the controversy, featuring the controversial quote from Boyd’s 1994 book, Letters from a Skeptic:

    God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people he creates until he creates these people, and they, in turn, create their decisions.

    BTW, Boyd’s Woodland Hills Church is a member of the Baptist General Convention – just like John Piper’s own Bethlehem Baptist Church.

    BTW #2, except for the first link, which I read last week, everything else I linked to above came from 10 minutes of following links from Wikipedia’s entry for Greg Boyd, which is the #3 link when you google “Greg Boyd.” Have the budget cuts at newspapers gotten so bad that they don’t have Internet access anymore?

  • Martha

    “Jesus does not want to enforce his morality on others.”

    That’s a fascinating sentence, and I’d love to see it parsed out. It could cover anything from “Now we are under Grace, not the Law” to “Jesus was Just This Guy (not that whole Son of God thing)”, but we don’t seem to get any indicator of what exactly he means by it – apart from the carin’n’sharin’ bit.

    Really, if this is the best example of a chomping-at-the-bit-to-burn-heretics boogeyman the concerned professors can come up with, I’m rather disappointed :-)

  • Bobby

    Have the budget cuts at newspapers gotten so bad that they don’t have Internet access anymore?

    I had the exact same question. Thank you for the links.

  • Brendan

    I’ve seen some bad reporting on religion before, but this is one of the laziest reports I’ve ever seen. Ditto Chris Bollinger’s comments on the absurdity of the statement that “advocating nonviolence… [has] put Boyd at odds with evangelical Christians.” Care to use a source to back up that contrived generalization? Um, nope, didn’t think so.
    President Dooley on choosing Boyd:

    “…reasons that don’t have a whole lot to do with the fact that he’s a theologian and minister… We do have the power to create our own future, and we should have the hope we can succeed.”

    Yep, sounds like Boyd’s open theism, and it doesn’t “have a whole lot to do with” being a theologian. But since the reporter doesn’t even know where Boyd’s church is, and she thinks Evangelicals mainly clash with Boyd on non-violence, is it any surprise this passes by totally unnoticed?

  • John D

    New headline:
    Left-wing Minister Mistaken for Right-Wing

    That’s the real story, isn’t it? The good people of the University of Rhode Island heard that a minister with an evangelical background had been invited to speak and they went into reflexive panic mode without examining the facts.

    You might even expect a communications professor to do a little Google search and read the man’s blog ( Wow. I’m not a journalist, but I’d be asking Professor Derbyshire if she’s read any of Rev. Boyd’s writings, including his blog.

    Just a quick take to show how little this article reports.

    His take on same-sex marriage boils down to the snarky “of course Christians with their perfect marriages get comment on other people’s relationships.”

    His take on hate crimes protections for gay people inverts the Gospels, reminding us that Jesus refused to meet with tax collectors and shunned prostitutes.

    Reverend Boyd’s refrain is “attend to your own sins before you start looking for other people’s sins.”

    The people complaining should have found out the truth. The reporter should have too. It’s actually a much more interesting story that way.

  • Bobby

    John D, I would agree with you that the actual story would be much more interesting.

  • Colin

    I was at Greg’s church last Tuesday and in passing was told that he lost 1,000 members over the last 2 years because during the election, he wanted members to “focus on Jesus and not just the Republican Party”.

    They still have 3,000 members who have not left.

    Greg has written several books where he presents several sides of an issue. He wants to challenge Christians to think hard about issues.

    I am reading his Jesus Legend book now which is (contrary to what you might think) a defense of the historicity of the synoptic gospels.

  • Bobby

    Colin, the NY Times story in ’06 included this:

    Mr. Boyd says he is no liberal. He is opposed to abortion and thinks homosexuality is not God’s ideal. The response from his congregation at Woodland Hills Church here in suburban St. Paul — packed mostly with politically and theologically conservative, middle-class evangelicals — was passionate. Some members walked out of a sermon and never returned. By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Mr. Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.

    It could be that the 1,000 reported then and the 1,000 you were told about are the same 1,000. But if the church has lost 1,000 additional members since ’06, that means they’ve lost 2,000 of 5,000 members over a somewhat extended period of time. It could be as simple as members leaving over Republican politics. But from a journalistic perspective, if I were a reporter writing about that church, I’d certainly dig a little deeper to see if it’s more complicated than that (which my gut tells me it would be).

  • Mike Hickerson

    The loss of church membership is interesting, but it would need to be dug into a bit more to determine the full story. Perhaps even more interesting is how Boyd seems to take pride in losing members, though I could be misreading that.

    BTW, the Canadian pastor and author Murray Andrew Pura has written a short story about a pastor who judges his faithfulness to the gospel by the number of people coming to his church. When the attendance starts to grow, he retools his sermons until people start to leave. :)

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    I can see why Boyd would be seen as different from other evangelicals, what with all the fatwas coming out of Colorado Springs and the vast number of suicide bombers from Liberty University’s student population.

  • Paul Fain

    Hello. I can send people a free link to my story in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Drop me a line at

  • Mike Hickerson

    Thanks, Paul. I hope people will take you up on that offer.

    My question on this is why Boyd’s views on homosexuality have become the central focus of his appearance. Is every URI speaker subjected to this litmus test? Boyd hasn’t written or spoken extensively on sexuality issues, and his published books all seem, to me anyway, to take approaches that an academic audience could engage fruitfully. Is there a connection to the Marcus Ross controversy at URI from a few years ago? Is it the “evangelical” label that set off the controversy over Boyd?

  • Cliff Mathis

    Just a correction: Boyd’s church is affiliated with the Baptist General Conference, a denomination started by Swedish Baptists and has long been affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals. The BGC adopted the movement name “Converge Worldwide” back in 2008.

    I find it very interesting that a religion reporter who covers evangelicals is not familiar with Greg Boyd. I remember that the NYT had a front-page article on Boyd a few years back. Boyd is certainly not an unknown minister.

  • Bobby

    I find it very interesting that a religion reporter who covers evangelicals is not familiar with Greg Boyd. I remember that the NYT had a front-page article on Boyd a few years back. Boyd is certainly not an unknown minister.

    Guilty as charged. Unfortunately, there are probably other things the reporter doesn’t know that he should. Through the miracle of reporting, however, he learns more every day. :-)