Playing pin the sin on the pastor

The other day, Cathy Lynn Grossman suggested that some of ironic twists she’s seen in the news come from someone who offers truth claims and then turns out to be hypocritical. You might think another one of those stories is brewing if you read Poynter’s Romenesko blog.

“Reporter ‘outs’ anti-gay pastor by crashing confidential support group,” the headline said. But if you look closely, this is not necessarily a Ted Haggard or Mark Souder situation. A reporter outed a minister after he attended a confidential meeting of gay men “struggling with chastity.”

The article appeared on the cover of Lavender — a twice-monthly GLBT magazine based in Minnesota — titled, “Antigay Lutheran Pastor Protests Too Much.”

We tend to focus on mainstream outlets, so I don’t necessarily want to focus on the ethics behind Lavender‘s reporting. At the very least, there seems to be an unspoken agreement between journalists that you don’t go to support groups to do reporting without permission.

Instead of dwelling on the expose, I’m mostly interested in the Associated Press article on Lavender‘s piece and the church’s reaction. The lead seems carefully written, even if the word “ardently” could have been omitted (are people usually “softly” critical?).

A Lutheran pastor ardently critical of allowing gays into the clergy is on leave from his Minneapolis church after a gay magazine reported his attendance at a support group for men struggling with same-sex attraction.

Church officials, however, said Wednesday that the Rev. Tom Brock likely will return to the pulpit at Hope Lutheran Church because he acted in accordance with his faith by attending the group.

Instead of vaguely saying he’s “anti-gay,” it specifically says what the pastor opposes. It also specifies that the group is for those who discuss same-sex attraction, not homosexuality.

A fixture on local cable access shows, Brock regularly broadcasts conservative views on homosexuality and criticizes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for liberalizing its gay clergy policy.

What does it mean that this pastor has “conservative views on homosexuality”? Does the reporter mean conservative theologically, politically, socially, or something else? Next, there are seemingly contradictory paragraphs next to one another.

“The fact that he said one thing publicly, and privately he’s a homosexual — that’s somewhat inconsistent,” said Lavender president Stephen Rocheford. “This company has a policy not to out people. The one exception is a public figure who says one thing and does another.”

The Lavender article never explicitly said Brock confessed to homosexual activity. It quotes him at one point talking about a recent mission trip to Eastern Europe, of which he says, “I fell into temptation. I was weak.”

So how again did this “public figure” say one thing and do another? If a Christian vaguely says, “I fell into temptation,” it often means you didn’t “fall into sin.” So maybe the reporter could have challenged Rocheford’s assertions a little bit more.

The story then considers the ethics behind Lavender‘s reporting and explains the pastors’ previous statements related to homosexuality.

Unfortunately, we don’t find out the church’s denominational affiliation until the very end. You might think he’s being put on leave by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after speaking out against the denomination’s policies. But at the end, we learn that his church left the ELCA last year with no details behind why the church left or more explanation behind the differences between the ELCA and its new home in the Association of Free Lutheran Congregation.

Also, the reporter also never explained how Brock actually acted in accordance with his faith by attending the group (mentioned in the second paragraph). It’s probably because the church encourages this kind of support for what they see as a struggle, versus being part of a group that embraces or even celebrates gay identity.

In other words, in writing these kinds of stories on theologically sensitive topics, reporters could further consider the distinctions between temptation, sin, support, discipline, repentance and forgiveness.

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  • Martha

    Okay, I get the point that “He doesn’t want to allow gays to be ministers but he’s a minister who’s secretly gay! Hypocrisy!” as the rationale for this story, but…

    Yeah, there’s always a “But”. Is his position that gay men should *never* be ministers, or is it that those in unchaste relationships should not be ministers? The ELCA debate, from what I could see of it, isn’t simply “gay versus straight”, though it’s easier to couch it like that.

    Plus, we don’t know – as you point out – that he’s actively engaged in gay sexual relationships, only that he’s struggling with same-sex attraction.

    Not to repeat the details of the last time I went to confession, but I’m single, straight, and struggling with chastity, too.

    I know this particular paper is an advocacy publication, but still – would a newspaper have reported “Minister who speaks out against alcohol abuse attends A.A. himself” in terms of hypocrisy and outing?

  • Paul of Alexandria

    The Progressive line is that homosexuality is biological in nature and that all sexual urges are naturally acted upon; to consider your “natural” urges harmful and go against them is simply not done. I rather imagine that the reporter is simply incapable of considering that urges – even possibly biologically based ones – can and should be struggled against and overcome.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Martha: Yeah, there’s always a “But”. Is his position that gay men should *never* be ministers,

    It’s more that than: his position is that 1) men with homosexual urges are automatically “gay”, and that 2) of course any man with such urges will act upon them. To do otherwise is inconceivable. “Straight” and “gay” are defined by what you feel, not by what you do. It’s very similar to the debate between Lutherans and the Baptists over whether you are saved simply by being baptized, or if a spiritual feeling of “being saved” is required.

  • Chris Vogel

    More to the point is this: a “Christian” approach by Brock (or anyone else) would not have been so insistently and ardently (he does qualify as ‘ardent’ on this issue) denunciatory of others for sympathy towards homosexuals, even though he has some experience of it himself. On the other hand, are “Christians”, ever, really?

  • Darel

    An exhaustive study of sexuality in the US in the early 1990s showed that only 24% of men and 15% of women which the left would define as “homosexual” actually exhibited all three components of the orientation: identity, desire and behavior. In fact, 44% of men and 59% of women with homosexual desire neither engaged in homosexual behavior nor accepted a homosexual identity.

    See Edward O. Laumann et al., eds., The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. University of Chicago Press, 1994: ch. 8.

  • Martha

    Paul, I’ve seen some holding that position who weren’t church ministers.

    From the little I’ve seen in online debates (and yes, I know that “anecdotes are not data”), bisexuals get a lot of pressure from gay rights advocates to come out and admit they’re really gay and stop hiding in the closet of claiming they’re attracted to both genders – in other words, if you feel attraction to your own gender, you’re automatically gay and of course you’ll act upon those urges.

  • dalea

    Quote:

    It also specifies that the group is for those who discuss same-sex attraction, not homosexuality.

    What is the difference between the two? Is there some scientific source for this differentiation?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Please keep comments focused on journalism–thanks!

  • Jerry

    there seems to be an unspoken agreement between journalists that you don’t go to support groups to do reporting without permission.

    To me that is or should be a major violation of journalist ethics and an immediate firing offense unless the support group is a terrorist cell. There are some things that should be accepted standards of decency and this is one of them. If groups such as AA could not rely on anonymity they would be destroyed.

    I’d be curious hearing from actual reporters if this behavior violates the code of ethics as documented http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp It seems to me it does.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Rod Dreher totally agrees with you and this case has him smoking mad. The key: Will gay journalists DENOUNCE this horrid act?

    Rod’s right here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/2010/06/a-disgusting-violation-of-privacy.html

  • tmatt
  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    If groups such as AA could not rely on anonymity they would be destroyed.

    I think that’s what the reporter had in mind. To him, a group like this contradicts everything he believes about homosexuality ad wants others to believe. To try to resist homosexual urges is tantamount to saying that there is something wrong about those urges, and that position is intolerable to him. The analogy would be a man who infiltrated AA because he believed that alcoholism was a good thing and the members were wrong to try to overcome it.

    Undercover journalism is a fine tradition, but that’s not what this was. A journalist seeks information for the purpose of informing others. This guy sought the information for the purpose of destroying people he considers his personal enemies.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joel – On the other hand, suppose someone were to propose – and lobby for – bringing back Prohibition. Would it be journalistically relevant if they were, in fact, a member of AA?

    That’s a toughie.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Joel – On the other hand, suppose someone were to propose – and lobby for – bringing back Prohibition. Would it be journalistically relevant if they were, in fact, a member of AA?

    Nope. In fact, it would be perfectly analogous to this situation. The AA member would be not at all hypocritical in wanting to see banned that which had caused him so much harm. Now, if he had been carousing in a tavern while calling for Prohibition, there might be a story in it. But this? No.

    Although in fact, the pastor hasn’t even been calling for the prohibition of homosexuality at all. He merely says that homosexual practice is a sin according to his church, and says so to members of that church.

  • Marco Luxe

    The entire story has the wrong unsophisticated journalistic perspective, but Lavender seems like a small local journal, so that’s not unexpected. The real story is that internalized homophobia [mostly by men] leads to outward irrational anti-gay political and theological positions. See the recently self-outed California state representative Roy Ashburn[http://www.bakersfield.com/news/local/x637735635/LOIS-HENRY-Coming-out-Roy-Ashburn-style]
    He now admits that his entire anti-gay legislative record was driven by fear of any questions about his personal life.

    That’s the politically significant story that will keep popping up until the public realizes a great motive for homophobia is fear of exposure.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    In fact, what the reporter is so breathlessly tattling on is the very essence of AA and its offshoots: that people who know the destructive power of a thing can still fall prey to their desire for it. It is possible to believe in a moral standard, wish to uphold it, and still fall short. Sinners sometimes sin. A basic fact of life understood by everyone except Townshend.

  • dalea

    It is fairly common that GL journalists are also activists; Randy Shilts, David Goodman, Dan De Leo, Mike Rogers come to mind. That is a fairly common thread throughout GL history. So, this is in the traditional ways the Gay press operates.

    I suspect we are back to outing, which is controversial even in GLBT circles. The NLGJA does go into the issue with some nuance:

    Personally, I find the ethics of the reporting suspect. If someone disclosed during a Narcotic Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that they had sexual encounters with men while being openly hostile to gays, would it be OK to report that?
    I think the story of how Courage works is an interesting one and the group has been very secretive–obviously–which means there has been little coverage even in Catholic press circles. While many people disagree with their approach–which focuses on working steps, remaining chaste, prayer, and little contact with openly gay people–the question is whether the practice, itself, is so dangerous that people’s expectation of anonymity should be violated in order to expose it.

    I think it is so dangerous that expectations of anonymity can ethically be violated. But this relates to the much larger issue of exgays, which is covered in depth no where but in the LGBT press.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joel, note that I didn’t say the hypothetical AA member would be hypocritical. I asked if it might be worth covering if someone’s position might not be based entirely on a disinterested examination of the facts.

    Prohibition would certainly be easier for a recovering alcoholic. But it’s not generally accepted that alcohol has a universally destructive power, and currently Prohibition is judged to place too high a burden on those who don’t feel they have problems with alcohol.

    There are – ahem – some legal issues currently in play about this pastor’s particular issue. I mean, if the guy’s willing to blame a tornado on gay marriage, I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate he’s not a fan.


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