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Few news consumers would be surprised that the journalists at Baptist Press frame their coverage of controversial moral and cultural issues in a way that supports the doctrines affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock of believers.

After all, this is a denominational wire service that is funded by a doctrinally conservative body. The wider world of Southern Baptists (and often former Southern Baptist) is complex enough that it also supports a second wire service — the Associated Baptist Press — that affirms what is usually a more doctrinally liberal, oldline Protestant view on social issues.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that, when framing the decision by Judge Clark Waddoups to strike down a key section of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, the Baptist Press team used several quotes from moral conservatives. In turn, it is not surprising that these sources linked this event to the “slippery slope” argument that says once a culture starts redefining a concept like marriage, it is hard to stop. Here’s a typical passage:

Defenders of the biblical and historic view of marriage said the decision undermines the institution and provides more evidence that its redefinition will be more expansive than just incorporating same-sex relationships.

“Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing,” Russell D. Moore said in a statement released Dec. 14. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life,” Moore said. “Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children.”

Later in the report, the Baptist Press report included related several quotes from the Waddoups text and from defendant Kody Brown, who is featured with his four wives in a television reality show called “Sister Wives.” That’s pretty much to be expected, since the BP staff includes quite several scribes with mainstream news experience.

However, here was the voice that I found especially interesting in this context:

Jonathan Turley, lead counsel for the Browns and a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., connected the homosexual and polygamy causes in his reaction to Waddoups’ opinion.

“[P]lural families present the same privacy and due process concerns faced by [the] gay and lesbian community over criminalization,” Turley wrote.

“The decision affects a far greater range of such relationships than the form of polygamy practiced by the Browns,” he said. “It is a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.”

Bravo. It gladdens the heart of your GetReligionistas to see hints of intellectual and cultural diversity, even in copy from a denominational wire service.

Why bring this up? Other than in our “Got news?” posts, GetReligion rarely digs into the offerings of advocacy journalism sites.

Well, in this case it is interesting to contrast the Baptist Press piece with the coverage of the same decision that was offered in The New York Times.

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As you would expect, the Times report — rightly so — features large blocks of material from the judge himself:

Judge Waddoups made clear that the Brown case was not an easy one for him, writing, “The proper outcome of this issue has weighed heavily on the court for many months.” He noted the shifts in the way the Constitution has been interpreted over the past century to increase protection for groups and individuals spurned by the majority.

“To state the obvious,” Judge Waddoups wrote, “the intervening years have witnessed a significant strengthening of numerous provisions of the Bill of Rights.” They include, he wrote, enhancements of the right to privacy and a shift in the Supreme Court’s posture “that is less inclined to allow majoritarian coercion of unpopular or disliked minority groups,” especially when “religious prejudice,” racism or “some other constitutionally suspect motivation can be discovered behind such legislation.” …

The judge cited the decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting sodomy. He quoted the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that stated the Constitution protects people from “unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places” and “an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct.”

The Times piece also quotes Turley, of course. That’s good.

The Times team, however, does not quote any voices on the cultural right in response to this decision. The material is framed by the judge, the Times and Turley, alone.

It would appear that the content of the Times story is — to be blunt — framed in a way that suggests classic advocacy journalism, in this case to a degree that is just as strong, if not stronger, than the Baptist Press story.

So my question: Why? Why would the great Gray Lady use the same journalistic approach as a denominational wire service such as Baptist Press?

If the Times editors are framing their coverage in accordance with a set of doctrines, what is the name of the “church” that determines the advocacy approach used in this case? The bottom line: Has the Times, on moral and cultural issues, evolved into a denominational news source?

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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.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am surprised a person like Moore who generally defends religious freedom is coming down on this decision the way he is. The fact of the matter is that polygamy was outlawed in the United States as part of a more general plan to destroy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was part of an imperialistic imposition of outside will upon the state of Utah.
    Turley’s attempts to connect this issue with homosexuality are equally out of line. He is not dealing with the post Lawrence v. Texas reality, and even barely dealing with the pre-Lawrence v. Texas reality.
    The fact of the matter is that if marriage is meant to create a bond between children and their biological parents, there is no inherent reason there to limit it to the man/woman form. There are probably good reasons to limit it to monogamy in general, but whether those outweigh religious freedom is another issue. Since Waddoups couched his decision primarily in saying that the Reynolds assessment of religious freedom was wrong, I have a strong sense that Turley is ignoring the actual text of the reading in trying to push it to mean more than it does.
    Even if we could find people who could argue that same-gender marriage was required by their religion, which is different than just being allowed but it is the view of the FLDS and related groups, we would still have the problem that it is not clear how the state is burdening this requirement by not granting such unions recognition. The case of polygamy is so unlike same sex marriage that any attempt to compare the two undermines credibility on both sides.

    • tmatt

      And your journalism comment?

    • RufusChoate

      Ah, your comment is not germane to the post and asinine at same time. Bravo that is a feat.

  • Darren Blair

    Let’s try this again:

    “This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and
    sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother
    and a father committed to each other for life,” Moore said. “Polygamy
    was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and
    again, to hurt women and children.”

    A historical conundrum for people who are opposed to polygamy: if the practice uniformly hurt women and children, why were Mormon women so overwhelmingly in favor of the practice whenever it came up for a vote? *

    One of the dirty little secrets of American history is the fact that Utah gave women the right to vote about the same time that Wyoming did.

    So why has this been forgotten?

    Congress came to fear the “Mormon Women” voting bloc, and were confused as to why this bloc always voted for polygamy whenever it came up on the ballot. As a result, one of the anti-polygamy laws included a clause that stripped all women in Utah (regardless of religious membership) and all Mormons nation-wide of the right to vote.

    I’d love to see a non-Mormon news outlet follow this particular historical angle up.

    *As to why Mormon women tended to vote for polygamy, the truth of the matter is that in those relationships that were properly functional, the women in the marriage were able to split the burdens of the household with one another. That gave them a precious commodity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise: leisure time. This allowed women to pursue their educations (some of the first female medical doctors in America were Mormon plural wives), get involved in politics (Utah was a hub for the suffrage moment at one point), and otherwise actually explore their world.

    • John Pack Lambert

      Actually all Mormons were never stripped of the right to vote per se. That was limited to Idaho, but the Idaho test oath that stripped all people belonging to a church that believed in polygamy from the right to vote was upheld by the Supreme Court. Thus it seems that the Reynolds court was less than honest when they said “belief is always protected but actions have limited protection”. Since when they actually had a statute punishing for belief they upheld it.
      On the other hand, whether women actually liked polygamy per se is complex. It was seen as a religious duty, the 19th-century understanding of certain passages in LDS scripture came close to a view that polygamy was commanded of all. Was say Emily Harris Wells Grant glad to be the 3rd wife of Heber J. Grant? Well, it is hard to say, but probably despite spending about half of her married life hiding in out-of-the way places to avoid being brought to court as evidence to send her husband to jail, the answer is probably yes. And Emily would have been Heber’s 1st wife if she had not as an 18-year-old decided to publicly express her opposition to polygamy.
      While it is Wilford Woodruff who begings the process of ending polygamy and Joseph F. Smith who ends polygamy, it is only under Heber J. Grant that the church administers its own test oaths, excommunicating not only those practicing polygamy but those who support the practice. Although the fact that once Emily died in 1908, Augusta became President Grant’s only living wife, I somewhat believe that Grant would have pushed as hard if both Lucy and Emily had still been alive in the 1920s. One key is that in the 1890s and even through the Smoot hearings the US government would prosecute pre-presidential pardon polygamists on new charges of unlawful cohabitation. After the Smoot hearings things had changed so much that Joseph F. Smith actually introduced two of his wives as such on a White House visit in 1912.
      I am surprised not to see more journalists seeking a response from the LDS Church. However I doubt they will get one. I can see especially Elder Oaks wanting to cheer this as a win for religious freedom, but since the Church has clearly committed to no polygamy anywhere, I think it was Oaks in General Conference who explicitly said the Church forbade polygamy even where it is legal, the last thing the Church wants to do is make a comment on this. Despite some headlines trying to put the LDS Church in the mix, the Church has not exerted pressure to keep laws criminalizing polygamy on Utah’s books for a long time.


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