World Vision finds that new crack in modern evangelicalism

So what about that World Vision story? Several things need to be said right up front.

First of all, what we have here is a perfect example of what GetReligion does and doesn’t do. In the past 24 hours all kinds of people have sent me notes asking what “GetReligion thinks” of the World Vision decision. Note: They were asking what we think about the DECISION itself, not the press coverage of that decision.
www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html
Well, I was not surprised that many World Vision leaders wanted to take some kind of legal step toward the acceptance of gay marriage. I was surprised that they played that card at this moment in time. I was then surprised that, 24 hours later, they reversed themselves.

But what does all of that have to do with GetReligion? After all, we are interested in the press coverage of this story, as opposed to arguing about the issue behind the story. Again and again let me note: This is not a religion blog, this is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news.

So what about the coverage of this story? Four quick reactions on my part:

* It’s rather awkward that the must-read mainstream story about this firestorm was written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, a former member of the GetReligion team. More on that in a moment. It also must be noted that the news team at Christianity Today, while operating inside the evangelical world, drove all of the early coverage.

* Frankly, mainstream news outlets have not jumped on the World Vision story to the degree you would expect. Why? Let’s say that, when it comes to religion, journalists are currently focused on the pope, the president and politics. Throw in the Hobby Lobby/Mennonite story at the U.S. Supreme Court and it has been a busy week.

* The World Vision story is, however, causing major earthquakes in cyberspace, with evangelicals and progressive evangelicals tearing each other to pieces. The story is unfolding online, folks. That’s where the action is at this point.

* Finally, gentle readers, if anyone had doubts that there is a doctrinal left wing developing in contemporary evangelicalism, those doubts should be dead and buried at this point. This is probably the most important angle to this sad news event.

So what about the coverage? At this point, in the mainstream, this question leads to the Associated Press. This link is to the version posted at The Washington Post site. Here is the crucial information at the top of the report:

Facing a firestorm of protest, the prominent Christian relief agency World Vision on Wednesday dropped a two-day-old policy that would have allowed the charity to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.

The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage “and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.

Based in Federal Way, Wash., and started by evangelicals, World Vision has an international operating budget of nearly $1 billion and conducts economic development and emergency relief projects. In a conference call with reporters, Stearns said World Vision had not consulted enough with its partners before announcing the initial policy change. Since Monday, Stearns said the board had heard from major evangelical groups and leaders who had told them they had strayed from their core beliefs.

So what is missing from that?

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Surprise! Dallas Morning News finds a Methodist to quote

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Once or twice (or maybe three or four or five times) in recent weeks, we have criticized The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote who supports the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The Methodist bishop for the region, Michael “Never Can Be Reached for Comment” McKee, hasn’t helped matters any, from a journalistic perspective. Whether there’s a history between the bishop and the Morning News or he just doesn’t want to be quoted on this matter, I have no idea. Perhaps he silenced his phone during church and forgot to ever turn it back on?

But rather than settle for a “no comment,” GetReligion has made the case that the Morning News needs to find a voice on the “other side” in its coverage of a retired Methodist minister who presided over the wedding of two gay men earlier this month. That is, unless the Dallas newspaper wants to practice advocacy journalism.

In one of our posts, I got snarky and said:

So we’re left — still — with explaining to a Pulitzer-winning newspaper how it might practice balanced journalism and treat all sides of a divisive issue such as this fairly.

Alas, there’s been a new development on this story: the minister who conducted the same-sex wedding has been suspended by the bishop.

Did the Morning News continue its trend of quoting only one side? To the Dallas newspaper’s credit, no. (Perhaps the Morning News took GetReligion’s constructive criticism to heart?)

From the latest story:

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Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

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United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.

Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

That was the end of that, for the most part, in this western region of the United Methodist Church. Defenders of the denomination’s teachings had to take their battles elsewhere.

This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study — “The Seven Churches of Methodism” — published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church’s leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the larger and still growing “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions — such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. — were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.

This brings us to the current headlines focusing on the supposedly radical actions of New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, especially his open announcement that he would refuse to hold church trials of clergy who violate the denomination’s teachings that homosexual activity, as opposed to orientation, is sinful. McLee is, in effect, saying what Wheatley said in 1980-82.

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Giving both sides a voice in Methodist same-sex debate

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Maybe you’ve noticed, but your normally friendly GetReligionistas get grumpy when newspapers write one-sided stories.

We might even go so far as to use terms such as “advocacy journalism.”

Three times in the last few weeks — here, here and here — we raised a stink over The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote concerning the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Well, a major story on that same topic broke Monday in The New York Times’ back yard:

The head bishop of the United Methodist Church in New York on Monday committed to ending church trials in his region for ministers who perform same sex-marriages, essentially freeing them to conduct a ceremony still prohibited under his denomination’s laws.

As the first sitting United Methodist bishop to publicly make such a pledge, Bishop Martin D. McLee instantly became a leading figure in a decades-old movement within the United Methodist Church, the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, to extend equal recognition and rights to gay and lesbian members. Though Bishop McLee said that he hoped his approach would heal the church’s deep divisions over homosexuality, more conservative Methodists warned that his actions would push the denomination closer to an irrevocable split.

Bishop McLee’s pledge came as part of a resolution announced Monday with the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a Methodist minister and retired dean of Yale Divinity School who had faced a church trial after he officiated the wedding of his gay son in 2012. The trial had been scheduled to begin on Monday.

As I kept reading, my question was this: Would the Timesnot always known for its journalistic balance on social issues — allow both sides an opportunity to speak?

To my delight and the Times’ credit, the answer was yes:

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One thing wrong with that ‘give up one thing for Lent’ thing

I don’t know precisely when it happened, but somewhere during the past decade or two Lent became cool for all kinds of people, including Godbeat reporters.

Lent wasn’t just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (whoever they were) anymore. Lent was for edgy free-church Protestants, bookish evangelicals and all of the mainline Protestants, not just the Episcopalians. You had church leaders handing out Lenten meditation booklets and holding Lenten retreats and maybe even adding a mid-week Lenten service for the truly die-hard worshippers.

Lent was both cool and innovative. In other words, all of this new create-your-own Lent stuff was news. And at the center of it all was one central theme: What are you going to give up for Lent?

This was the big question, of course, the question that linked the new Lent, supposedly, to the old Catholic Lent.

Let’s look at a typical mini-feature earlier this week built on this concept (there were many to choose from), care of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The 40-day period of Lent starts today with Ash Wednesday as many Christian denominations give up something to recognize the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

An analysis of Twitter revealed the most-mentioned Lenten sacrifices this year. Chocolate was number one, followed by alcohol, Twitter, social networking and swearing. Other popular items like forgoing sweets, soda, coffee and fast food also made the top 20.

But not all the Lenten tweets were serious. A high number of people posted they were passing up on Lent or giving up “giving up things.” (Read the top 100 here)

In you’re having trouble thinking of something to give up for Lent, the website WhatToGiveUpForLent.com can help. They suggest not watching television, smoking, using credit cards, gossiping and lying for 40 days.

Of course, the story noted that people can add some kind of (spiritual) discipline during Lent. What about “exercising, volunteering, being on time and staying positive.” Apparently going to confession, traditional forms of fasting, increased prayers, almsgiving, Bible study, etc., etc., didn’t make the list.

The mini-feature ended with a reader participation note: “So do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up or adding?”

So what is missing from this picture?

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Dallas Morning News advocacy journalism, the prequel

Pardon me, Dallas Morning News. We underestimated you.

I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, a little background — OK, it may turn out to be a big chunk of background:

Twice in the last week — here and here — we at GetReligion posted on the Texas newspaper’s advocacy journalism on a retired Methodist pastor conducting a wedding ceremony for two elderly gay men. In each case, we lamented the Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote supporting the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Instead, a newspaper that likes to tout its nine Pulitzer Prizes since 1986 settled each time for a “no comment” from the region’s presiding Methodist bishop.

In our last post, I opined:

But if the bishop won’t talk, are there no other Methodist leaders — in Texas or the nation — that the Morning News might quote to help readers understand why the “other side” believes what it does?

Or is the Dallas paper content to advocate for one side and make only a cursory effort to give the “other side” a voice? Barring any evidence to the contrary, that certainly appears to be the case.

That post prompted Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher — who once worked at the Morning News — to write at The American Conservative:

Same-sex marriage is a big deal within the Methodist Church nationally. The church officially doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, but as you’ll see from the AP story I linked, activists within the national church have undertaken guerrilla actions to defy church teaching because they haven’t gotten their way nationally. They are destroying church unity, but they believe they’re doing it for a good cause. The point is, at this juncture in the struggle within the Methodist church, traditionalists are still in control, and set policy for all Methodist churches. There ought to have been balance in the News stories.

I lived in Dallas, and I know Methodists there. It is absurd to think that it’s impossible to find a Methodist in Dallas who stands with tradition, which is, for the time being, the United Methodist Church’s official teaching. For heaven’s sake, you’ve got a major Methodist divinity school there in town. I’ve never been a religion reporter, but I know at least one professor there who would have given a defense of the church’s teaching — if the reporter from the News would have cared to have learned it. That’s the rub, though. If the reporter and her newspaper don’t believe the other side has a right to be heard, they won’t be heard, and the false impression is given that there is only one side to the story.

That brings me to the reason for this post. It turns out that we were wrong about the Morning News writing two one-sided stories on this issue.  Perusing the newspaper’s online religion page this morning, I found a third. 

Let’s call it the prequel, as it ran back in January:

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