An odd piece of outstanding journalism

A reader sent GetReligion a link to a Washington Post story with this headline:

Black pastors take heat for not viewing same-sex marriage as civil rights matter

The reader said he’s not accustomed to the Post treating traditional religious viewpoints with respect. Therefore, he “cringed thinking about how these pastors were about to be flayed in the press.”

Then he read the story — all 1,350 words of it: Only two people are quoted. One of the sources, in fact, accounts for roughly 10 full paragraphs of direct quotes on his own.

A thinly sourced hit piece? Not exactly.

Said the reader:

It was actually respectful. The two pastors in the story were treated with respect and as real people, not as caricatures.

Amen.

The top of the report:

All of a sudden, they are bigots and haters — they who stood tall against discrimination, who marched and sat in, who knew better than most the pain of being told they were less than others.

They are black men, successful ministers, leaders of their community. But with Maryland poised to become the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, they hear people — politicians, activists, even members of their own congregations — telling them they are on the wrong side of history, and that’s not where they usually live.

Sometimes, the pastors say, the name-calling and the anger sting.

Nathaniel Thomas spent decades as an administrator in Howard University’s student affairs office, counseling young people not only about their course work but also about their personal quests for justice. He came to the ministry at the dawn of middle age, eager to help people, and especially fellow black men, discover in the word of God a path out of despair.

Over the past couple of years, as Thomas and dozens of other black clergymen in Prince George’s County have stood on the front line of the campaign against same-sex marriage, he has come to see the revolution at hand — in his view, a rebellion against religion and tradition — as an assault on the sustainability of the black family.

When I read the story, it amazed me how much I liked it because generally I would be complaining about too few sources and the lack of any opposing voices quoted by name. Etc. Etc. Etc.

In this case, I felt like the reporter produced a rather remarkable piece of daily journalism by stepping out of the way and letting the sources explain their beliefs fully in their own words.

This piece would have lost its power, I believe, if the writer had chosen to quote 10 different pastors instead of focusing on just two (actually, mainly just one).

By all means, read the story and tell me if you agree.

Maryland State House photo via Shutterstock

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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.

  • Paul C.

    I agree, Bobby. Read the hard copy on my way to work. Very good story, and kudos to the Post.

  • Bill

    Agreed. An excellent story that does not lose its narrative focus. The WaPo has certainly run many stories sympathetic to the other side.

    One phrase mentioned here is frequently used by those in favor of extending the legal definition of marriage to same sex couples: opponents are “on the wrong side of history.” The NYT has used it in editorials. It is not really an argument, but an assertion. To say that about those who want to keep marriage between men and women, as it has been throughout history, is fanciful at best. Perhaps a hundred years from now it will be true, perhaps not. But for now, it has no weight.

  • Donald

    Yes, it does humanize the pastor and it’s a good journalism. And the pastor is where I was on the issue 20 years ago. Now I know a married lesbian couple who are as kind and decent as anyone I have ever met (I’m perfectly serious about that) and sorry, I think my old position was wrong. And what is condemned in the Bible doesn’t really sound anything at all like the lives of my friends.

  • http://www.newsbusters.org Ken Shepherd

    As I noted in my blog at NewsBusters — http://newsbusters.org/blogs/ken-shepherd/2012/02/24/washpost-website-black-pastors-against-same-sex-marriage-wrong-side-hi– the article itself was good but the teaser presentation on the website on Friday was slanted:

    Apparently the Washington Post’s website editors have little patience for African-American ministers who pledge fidelity to the Bible over that to their usual political allies like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

    “Black pastors take heat over stance against Maryland gay-marriage bill,” reads a teaser headline on the washingtonpost.com front page. “As Maryland legislature passes bill, church members warn clergy that they’re on the wrong side of history,” the subheadline adds [see screencap below page break]. “Black pastors take heat for not viewing same-sex marriage as civil rights matter,” reads the online version’s headline.*

    Read more: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/ken-shepherd/2012/02/24/washpost-website-black-pastors-against-same-sex-marriage-wrong-side-hi#ixzz1neGIsTH6

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ken,

    I wasn’t aware of the print headline until seeing it noted on your post:

    For black clergy, issue is not a civil rights one

  • sari

    Terrific article. Thanks for posting it. The pastor articulated what to many is the heart of the problem, that marriage is a religious construct not to be redefined by the state. I like that he pointed out that G-d gives us standards to which we should aspire, even if we are unsuccessful–a high bar that we may strive but fail to reach rather than the societal low bar accessible to all. I also liked that the reporter did not present this as black animus towards homosexuals but rather as a Scripture-based position.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I agree, a great article – helped no end because of the qualities of the two people who are doing the speaking.

    I’ll say the obvious though – I’d want to see WaPo do similar articles for people pushing for the recognition of same-gender marriage, and I’d want to see some articles that give a larger sampling of the views and arguments on either side. We need a variety of approaches to informing the reader as to what is going on, and we need both sides covered well.

    None of that, though, is to take away from the fact that this article was truly excellent. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • R.S.Newark

    The saddness of it is that all these accounts should be written in an objective and sensible manner. The fact that it’s suprising that an actually accurate account was written…and published is criminal.

  • Spencerian

    No religion ghosts at all here. Both secular and religious tenets seem well defined here. Two quotes highlighted the story for me.

    Not long ago, Thomas says, a young gay man came to him and said, “Look, I can’t help being how I am.” The minister embraced the man.

    “We are all sinners,” Thomas says. “Christ never turned anyone away. People come to us all the time with issues, some with a stealing demon, some with urges and desires. But love doesn’t mean you go along to get along. I counsel them by showing them God’s word; some receive the word, and some reject it.”

    And later,

    “Take the word ‘marriage’ out of this bill, and we’re pretty much in agreement,” Thomas says. “Everyone should have full legal rights and would have them with civil unions. You wouldn’t see me down there protesting against civil unions. The state is the state, and the church is the church. I understand that. But put the word ‘marriage’ in there, and now you’re redefining something that is in the Bible and in our principles as one man and one woman. Why do you need to use a biblical word in a civil situation?”

  • Bill

    Again, I really like this piece. If it’s odd, as Bobby put it, that’s a shame. If I were writing a story about, say, a lesbian couple wending their way through a legal labyrinth to arrange their affairs, I would feel no need to quote individuals opposed to SSM. That’s a different story for a different time.

    Underneath all this is the battle between many churches and the state if SSM becomes the law of the land. It will make the HHS mandate seem like a schoolyard tussle. (That is not an argument for or against SSM, just a recognition of the inevitable conflict.)

  • A Lurker

    The article provides an interesting take on the issue, to be sure, but I wouldn’t call it outstanding in that it presents without analysis their perspective.

    For instance, the contention that the United States is a “country based on Judeo-Christian principles” isn’t sourced. Thomas’ question, “Why do you need to use a biblical word in a civil situation?”, is. It would be nice if he explained why he hadn’t previously been upset with Maryland’s civil marriage, and why other religions which accept same-sex marriage don’t count.

    Elsewhere, the article does indicate something. Does Thomas not understand the bill? Does Thomas not trust the bill?

    “Thomas sees the bill as a blueprint the state will use to require churches that run day-care centers or schools to teach something they don’t believe in. “Now, if the marriage law protected churches from lawsuits by people who might say, ‘You discriminated against me because you wouldn’t marry me,’ that would begin to put folks at ease,” he says.

    Maryland’s marriage bill would prohibit any lawsuit against religious entities or clergy based on a refusal to perform a wedding.”

    All we know is that Thomas says he’s afraid of a situation that’s specifically precluded by the bill in question. Why?

  • Stan

    I find it very strange that no one in the article challenges some of the rather absurd claims of these pastors. Government has since the beginning of this country been in the business of defining marriage. This is not a debatable point. It is a fact. This quotation is simply absurd: “The state is the state, and the church is the church. I understand that. But put the word ‘marriage’ in there, and now you’re redefining something that is in the Bible and in our principles as one man and one woman.” A good journalist would point out the absurdity of this man’s position.

  • Claude

    I find this article very bad. The journalist allows the Pastor to spout a lot of nonsense. Surely a good journalist has the responsibility to point out that the Maryland law specifically protects religious groups from lawsuits (contrary to the pastor’s allegation) and that the state sanctions lots of marriages that religious groups do not (such as interfaith marriages).

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Claude,

    Did you miss this part of the article where the reporter does, in fact, point out that the bill would prohibit lawsuits based on a church’s refusal to perform a same-sex wedding?

    Thomas sees the bill as a blueprint the state will use to require churches that run day-care centers or schools to teach something they don’t believe in. “Now, if the marriage law protected churches from lawsuits by people who might say, ‘You discriminated against me because you wouldn’t marry me,’ that would begin to put folks at ease,” he says.

    Maryland’s marriage bill would prohibit any lawsuit against religious entities or clergy based on a refusal to perform a wedding

  • sari

    Stan,
    From where do you think the government (really, the people who make up the government) got the definition of marriage? Had it no religious basis, why limit it to a single man and a single woman? It’s not as if our leadership was unaware of the way marriage is defined in other cultures.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Don’t believe anything the gay marriage propaganda machine in the media says.
    Here in Ma. nothing was supposed to change when gay marriage was dumped on the state by the typical liberal court diktat–or so most of the media blather of the time promised.
    Then the state ordered Catholic adoption agencies to arrange gay adoptions or close. They closed rather than have the state dictate they participate in what the Bible and the Church considers immoral.
    Then, of course, came the lawsuits. Not against clergy performing marriages, but against those who wind up intimately involved in the ceremonies but who aren’t clergy, yet have traditional moral values–like florists, photographers. caterers, dress makers, etc. and who want no part of a charade and mockery.
    But does the national media tell the whole story of here in Ma. Ha! The few times I’ve seen the Ma. experience mentioned in the national media has been a whitewash–everything’s hunky dorey in Ma. unless you have traditional Christian moral values.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note—What a wonderful sop to the clergy. They can’t be sued if they don’t want to take part in a marriage charade. Not a question in the story , nor a mention of the issue about the coercion of believers who have strong, genuine, devout Christian beliefs and who have a strong conscience aversion to being deeply involved in what they are convinced is a mockery of true marriage.
    And who decided this is a civil rights issue that is clearly putting many Black clergy under seige. The media , of course. It frames the issue to promote its agenda. Without the mainstream media propaganda noone would even consider gay “marriage” some sort of civil rights issue (which it isn’t).

  • sari

    Deacon John,
    It became a civil rights issue when gay partners were routinely denied the rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples. The media is a late arrival to the cause.

    The pastors interviewed for the article recognized that there are two very different parts to the issue: marriage, an unchangeable institution defined in the Bible, and the civil rights afforded to married couples by a secular government. The latter is important for any couple that sets up house, pools their finances, and builds a life together, but it has nothing to do with G-d.

    Florists, caterers, etc. who discriminate against gay couples are no different than those who refuse to serve African-Americans or Jews. While some people have no problem with overt bigotry, our laws prohibit such behavior; compromise in the public arena is one price we pay for religious freedom.

  • A Lurker

    Sari, institutions evolve, often very substantially.

    Take marriage. A blogger at familyscholar.org pointed out that a century ago, the idea that a married woman could retain her name and property would have been seen as a violation of basic principles, while the existence of marital rape as a meaningful concept never mind a crime would have been nonsensical.

    Why should a particular incarnation of an institution be favoured over others? Better cases need to be made than have been made, I fear.

  • sari

    Lurker,

    You are absolutely right; institutions change over time. However, the definition of marriage has remained constant (and independent of women’s status), largely because the foundation rests on the biblical definition.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    sari– you –and the media–call it bigotry. That is part of the Big Lie framing of the story by the media. It is no more bigotry than to believe a man cheating on his wife is an adulterer and to find that immoral. I have every right to not want to be party to a mockery of my sincerely held religious beliefs. On top of that, one of my main points is that people who don’t want to be involved in a mockery of marriage out of clear religious conviction are lied to repeatedly by the media and the pro- gay “marriage” activists that Oh! Nothing will change for anyone else. They lie! I see here in Ma. what the media virtually censors out.
    And, of course, liberal media propaganda pushes the lie that engaging in homosexual activity is somehow the same as being born Black or raised Jewish. Absurd!

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    J-O-U-R-N-A-L-I-S-M …

    Either make comments about journalism and media coverage of religion or move along.

    Thank you.

  • Rachel K

    Ken (#4)–This is a pretty regular problem with the WaPo’s online edition. Every article with a substantial number of comments gets a line from one of the comments posted below the teaser, and whoever picks those lines makes the comboxes from WaPo look indistinguishable from the comboxes on MoveOn.org. It may be that the majority of WaPo commenters really are that liberal, but it starts looking slanted when every single article has a comment line like “8 down, 42 to go” or “My body is not a battleground state” or what have you.

  • Stan

    Sari, the institution of marriage in the United States does NOT and never has rested on any Biblical definition. Indeed, it would be hard put to find a Biblical definition, and there has been centuries of debate as to how to interpret various aspects of Biblical law regarding marriage: is the brother of a deceased man obligated to marry his brother’s wife? Or is he forbidden from doing so? Is a person who has been divorced eligible to remarry or not? To say nothing of all the polygamous marriages in the Bible. The fact is that civil marriage in the United States and most of the world has little or nothing to do with religious marriage. In some religions marriage is a sacrament, in others it is not. In some religions, same-sex marriage is recognized and celebrated, in others, it is not. Some religions permit, even encourage, polygamy; others do not. Journalists have an obligation to give context and not allow their interview subjects to spout on nonsense. Sorry, I missed the part where the journalist did point out that the pastor’s assertion that his church would be sued if they refused to conduct marriages in Maryland was untrue. That does make the story much better than I thought it was, but in general it cheerleads for what is really an anti-gay position.

  • Claude

    It think it is Deacon John who is the father of misinformation. The requirement that Catholic Charities obey the law in Mass. or relinquish its tax-payer subsidies had nothing to do with same-sex marriage. It had to do with the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by taxpayer-funded organizations.

  • sari

    Deacon John,
    Yet here we have a story which censored nothing, powered by the pastors’ voices and fairly untainted by that of the reporter. You said:

    And, of course, liberal media propaganda pushes the lie that engaging in homosexual activity is somehow the same as being born Black or raised Jewish. Absurd!

    Actually, for most GLBTQ people, the situation is exactly analogous to that experienced by African-Americans and Jews and Hispanics and Asians. All are born into their label. In fact, one pastor acknowledged this; he didn’t disparage gays or deny their existence.

    I cannot speak to Roman Catholicism, your faith, in particular, or Christianity in general, but the Hebrew word that is translated as holy–KDSh–actually means separate. So it’s not that we’re born more perfect or with less propensity for transgressing G-d’s Law; it’s that we are enjoined to recognize and attempt to overcome our personal obstacles in order to please G-d and to become closer to Him in the process. These things we do, be it to subjugate our carnal desires or refrain from eating certain foods, separate us from the world’s more profane influences, and that separation, in turn, reduces the temptation to err.

    Data point: most of us are born Jewish. A small percentage of Jews are converts, but the halakhah is clear that a Jewish mother confers Jewishness to her children, regardless of her degree of religiosity or the level of observance in the home. How we’re raised has nothing to do with anything.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Claude–it is the licensing power of the state that is the problem—not tax funding. Money could have been raised to replace the money Catholic adoption agencies were receiving to provide the adoption services. But you can’t be involved in adoption in this state without a license and, according to local news accounts, Catholic agencies weren’t going to get a license. The archdiocese could have spent a mountain of dough to bring a lawsuit, but decided the money would be better spent going to toward other charitable works.
    News coverage goes into very little of what many people consider negative effects of changing laws on this issue.

  • Claude

    Sari keeps repeating that marriage has remained static over time and that is rooted in a biblical definition of marriage. Where exactly is that definition found. Is it in the polygamous marriages of Solomon and others? Is it in the serial marriages and divorces that litter the Biblical landscape? Is it in the obligation (sometimes interpreted as just the opposite) of a brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow? The notion that marriage has not been “redefined” is simply not true, and allowing same-sex couples to marry is far less of a “re-definition” of marriage than changing the coverture laws. In fact, the use of “re-defining” marriage is a political slogan not a journalistic term. I would hope that a journalist would not use such a term.

  • Claude

    Deacon John, Catholic Charities (which receives almost 3/4 of its funding from taxpayers) was not “licensed” by Massachusetts because it announced that it would not obey the law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That had nothing to do with same-sex marriage.