The Curate’s Egg: Political Language in Religion Reporting

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.”

Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

“True Humility” by George du Maurier, from Punch, (1895).

Reporting on the Anglican Communion and its religious wars is a tricky business. The path of least resistance for most reporters is to secularize the fight, splitting the combatants into liberals and conservatives and placing the dispute within the context of America’s culture wars.

Now this is not wrong, merely incomplete.  There are partisan political considerations at work in the fight within the Episcopal Church — one faithful gauge of the theological temperature of an Episcopal congregation are the bumper stickers found on the cars in the parking lot on Sunday mornings.  In 2008 Obama or McCain stickers were good indications of the political and theological sentiments of the parish.

The Episcopal Church’s statistical office has reported — for years — that in the aggregate the lay people (the folks in the pews) are evenly divided between self-identified liberals and conservatives. But congregations are for the most part monochrome. This lack of diversity at the roots is also represented in the bureaucracy at the national and diocesan church offices.  They are a mirror to their masters.

So on one level, the left/right split is a useful shorthand for reporters when covering the Episcopal Church. And when you go to the sources for information in an Episcopal or Anglican story you will likely speak to someone on a particular side.

But when things move to a deeper level this language doesn’t fairly describe reality. There are political liberals who are theological conservatives and political conservatives are theological liberals. Nor is the language of politics useful when describing Anglicans outside of North America. A news story found on the Washington Post‘s website taken from ENI and the Religion News Service is a good example of the disconnect between language and reality — and impartiality of sources.

The lede sentence to the story “Breakaway bishop who denounced gay bishop found murdered in Brazil” states:

A conservative Brazilian bishop who broke away from his church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire was found murdered with his wife in the northeastern town of Olinda, according to the diocese.

Like the curate’s egg, this is good, but in parts. The facts as stated are true. Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti and his wife Miriam were murdered. But what about the adjectives?

(As an aside, I should say I have known Bishop Cavalcanti for about 14 years and considered him a friend. I last saw him over the summer when I was reporting on a bishops’ meeting held in California and we pleasantly passed the time together in conversation between plenary sessions of the conference.)

Let’s look at the word “conservative”. Yes, it is fair to say that Bishop Cavalcanti was a theological conservative. To be precise he was a conservative Anglican evangelical of the English variety whose faith was formed and founded upon Scripture.

But he was also a socialist. Before he entered the ordained ministry he was a professor of political science and rector of a university.  He also stood for election as a deputy to Brazil’s parliament under the banner of the Workers Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores). Elected bishop of the Diocese of Recife in 1977, Bishop Cavalcanti remained active in secular politics serving as the Pernambuco State coordinator for the 1989 presidential election campaign of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (President Lula finally achieved electoral success and served as the 35th President of Brazil from 2003 to 2010.)

The bishop was also the author of the 1985 book Cristianismo & Política, which saw in the Gospels a warrant for the political transformation of Brazilian life — from the left. Speaking at the 1990 meeting of the Latin American Theological Fraternity, Bishop Cavalcanti stated that while it was true that “Communism had failed in the East,” it was also true that “capitalism had been a permanent failure for two thirds of the World.”

So is Bishop Cavalcanti a conservative? He told me last summer that he believed Scripture to be “trustworthy and true” and should guide the church’s teachings on human sexuality. So, on the gay issue, I guess he was.

On social and economic issues he was not. He was a man of the left. And here the reporter is faced with the issue of deciding which descriptor to use. It is equally true to say the “liberal Brazilian bishop” as the “conservative Brazilian bishop.” Perhaps the second half of the sentence should guide us: “who broke away from his church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop.”

The problem there is that it is half true. Yes, Bishop Cavalcanti opposed the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. But Bishop Cavalcanti did not break away from the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. He was kicked out. This fact is hinted at in the WaPo article which notes he was “defrocked on the grounds that he broke communion with the official Anglican church in Brazil.”

The story arc for the rest of the bishop’s career is equally dubious and is informed only by reports from the press office of the Episcopal Church in New York. However, the issue I wish to raise is the use of political terms to identify religious questions.

I do it all the time — classifying people and positions as liberal and conservative in the context of the various church scenes. But I am not happy about it. I have seen attempts to introduce other language to classify religio-political points of view but they are not as mellifluous as I would like — and one spends more time explaining words that are to be used as shorthand than the actual positions under consideration.

Nor do I like reducing everything in church debates to the gay issue. Bishop Cavalcanti is my exemplar on this point. Should his views on human sexuality take precedence over his scholarly work and his social-economic teachings? Both were founded upon a reading of Scripture.

How then, GetReligion readers would you resolve this issue. More adjectives? A new vocabulary? Less descriptors and more quotes to allow individuals to self-identify? What say you?

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About geoconger
  • Jerry

    I have some sympathy for the poor headline writer (and reporter) who has a round theological peg and a square person hole. No matter what the result looks like, a lot of “wood” will be lost. There are, for example, anti-abortion pro-gay marriage people.

    But even though the result will be imperfect, we should at least see a clear distinction between theological and political ideology (liberal/conservative).

    But in the spirit of geekdom, maybe a variant of the “geek code” could be developed?

    The following is an example Geek Code…

    GED/J d– s:++>: a– C++(++++) ULU++ P+ L++ E—- W+(-) N+++ o+ K+++ w— O- M+ V– PS++>$ PE++>$ Y++ PGP++ t- 5+++ X++ R+++>$ tv+ b+ DI+++ D+++ G++++ e++ h r– y++**

  • Mollie

    You ask good questions but I have to first just say that I’m so sorry to learn of this news that your friend and his wife were murdered.

  • Jeff

    The late Bishop Cavalcanti should have been described as a “faithful” and/or “orthodox” Anglican.

    And let me second Mollie’s condolences at your lost.

    Bishop Cavalcanti will be missed.

  • geoconger

    Off the topic of political language — but thank you for your kind words. You can read about the details of the murder if you click through the various links — but in short, the bishop was murdered by his 29 year old adopted son. The young man had a drug problem and had returned to his parents home — he lived in the US and was facing deportation for petty crime and drug offenses.

    Returning from a church service the bishop and his son quarreled. The son pulled a knife. Stabbed the father. And then stabbed his mother when she attempted to intervene. The young man then attempted to take his own life. He is under police guard in a hospital.

  • carl jacobs

    I don’t think your typical average journalist cares a fig about proper theological labels. He suspects (correctly) that the general reader will neither care nor understand the fine distinctions being made. Neither he nor his reader is interested in the theological conflicts beyond their intersection with the political world. And besides, he already has ready-made theological labels to convey the necessary information (i.e. ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate.’) Journalism is about selling conflict. That conflict has to be understandable and interesting to the reader. Politics is understandable and has ready-made guide posts to mark the way. A journalist isn’t going to sacrifice that in order to describe a conflict over Scriptural hermaneutics.

    Additionally, the reporter won’t be overly interested in the a religious leader’s opinion on any given political issue except to the extent that it confirms the stereotype of a religious leader attempting to impose a theocracy on an unsuspecting population. So the fact that this bishop was a socialist is irrelevant. Liberal politics doesn’t give religious leaders credibility to talk. Liberal religion doesn’t give them the ability to provide moral guidance. All it does is let them be used as a foil against more conservative forms. To do otherwise is to take religion seriously as a world view. This is never even contemplated.


  • Bern

    What an awful tragedy!

    As for the journalism if there is only space for one adjective best to leave it out if it is inadequate–or in this case misleading. It seems it would indeed be difficult to summarize the late bishop’s views in a single word. And break away is also inaccurate. Methinks the square peg round hole is the idea that conservative Anglicans only break away from their church–not get “kicked out”

  • Steve Hayes

    PS the bishop sounds like an interesting kind of guy. But I wonder about the church whose service he was returning from. The story doesn’t seem to tell that.

  • Steve Hayes

    PPS. Perhaps I should qualify the last remark — is the “breakaway” church related to any others in the Anglican Communion, or some continuing Anglican body — and what will happen to it now?

  • sari

    Condolences on your loss, Geoconger. He sounds like a good and principled man.

    I’d love to see journalists shelve liberal and conservative; the words have come to be meaningless as descriptors. Instead, it would be helpful to write a brief description of the person’s position. You were able to do so in not too many words; there’s no reason why others can’t as well.

  • Aaron C

    In my opinion, the fact that conservative is directly associated with the noun “bishop” indicates that one needs to understand the use of the adjective in the context of the Anglican Communion. As that term has come to indicate the primacy of Scripture, it has been accurately applied based upon further comments about/by the Bishop in your article. Unfortunately, there may be many readers who don’t understand the definition of conservative in a non-political context. Hard to blame that on the headline writer or author.

    Scripture is not political – it is meant to speak to the individual hearts and minds of the citizens of Creation. Each individual is called to act in accordance with God’s commands regardless of the political climate. Therefore, someone who holds firm to the idea of “doing for the least of these” while at the same time standing against the consecration of an actively homosexual bishop is maintaining a consistent theological stance, even though it is seemingly contradictory from a political perspective.

    This is simply a longer way of saying, as the earlier posters did, square theological peg in a round secular hole.

  • Jeff

    Carl writes: “Journalism is about selling conflict.”


    To much journalism is a kind of pornography.

    The aim of sexual pornography is to reduce men and women — but, of course, mostly women — to body parts, with the aim of inciting lust and gluttony.

    Too much of journalism is a kind of political pornography which reduces men and women to ideological objects, with the aim of inciting wrath and pride.

    The journalistic excision of the socialist economics that went along with and did not necessarily contradict Bishop Cavalcanti’s orthodox, continuing Anglican faith is analogous to the photographic excision of a woman’s head in a pornographic image of her breasts or buttocks or legs.

    It represents a dismemberment, a disfiguration, an objectification — the immoral transmutation of a person into a thing.

    And not just any thing, but a very degrading thing.

  • Will

    The “liberal/conservative” (perhaps we should call it “Willisian”?) and “left/right” paradigms are one-dimensional (literally) even when it comes to political views. Why expect it to be more meaningful when it is imposed on religion?

  • Martha

    Jeff, the trouble is that if you use “orthodox” for one particular segment, others are going to be offended by that because oh, so you’re saying I’m not really a proper Christian, are you, huh?

    Traditional as opposed to innovative? Though I imagine that presents problems too, especially if the assumption is that someone ‘traditional’ in theology would be ‘conservative’ politically or even in the American political context, ‘Republican’.

  • Warren Musselman

    For years I have said that the political terms of liberal and conservative, along with the terms left and right to indicate them, belong to secular politics and should not be used with reference to the Church. Orthodox and heterodox would be the accurate and proper terms to use. Good luck trying to get secular reporters and media to use those terms. Religious media could use those terms, but all those liberals on the extreme left think they are orthodox and would be irate at a correct characterization of their beliefs and behaviors; and would use heterodox to describe the orthodox in their own media. Maybe we are just as well off to continue using terms that belong to secular politics and have not valid place in the Church. Its just simpler.

  • Jeff


    I don’t see how “traditional” is less problematic a term than “orthodox.”

    And “innovative” or “progressive” are every bit as loaded and potentially offensive as any other terms.

    I think “orthodox” and either “heterodox” or “revisionist” are about the best we can do.

  • Jeff

    Warren Musselman,

    I hadn’t seen your post when I was posting my own simultaneously, but I’m glad to get some confirmation from you of my sense that “orthodox” and “heterodox” would be the best terms.

  • Steve Lusk

    Unless you repeat Bishop Walburton’s famous definition each time you use the terms, “orthodox” and “heterodox” are loaded terms. “Liberal” and “conservative” imply that reasonable people can disagree over which approach is best in a particular situation, while “orthodox” (“right thinking”)and “heterodox” (“other thinking”) imply a zero-sum game: if you’re not right thinking, you’re wrong.
    The breakaway “Anglican” churches are heterodox in relation to the orthodoxy of the Episcopal Church but orthodox with respect to the Church of Nigeria. Fifty years or so ago, it was heterodoxy to bless the remarriage of — let alone ordain! — a divorced person, yet several of the leaders of the breakaway “orthodox” congregations are on their second or third marriages.

  • Jeff

    Steve Lusk,

    The Episcopal Church is the U.S. Anglican “breakaway” church — the heterodox, as opposed to the orthodox, U.S. Anglican church.

    The various “continuing” Anglican churches in the U.S. and elsewhere are faithful to the orthodoxy of the Anglican tradition and of the Anglican Communion as a whole.

    In this case, I don’t see why those whose views are in line with the leadership at least of The Episcopal Church should object to the label “heterodox.”

    Their “thinking” is indeed “other” than that of most Anglicans and indeed of most Christians in general.

    The leadership of The Episcopal Church seems quite *proud* of that fact, since it regards its own “other thinking” as *better* thinking.

    Now “progressive” might be the term that heterodox Episcopalians would prefer.

    But that’s much too loaded and biased and potentially offensive a term to be used by a nominally neutral press.

    So I continue to think that “heterodox” is the best we can do.

  • Tim

    Looking at things from an international perspective, I think the problem is particular to the American situation. From here in England (and particularly in the church) the term conservative (with a small c) applied to a Bishop would mean orthodox (i.e. Evangelical or traditionalist Catholic). Politics would not be implied in that statement, as most Anglicans of all traditions tend to lean centre/left (or just left in current American terms – Obama is probably centre/right from our perspective).

    I would note that the original article came from an international news service, and so may well reflect a more English view of the world, and was written in those terms.

    Unfortunately the culture wars have made many adjectives perjorative terms. I imagine theological liberals would reject the idea of being called heterodox (as they have merely redefined the position of what is orthodox), although probably wouldn’t have so much of a problem of the Traditionalist/Evangelical camps calling themselves orthodox (even if it implies heterodoxy).

    being a neo-orthodox post-evangelical (possibly ex)-socialist who preaches in an open Evangelical Anglican church, I’d argue that labels are a shorthand that can only work so far.

    I would argue that in getreligion terms, the label in the article was fair, but could be misconstrued.

  • Eduardo

    To be precise he was a CONSERVATIVE Anglican evangelical of the English variety whose faith was formed and founded upon Scripture. I knew him personally. But he was also a SOCIALIST. Many of his articles in the JORNAL DO COMMERCIO (Brazilian newspaper) and interviews indicate that. He also stated that COMMUNISM had failed in the East as CAPITALISM had been a permanent failure. A political disputable statement. This is Brazil, not the US. China is capitalist. How about democracy?

    It is equally true to say the LIBERAL Brazilian bishop is also a CONSERVATIVE Brazilian bishop that who broke away from his church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop. And he did. He openly opposed gays rights. He had to be consistent with his conservative (theology), not with his political and socialist views.

    The use of the use of political terms to identify religious and moral questions is a good one. I like it too. Not the best one, though, nor the most effective one. I may not define precisely what pornography is down to its details, but I know exactly what it is when I see it.

    Classifying people and positions as liberal and conservative in the context of the various church scenarios is precisely what I also do, although I am not happy about it all the time. Especially in a religious fluid situation of Latin America.

    Bishop’s Cavalcanti influence in Brazil was due because of his conservative position, not his political socialist position and influence, largely irrelevant in the country of Brazil as such. Maybe in Recife where he lived.

    It is fair to say that the Scriptures, like a big umbrella, may have capitalists and socialists inside its walls as well a number of bright colors.

    I, for myself, think that Bishop Cavalcanti made a ‘wrong move’ in the political religious arena here, considering in mind the denomination he was part of before breaking away from it, and found himself technically defrocked. And he lost!

    Although I am not Anglican by any means, it is amazing how this Church along centuries have survived, bringing different cultures, peoples and a wide variety of thinking and different views into its fold.

    Thinking this way, it is fair to say that Bishop Cavalcanti may had not been a historical Anglican (as I pinpointed above). Or, a wise one (politically speaking).

    Bishop Cavalcanti that had his both feet in the conservative and the socialist fields in Brazil all along his profitable and rich life should have been wise enough in keeping the richness and often contradictory position of the Anglican Communion worldwide.

    My guess is that the WAPO reporter may have thought along these lines too.

  • northcoast

    Since its separation from the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, the Diocese of Recife has been aligned with The Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of America. In addition to building his diocese in Brazil, Bishop Cavalcanti provided oversight to congregations in what is now the Anglican Diocese of Cascadia.

    Jeff (#18) TEC continues to be a province of the Anglican Communion. Certainly their actions in 2003 and 2006 and since then have caused dissent and “torn the fabric” of the communion, but that does not amount to breaking away.