So what’s the problem in Maryland pews?

Whenever you read one of those reflective essays on how The New York Times serves as a cheerleader for progressive causes — thank you, M.Z. — what you really need next is a kind of chaser to clear the journalistic palette.

I cannot provide that, at the moment.

Instead, let’s jump right back into the same subject — only this time through a new-old Times report about political — dang it, we’re talking about POLITICS, people — events unfolding in the deep-blue state of Maryland. You’ll be stunned to know that the headline reads, “In Maryland, Gay Marriage Seeks a ‘Yes’ at the Polls.”

As always, the word “could” shows up very early in this report. Readers who consume lots of news know that the word “could” is often a sign that a news organization has its fingers crossed about the direction a particular issue should, as opposed to “could,” take in the immediate future. Thus, The Times goes down to Maryland to check up on how things are going:

WASHINGTON – When Marylanders go to the polls in November, the state could become the first to affirm same-sex marriage in a popular vote.

In March, lawmakers in Maryland approved a measure to allow such unions, but it came with a built-in escape hatch: it would not take effect until 2013. The waiting period was intended as a compromise with opponents of the measure and as an insurance policy for supporters. Lawmakers feared validating marriages for a period, only to have them overturned by a popular vote later, as happened with Proposition 8 in California.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland seized the opportunity to contest the law and gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot, setting the stage for a renewed debate on the issue.

Now, like I said, the state of Maryland (I live on the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway) is about as true liberal blue as a state can get. So the whole purpose of this story is to answer the following question: How can gay marriage lose in some of America’s most liberal political terrain? WHo are the opponents? Will the Times team listen to these bizarre folks?

Naturally, the Maryland Marriage Alliance shows up immediately, as it should. But who IS the Maryland Marriage Alliance? It is an “alliance” of what kinds of groups? If you know anything about Maryland culture, then you will know that the answer is that this an interracial network of religious groups.

The Times story, explores — from a liberal perspective — the role of race in this scene, but not religion (although there is brief, vague, content-free reference to the much-debated religious conscience exemptions written into the Maryland law that passed). Readers are told:

The ballot language will also be different in Maryland. In the other 32 states where voters have been asked about the issue, the referendum question was phrased so that a vote in favor of the measure was a vote to reject same-sex marriage. In Maryland, ballots will ask the question in the affirmative and will explain that there will be an exemption for religious groups.

In January, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that half of Maryland residents supported same-sex marriage. Since then, polls have suggested a rise in support — in large part, advocates believe, because more black voters have warmed to the idea. That will be particularly significant in Maryland, where in a typical election blacks make up roughly one-third of voters.

Please read the whole story. Based in the information offered by the Times, would readers know that the key to this entire story is whether church-going African-Americans will turn out large enough numbers — with President Barack Obama on the ballot, this is likely, but not certain — and thus vote to defend a traditional definition of marriage? Readers are told that “more black voters have warmed to the idea” of changing the definition, without a single concrete reference to the fact that this pivots on debates in African-American pews.

So what are African-Americans in Maryland debating? What is the content of this pivotal discussion, which will almost certainly determine the fate of this item on the ballot?

Wait, you mean talking to African-American believers on both sides of this issue is a possibility? Who knew?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.twitter.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    “Readers who consume lots of news know that the word “could” is often a sign that a news organization has its fingers crossed about the direction a particular issue should, as opposed to “could,” take in the immediate future.”

    Isn’t this rather paranoid? Look up “could be” in Google News and you’ll see all sorts of stories, including items about potential running mates, sports injuries and hurricane predictions. As a journalist, I’d say “could” is simply shorthand for something being up in the air, but we have to write about it anyway! Not everything has to be about the liberal media conspiracy.

    As for your other point, there’s certainly much to cover in terms of ethnic/racial/religious demographic breakdowns in the gay marriage debate, particularly African Americans. But there’s no shortage of “black churches” and “gay marriage” stories in the mainstream media this year, including a few from The New York Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/us/maryland-gay-marriage-faces-black-skepticism.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/04/16/is-support-for-gay-rights-still-controversial/black-churches-gay-marriage-and-a-new-nuance
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/nyregion/black-leaders-and-gay-advocates-find-ways-to-march-in-step.html
    In contrast to hierarchical groups like the Catholics and LDS, black churches don’t have a central office and official spokesperson, which makes it tricky — on deadline and with space limitations — to get a good sense of where communities “officially” stand. And even if their members don’t like gay marriage, do they dislike it more than they like President Obama? Public politics have been known to trump personal faith, and can also make for some strange bedfellows… which we’re seeing in Washington state’s gay marriage debate, too. Stay tuned.

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    And even if their members don’t like gay marriage, do they dislike it more than they like President Obama?

    The two don’t always go hand-in-hand. North Carolina went for Obama last time yet voted 61% against same-sex marriage. Unless turnout skewed Republican back in May, that would indicate that about 11% or more of the vote was pro-Obama but anti-same-sex-marriage; a good hunk of that would be black church-goers. They’re free to split their ticket, so to speak, to vote for Obama and against the proposal.

    • http://www.twitter.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

      I know, and that’s what we’ll probably see again. But if they support Obama, and he and the NAACP now support same-sex marriage, it “could” make a difference this time. And how carefully do casual voters (the kind who only turn out for presidential elections every four years and only pay attention to the candidate they support) voting on each line of the ballot? Over the years, I’ve covered polling sites where people just “vote the party line” and emerge from the booth seconds later.

      Anyway, my point was that politics makes strange bedfellows, and people don’t necessarily vote their beliefs or best interests. For another example, check out tmatt’s new blog post about conservative women who continue to support Akin. And in the article he quotes, note the subtle reference to Catholics who oppose the death penalty, yet vote for right-wing candidates anyway because they agree on the abortion platform.

  • tmatt

    MARK:
    This was my point, of course. See the Prop 8 results on left coast, as well.
    The article essentially missed to key point of debate in this liberal state. It ignored it.

  • dalea

    FIW, my understanding of African American positions on gay issues is based on years of being out and sometimes an activist. And I really can’t make any sense of the situation, which may be why the press doesn’t get into it. Elected AA officials are usually the most supportive group on gay issues; they are gay peoples most dependable allies in legislating. They are elected over and over again by a constituency that appears to be not supportive of gay people. I don’t understand this at all. There is a group of office holders who take consistent positions and actions that their voters are against, I have no idea how you would report this.

    What seems to be the issue here is that while black people are tolerant of lesbians and white gay men, they are really down on out gay black men. There seems to be a class issue here, which is difficult to write about. In terms of black men in general, gay black men are an elite group: they tend to be better educated, more affluent and have better life prospects than the average black urban man. At least this is the impression I have from reading on the subject in the GL press. Good luck reporting on this.

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