Church of The New York Times keeps preaching its own faith

It’s time for another “Kellerism” update, as The New York Times continues its efforts to highlight religious institutions with doctrines that are unacceptable to the newsroom’s theologians and, perhaps, the U.S. Department of Justice. This time, the drama shifts out West, where another Christian college community is trying to find a way to live out its faith commitments.

NEWBERG, Ore. – A growing number of openly transgender students have forced schools around the country to address questions so basic that they were rarely asked just a few years ago, much less answered: What defines a person’s gender, and who gets to decide?

A small Christian college here, George Fox University, has become the latest front in this fight, refusing to recognize as male a student who was born anatomically female. The student calls himself a man, and as of April 11, when a state circuit court legally changed his sex, the State of Oregon agrees.

But George Fox University sees him as a woman, and it prohibits unwed students from living with anyone of the opposite sex.

Notice the question that was not asked, in an alleged news story that opens with an editorial assertion: If a private — as opposed to state — college is a doctrinally defined voluntary association, what happens when a student decides that he or she does not believe those doctrines? Think of it this way: If a student at a Muslim college decided to convert to Christianity, thus contradicting the covenant he voluntarily signed when he came to the campus, would the college be able to say that this student had to accept the school’s doctrinal authority?

If private religious organizations have the right to define their communities in terms of doctrine, does this First Amendment right no longer apply to doctrines linked to sex? The other way I have stated the question is this: Does the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religion still apply to traditional religious believers who reject many of the doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution?

The leaders of the Times team, of course, do not appear to be interested in that half of the debate that is at the heart of this news story. Thus, this report crashes, as an attempt at journalism. Why?

The answer, of course, is “Kellerism.” What is that? Here is a reminder from a recent post, when I first coined that term. The key is the famous 2011 remarks by former Times editor Bill Keller, when he said that the basic rules of journalism no longer apply to coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The words “aside from” are the doors into “Kellerism.” It’s first journalism-defining doctrine is:

There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine grows out of his quiet rejection (.pdf here) of a key element in the landmark 2005 Times self study entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust,” the passages calling for more cultural and intellectual diversity in the world’s most powerful newsroom. Keller — only days after leaving his desk as editor — said he was committed to hiring diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc., but not on matters of culture and intellect.

So how does this shape the Oregon story? Simply stated, the Times team completely ignores the issue of a private school’s right to define the doctrines at the heart of its community, whether on the doctrinal left or right. Note the unstated connection running through this passage:

George Fox, a Quaker school southwest of Portland, asked the Department of Education for a religious exemption from Title IX. Rob Felton, a university spokesman, said the request was prompted by the position the government took in the California case, and by warnings from Jaycen’s lawyer that he intended to file a Title IX complaint. In drafting its petition, the university consulted with an evangelical group, Alliance Defending Freedom, that has fought attempts to allow transgender students to use what they see as the sex-appropriate school restrooms and other facilities.

The department granted the Title IX exemption on May 23, and on the same day it gave a similar exemption to Simpson University, a Christian school in California — the first two ever given for policies on transgender people, department officials and transgender advocates said. It granted a third exemption last month to Spring Arbor University, a Christian college in Michigan.

Now, the Justice Department is looking into whether George Fox’s transgender policy might violate nondiscrimination requirements in federal housing law.

What connects these schools? Their attempts to defend the doctrines that define their communities.

The unstated question: Why is the student named “Jaycen” at George Fox? This is the other point where the Times team is completely uninterested in the views of those that oppose the newspaper’s doctrines. Apparently, other than the school’s PR voice, there are no voices at George Fox who are willing to defend George Fox. At the end of the story readers are told:

Jaycen said that in spite of everything, he had found strong support from students and faculty members.

“I want other transgender and L.G.B.T.Q. people to see that they can have a place in faith-based education,” he said. “The fact that I’m here is proof of that.”

Of course, there are schools whose doctrines fit those now held by Jaycen and others whose convictions now contradict centuries of Christian doctrine. Should students attend schools where they can sign doctrinal covenants and then keep those vows? This issue is never explored in the story. Why is this student at George Fox?

Yes, it does matter that the school’s own community seems to be divided — anonymity is crucial — over these doctrines. This is common. That is why it’s crucial — in terms of journalism ethics — for the Times team to quote people on both sides of this debate, even inside George Fox and similar institutions.

Why not cover both sides of the debate? Because, under “Kellerism,” error has no rights, even if that means changing the basic rules of the American model of the press.

So what happens when Times leaders decide that it is no longer necessary to apply the rules of journalism to religion, culture and morality? What happens when the leaders of this powerful newsroom decide that, in ways both open and subtile, that they can attack religious believers whose doctrines they reject?

Simply stated, many traditional religious believers — even if they are long-time supporters of the Times — are being forced out of the doctrinally defined community that is the church of New York Times subscribers.

Really? Yes, really.

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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.


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