Sun’s celebration of brave, pro-gay marriage pastors

One of the big election-day stories in deep-blue, liberal Maryland was the narrow victory for same-sex marriage — especially since the polls were so close going into the final hours.

The key to the election, of course, was the African-American vote.

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that the newspaper that lands in my front yard covered this angle of this crucial event with a news story that celebrated the actions of courageous black pastors who provided the crucial push that led to victory. Readers will not be stunned to know that this Baltimore Sun piece provided zero space for commentary from African-American pastors who were on the other side, even when it came time to talk about how they allegedly ostracized the enlightened pastors who backed the gay marriage.

The key religion-news passages are at the beginning of the story and then at the very end, with lots of politics in the middle.

The two Baptist pastors didn’t know a soul at Gov. Martin O’Malley’s big breakfast for supporters of his same-sex marriage bill back in January.

Neither had ever been in a room with so many openly gay people.

“It was a different moment,” said the Rev. Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. He had attended the breakfast in Annapolis with a colleague, the Rev. Delman Coates, who leads a megachurch in Prince George’s County.

They listened. Observed. And at the news conference that followed, stood to the side. They left intrigued by the proposed legislation, but unsure of how much of a role they wanted to play in Maryland’s marriage debate.

Ten months later, the two had become the highest-profile pitchmen for Question 6, appearing in nearly identical commercials that played on television for three-quarters of the campaign. In Baltimore — during some stretches — the average person saw the commercials 10 times a week. Voters’ approval of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law last week can be traced in part to the decision by Hickman, 41, and Coates, 39, to lend
their names, faces and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community.

There are, of course, many, many different kinds of Baptist churches — forming a spectrum from the doctrinal right to, yes, the doctrinal left. The Sun team, needless to say, appears to have never heard this fact about church-history in modern America.

Thus, readers never find out who these pastors actually are and what they believe, in terms of the broader spectrum of African-American religion. Readers do learn that Coates is a graduate of Harvard (one must assume the Divinity School), which certainly suggests a mainline Protestant doctrinal orientation, as opposed to evangelical Protestant. Once again, the word “Baptist” tells readers very little.

Readers learn quite a bit about Coates and his personal story and how it has affected his views on gay rights. They learn nothing about his doctrinal views on this biblical issue.

At the same time, the story focuses on one of the straw-man issues of the election, which was whether churches would be forced to perform same-sex marriage rites. This issue was raised constantly in commercials and in the press even though, in reality, this was not an issue in the legislation.

Once again, the crucial issue here in Maryland focused on whether there would be two forms of religious liberty and expression — with one level of freedom inside church doors and a different level of religious liberty outside those doors, in public life. The Sun story says nothing about this issue, which was the heart of the informed and highly nuanced debates that took place in the state legislature and in most churches. This passage was typical:

Hickman, of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, also started thinking about same-sex marriage in 2011, after O’Malley said he would make legalization a priority.

“People were saying pastors will be locked up for resisting a same-sex ceremony,” he recalled. “I said we should get a better understanding of what it was.”

By the way, this Southern Baptist Church is not one of the many African-American congregations associated with the conservative world of Southern Baptists. “Southern Baptist” is the name of the congregation. Also, a glance at Hickman’s background shows that he, too, has a solidly mainline Protestant theological background.

In other words, other than the courage they showed in standing up to the surrounding African-American community, it should have been no surprise whatsoever to learn that these two pastors shared doctrinal views that have evolved to the religious left on gay rights. This doctrinal change is completely consistent with their backgrounds. Did editors at The Sun know that?

Meanwhile, religion content vanishes until the crucial final lines of the story, when readers are told:

… Hickman and Coates remained on the air for most of the campaign. Backlash came swiftly. And it was personal, Coates said.

“It’s been tough with some peers and colleagues,” he said. “Statements that I’m not a true preacher. I’m not part of the church. A range of judgments and attacks.”

He says critics predicted that Coates and Hickman would destroy their ministries. Since word of the campaign spread, both pastors have had to add services on Sunday to accommodate increased demand.

Is there any evidence of these personal attacks, other than the word of these two activists? How do we know that, in fact, their critics said or did what we are told that they said or did? Come to think of it, what are the actual views of other African-American pastors on any of these biblical, moral and political issues? Where are their voices — other than in second-hand threats that The Sun team accepts as the gospel truth?

What does The Sun team offer to readers on that side of the story? Please click here for the answer.

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.

  • rob in williamson county

    The chirping crickets made my day…..very nice touch.

  • tmatt

    The lack of response to this post is making me nervous.
    Have GR readers OFFICIALLY concluded that The Sun team …
    (a) cannot or
    (b) WILL not
    … produce balanced, accurate journalism on this topic?

    • Chris Bolinger

      (a) = incompetence
      (b) = bias
      Which to choose?

  • dalea

    I read the story as being about the campaign in Maryland and how the two ministers worked to develope the strategy. Not about the various sides of the issue. So, this does not strike me as unusual. If it were about the positions of various churches, then all sides should be heard from. But, as an examination of a winning campaign, and of the role two ministers played in that effort. It strikes me as expository, setting the history of the campaign in order, and biographying two of the main actors.

    Looked at over a longer period of time, over the last 25 years how many stories have there been on this subject? And how many have focused on pro SSM ministers? My suspicion is that this is probably the first one after dozens upon dozens focused on minister against. We should keep in mind that the medias alleged pro gay slant is a very very recent phenomena, coming only after decades of hostility and anti-gay bias.

  • tmatt

    dalea:
    Several comments.
    * I agree that this is about the two ministers AND THEIR BRAVE STAND AGAINST the other churches. But look at the end of the story. Journalists should NEVER settle for second-hand quotes about that kind of material. The end of the story simply is a journalistic bridge too far.
    * In the eight years I have been back in the area, I have seen a dozen or more Sun stories with this basic pro-left story line, with the views of the left mildly stated. I have seen, maybe, two that even attempted to represent the doctrinal, not political, views of people on the other side. The other side, btw, is always called fundamentalist or something to that effect and contrasted with the left and center left. Where is the center conservative, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, etc.? Missing.
    * I wrote my thesis at Urbana in the early ’80s and read all of the bias studies at the time. The press was already solidly — to the tune of 80 percent or so in Eastern elites, such as The Sun — pro-gay rights. When the Religious Right hit the scene, the coverage shifted even more against the right.
    You know that GetReligion believes it is crucial for the MSM to do even more coverage of the doctrinal left and its perspectives. That is part of the equation. The goal is accurate and balanced coverage of both sides.
    Also, I would be just as opposed to second-hand quotes being used to smear believers on the other side of the issue. Bad journalism is bad journalism.

  • Sari

    It is unreasonable to expect journalists to parse doctrinal differences between the many different types of Christianity when they lack fundamental knowledge of major world religions. (refer to recent blogpost on praying passenger). Few adherents of any religion understand the doctrines of their faiths anyway.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Insofar as the word brave describes these pastors’ stand against contrary forces, those forces deserve to be accurately portrayed in their own terms. Given this lack of evidence, I am not convinced – in terms of the story at least – that their stand was brave. Maybe, in fact, they are cowards who caved into the pro-gay forces. Now, realistically, I would bet they met with some resistance and stood up to it – to think that *no one* in their congregations or church organizations objected to their efforts would be quite unrealistic after all – but I am not at all clear as to how big and forceful and fearsome that resistance was. Given that there has been no measurable backlash – they still have their congregations, attendance is up – I am actually suspecting that it wasn’t so tough after all.

    Did not opponents of the legislation also experience backlash, that came swiftly and personally? Any time a pastor takes a stand on a controversial topic, there is a backlash. It’s as if only the proponents of the legislation faced backlash, and not the other way around.

    An article on the strategy and tactics of the victorious side has really very little value as such without a clear and objective assessment of the competitive strategy and tactics. In concert with the effort of these two pastors was a broader effort, no doubt, including what people advocating the other side of the issue would call backlash.

  • tmatt

    Sari:
    So let me see if I get your point.
    Readers can expect journalists to ask solid questions and produce basic journalism — seeking balance and accuracy — on politics, sports, arts, law, the environment, etc. They should know what they do not know and, thus, do what journalists do and seek readings and voices that help them get informed and then to inform their readers.
    But not religion? It’s OK to print inaccurate and unbalanced news on this one topic? Why do you single out this topic for a unique, second-class status on the MSM?

  • Sari

    Journalists need not delve into doctrinal differences or, even worse, make attributions to same in order to tackle religion. The problem with this article derives from its lack of balance and it’s clear support of one side of the issue–the advocacy. Factoids


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