United Methodist Church found guilty of having a bad law

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First, a word from the official heckler of GetReligion:

A church whose slogan is “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” can hardly seem to be pushing the growth bandwagon by catering to a large traditional minority! It is entirely appropriate for protesters to highlight the hypocrisy in the Methodist Church. And it’s a sad state of affairs when a journalist writing about such protesters and noting objectively that “Some worry…” about the impact on the church’s progressive image is taken to task on your blog as “one-sided.”
Posted by: Joe Perez | March 20, 2004 03:26 PM

Let’s unpack this for a minute, before considering the verdict out in the Pacific Northwest.

Perez is right, of course, that the slogan “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” perfectly expresses the worldview of the national leadership of the United Methodist Church and it does not express the doctrines found in the church’s own Book of Discipline. That is what this battle is all about. A large majority of United Methodists has repeatedly upheld the Discipline’s traditional views of marriage and ordination. At the same time, the Discipline’s standards have continued to face strong opposition in the church’s bureaucracies and seminaries. And it is also clear that the law is being read one way in places such as Colorado, Washington and California and in another way in Texas, Georga and Kentucky (especially Wilmore).

Mr. Perez is also right to note that it makes sense for progressives to protest this clash between their church’s advertising and its laws. You betcha, that’s an awkward situation.

However, Mr. Perez clearly did not understand the point I was making about the Washington Post story and the contrast with the more balanced report in the New York Times. I was not claiming that Alan Cooperman’s report was unbalanced because it made a (valid) comment about the protesters. I was saying it was unbalanced because it included little or no factual material that described the size and nature of the conflict in the United Methodist Church and among Methodists at the global level. The goal in journalism is to offer information representing both sides of a conflict, especially one as bitter as this gash in United Methodism.

Meanwhile, the verdict is now in. A jury of 13 pastors found the Rev. Karen Dammann innocent of violating her church’s teachings against homosexual conduct by clergy. In effect, the jury found the United Methodist Church itself guilty of having an unclear law, or at least one that can be considered unclear by those who oppose the teachings contained therein. The Seattle Times reported:

Church law says that “since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers.

One juror, the Rev. Karla Fredericksen of Tukwila United Methodist Church, read a statement from the jury, saying: “The church did not present sufficient, clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge” against Dammann. “We searched the Discipline and did not find a declaration that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

… Although the jury said it found “passages that contain the phrasing ‘incompatible with Christian teaching,’ we did not find that any of them constitute a declaration.”

This is not a surprising verdict, since it comes 18 years after a trial in the Rocky Mountain conference in which a case against an openly gay pastor was dismissed due to similar confusion over the meaning of “self-avowed” and “practicing.” The bottom line: It is next to impossible to make a United Methodist annual conference enforce a law that it does not want to enforce.

What this demonstrates for reporters is that the political structures of individual religious bodies are not always what they seem at first glace. The Southern Baptist Convention looks like a powerful national structure, but the real power is at the local church level. Ask Bill Clinton.

In United Methodism, the key power switch is at the regional conference level. This is where national laws are enforced, or not enforced. The same is true in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), only the regional bodies are called presbyteries instead of conferences. And the same thing is true in the Episcopal Church. The real power is at the diocese level, unless national or international structures dare to flex their muscles.

Come to think of it, the same thing is true in the Roman Catholic Church — unless Rome decides to step in and enforce its laws and teachings.

Actually, these flocks and their shepherds appear to have a lot in common.

Methodist trial: “Experts on both sides of the divide agree”

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In a quick glance through some of the coverage of the United Methodist trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann (shown at right in a United Methodist News Service photo) I found something interesting — a newspaper bravely steering to the left of the New York Times in coverage of a moral and religious issue.

That would be the Washington Post, with a story that is — even by modern journalistic standards — starkly one-sided. There is no way to do a content analysis of the whole story, so let’s look at one core issue: In terms of numbers, which side is on the upswing? Oh, and there is a related question: Who is to blame for this painful dispute?

The Post story notes that the United Methodist powers that be are in the midst of a branding campaign to promote peace and harmony:

Outside the courtroom in a church social hall, protesters carried signs saying “Closed Minds, Closed Hearts, Closed Doors” — a reference to the church’s $18 million television advertising campaign, which uses the slogan, “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors: the People of the United Methodist Church.”

Church officials say the four-year campaign has been successful, boosting overall attendance by 7 percent and first-time visitors at 150 test churches by 14 percent. Some worry that those gains could be offset by negative publicity about the trial. But a church spokesman, Stephen Drachler, said the trial also “shows the church living its faith and opening minds. In the United Methodist Church, as in society, people don’t agree on every issue.”

This makes it pretty clear that in the eyes of reporter Alan Cooperman (the Post specialist covering the world of oldline Protestantism), the people who are defending the church’s teachings on marriage and sex are undercutting a church-growth campaign. This would then mean that it is the traditionalists who are causing the church to decline — that’s bad for business. Thus, it would be the progressives who are on the side of health and growth.

This sounds strange, in light of reporting at National Public Radio, the Atlantic Monthly and a host of other places showing that the church-growth wave shaping these doctrinal debates is on the side of the traditionalists — especially if the voices of Third World churches are taken into account. We can also see similar patterns in churches here in the United States. Look for similar tensions between Catholic leaders in, let’s say, Europe and Africa in the chess game leading up to the next papal election.

Or consider this information from a New York Times story on this trial, written by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein. It contains something amazing — a highly relevant and apparently non-controversial fact. Journalists need to look for this kind of information.

The United Methodist Church — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, with about 8.3 million members — has remained so torn over homosexuality that it has argued over its stance at every quadrennial meeting for the last 32 years. Based on previous votes at the conventions, it appears that about two-thirds of church members are opposed to acceptance of homosexuality, while about one-third are in favor, church experts on both sides of the divide agreed.

Now that is a major divide. Obviously, the larger story behind this trial up in Washington state is not going to fade away. This also implies that the current tensions are rooted in the efforts of a minority of United Methodists — even in the North American context — to change church doctrines against the will of a large traditionalist majority.

That would have been nice for a major newspaper such as the Washington Post to note. In this case, the New York Times goes further, adding material from a conservative source to balance large blocks of quoted material from progressives. According to Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group that watches mainline trends:

… the Pacific Northwest region not only was out of step with the majority of the church, but also was part of a liberal Western jurisdiction that is losing members while the more conservative Southeastern and overseas regions are growing.

“I suspect that homosexuality will be a point of contention for at least the next two decades,” he said. “However, those of us on the traditional side are at least hopeful that in a demographic sense, the church is going in our direction.”

Concerning my friend Jack Kelley

I am still in New York City until tomorrow, without a lot of time to stop and write.

Nevertheless, I am getting tons of email seeking my comments on the USA Today package today laying out its case against reporter Jack Kelley. I really don’t want to say much, in large part because Jack Kelley is a personal friend and his family has very much been in my prayers for weeks. It is better to pray for one’s friends than to talk about them, in such trying times.

I will say this: If you want to understand some of the background of this story — a story that does not appear to be over on either side of the dispute — please see the major feature on Jack at the American Journalism Review.

And let me end with the prayer that Orthodox Christians try to keep in mind at all times: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

A good thief touched by the Passion

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“Gibson movie spurs surrender, robber says”

That was the headline that greeted me this morning in the Palm Beach Post as I headed to the airport to fly to New York City. At least, that’s the headline that’s up in the online edition.

I’m currently up here in the extreme northern section of South Florida (or is South Florida the southern tip of New York City?) where I spoke in two workshops at the spring edition of the National College Media Convention. Today’s highlight: New York Times chairman and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., on why everything is just fine now at the world’s greatest newspaper in the wake of post-Jayson Blair reforms. Blogs had little or nothing to do with that journalistic earthquake, by the way.

Anyway, back to the story of James Anderson the good thief and “The Passion of the Christ.” The Palm Beach Post sort of played this story sort of straight, even though this is a newspaper that is downright hostile to traditional forms of religious faith. Here’s a sample:

The reasoning process that brought Anderson from total freedom to a jail cell seemed a complicated one, according to investigators who interviewed him.

When a sheriff’s detective asked him why he gave himself up, Anderson said he was stirred deeply after watching The Passion of the Christ and felt compelled to come clean.

“He said, ‘I saw The Passion and that made my decision,’ ” sheriff’s office spokesman Paul Miller said. “And he sort of urged (the detective) to see the movie too.”

Still, I think it’s kind of fun to imagine what writers at other newspapers would have done with this. Look it over. Anyone want to take a stab at a paragraph or two of Frank Rich copy on this story line? What would be his lead? How about the gang at Entertainment Weekly?

Finally, you have to love the populist touch they added with the reader’s poll in the sidebar. This is like a bad set up for Leno, don’t you think?

Your Opinion: “If you had committed a crime, would you be compelled to confess after seeing ‘The Passion of the Christ?’ ”

And the choices, of course, are: “Yes,” “No” and “Haven’t seen it.”

You have to ask: Are Palm Beach County robbers more likely to have seen this film than not? What is the connection?

Final “Baylor, Sex and Ink” column is now …

… up online at the Scripps Howard News Service side, if anyone wants to see the final step in the march from the God-beat blogosphere to dead tree pulp. Click here.

Memo to Hollywood execs: Visit more Hispanic churches

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By now, many dedicated bloggers who are following news developments about “The Passion of the Christ” have seen the acidic Steve Martin memo from the New Yorker, pretending to offer advice on tweaking Mel Gibson’s screenplay.

It’s nasty, but hilarious, with this chatty opening: “Dear Mel, We love, love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights. Love the Jesus character. So likable. He can’t seem to catch a break!”

And then there is this memorable series of bullets:

* Love the flaying.

* Could the rabbis be Hispanic? There’s lots of hot Latino actors now, could give us a little zing at the box office. Research says there’s some historical justification for it.

* Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud, the more I like it.

But one of those chuckles probably isn’t very funny for Hollywood insiders and the entertainment-industry wing of the Democratic Party. Everyone (even the New York Times) knows that Gibson has a smash out there in Red-State Pews and that Hollywood is having to rethink the future of biblical epics and faith-friendly films. But what is slowly sinking in is that this blockbuster is knocking down some high walls in American culture.

Take, for example, the divide between the Hispanic audience and suburban Protestants. The Los Angeles Weekly headlined this phenomenon: “The Republicans’ Passion Play — GOP knows Mel’s movie is la bomba for Latinos.”

In fact, according to exit polls:

… The Passion of the Christ is attracting a gargantuan 40 percent Latino audience in the cities tested. Until now, there has been only anecdotal evidence that Latinos, as well as Asians and African-Americans, are flocking to the film. The research shows that Latinos are rating Passion higher than does any other ethnic group, and 76 percent say theyre inclined to pay to see the movie again. Not only do 86 percent of Latinos say the film is excellent, but 80 percent say the movie is better than they expected. And while a whopping percentage of the overall audience say they would definitely recommend it, that figure among Latinos is a startling 91 percent.

Now this trend is probably not a shock to veteran God-beat reporters who have walked through the doors of Roman Catholic sanctuaries in Hispanic neighborhoods. Stunningly literal images of the Stations of the Cross are the norm and the prayers of the Rosary are recited far more often than in the typical Anglo parish. Suffice it to say that most Hispanics will recognize that the Rosary provides the central structure of Gibson’s film, even if most film critics and journalists did not.

What are the political implications of all this? Reporter Nikki Finke continues:

So here’s Mel, not just pulling in Latinos but even Latino families. He did what no one else has been able to. Frankly, it never occurred to the godless Hollywood liberals — as the folks at Fox News Network and wacko right-wing Web sites refer to us — to use religion as bait for Latinos. And it never occurred to the Democratic Party, pal of most Hollywood filmmakers, to embrace Gibson or his movie. Big mistake. Huge!

And the Hispanics are not alone. Research indicates that African-Americans and Asians are highly pro-Passion. Thus:

In one fell swoop, Republicans established a strong bond with the most religious members of those ethnic groups who are supposed to vote Democratic. … Is that enough for Bible-thumping Latinos, African-Americans and Asians to change political sides? It may not matter: Just having made such a significant inroad could be enough for conservatives to build on in the future since Latinos are expected to grow to 14 percent of the nations population in 2010, and half of that population is younger than age 26, and 40 percent is under 18.

P.S. Mr./Ms. noname is back!

interesting also that the democrats during the last dnc attempted to attract young latino voters by hosting a big bash for latinos at the playboy mansion. this was an embarrasment to gore and ultimately to clinton who had just been through the monica lewinsky scandal and the bash was later called off.

When does a blog piece turn into actual journalism?

A personal note from Tmatt. In the past week, my longer post on the same-sex marriage editorial flap at Baylor has kind of run off and developed a life of its own. This past Sunday, a shortened version ran on the op-ed page of the Dallas Morning News. And, after noticing that the Baylor story seemed to have some legs, I have re-written the material again for use as my Scripps Howard syndicate column this week. The home page for my columns is www.tmatt.net, by the way.

But this leads me to a question I have wanted to ask, seeking some feedback concerning this blog. The focus of GetReligion.org is the mainstream media’s coverage of religion news. So far, Doug and I have offered quite a bit of short, quick commentary on articles in the media, but we have also ventured into some personal opinion writing about “what it all means.”

So here is my question: When does blog writing actually turn into journalism? When does it turn into an actual editorial column? Another way to ask the question is to ask whether you, the readers, prefer short, chatty pieces with a dash of personal commentary, or the longer pieces (“What would Richard Ostling do?”) that try to weave references to several news articles into a larger trend piece. I mean, is there an official length — 600-plus words, let’s say — where this “blogging” thing evolves into something else? What think ye?

Perhaps Bush is courting Robert Casey Democrats?

What we have here is a Nixon-goes-to-China case of media bias analysis.

In the new “Look Left” column in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait challenges the basic template that most newsrooms are using as they cover the ongoing same-sex marriage story.

The working assumption is that President Bush is, by backing a marriage amendment, throwing red meat to his religious conservative base and, by doing so, risking the loss of millions of moderate swing voters. This assumes that there are legions of voters who are basically Libertarian — conservative on economics, but with liberal moral views. Here is what that template looks like in print:

“It’s a cardinal rule of politics,” The New York Times declared in a front-page story last week. “Pay attention to the party’s base. In recent weeks, on a variety of fronts, President Bush has done just that. … His impassioned endorsement on Tuesday of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, after weeks of intensive lobbying by social conservatives, was the culmination of this rapprochement. But will he pay a price with the centrist voters who so often decide presidential elections, as the Democrats hope?” USA Today chimed in, “Bush’s support of a proposed amendment had long been sought by conservative Christians, who are among the Republican Party’s most loyal supporters.” And the Post story quoted above asserted, “So when gay marriages advanced in Massachusetts and San Francisco, Bush felt a need to respond to the cries of social conservatives–even if it meant losing some swing voters he needs in November.”

But what if there was evidence that there were still lots of people from the old Democratic coalition — Hispanic Catholics, for example, or black Protestants or even labor folks of many ethnic varieties — who are progressive on economics and conservative on cultural issues? Few journalists, notes Chait, seem to have considered this option. Why is that? Perhaps it is a matter of class. Perhaps it is a matter of religion. Whatever it is, Time magazine is singing the same song:

… (The) voters that Time is referring to — i.e., upper income, socially moderate, economically conservative folks — don’t make up the entire swing vote or even the largest portion of it. A larger bloc of swing voters has essentially the opposite sensibility — culturally traditional and economically populist. “The greatest bloc of contested voters watching politics from a distinct perspective is noncollege and blue-collar America,” writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book The Two Americas. “These are the voters for whom church and faith are important and who think values and family are under pressure too.”

Chait says this is all a “perfect case study” of how socioeconomic assumptions influence what happens in newsrooms. Maybe. But perhaps this is another case study that illustrates a genuine lack of diversity in mainstream journalism when it comes to religion and “traditional” ways of thinking. Perhaps we need more journalists who — at least at the professional and intellectual level — “get religion.” Here’s Chait again:

It’s not hard to understand why the national media fails to grasp the continued strength of cultural traditionalism: In Washington and New York, where many journalists dwell, gay marriage is an increasingly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the country, it’s not. And, even if the media doesn’t realize this, it’s a good bet Karl Rove does.


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