Washington Post vs. Bob McDonnell

defconSo the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia wrote a master’s thesis about family-friendly government policies. Make that traditional family-friendly policies. Written in the 1980s, it suggested that the government should craft policies that encourage traditional families (as opposed to “cohabitors, homosexuals or fornicators”). The Washington Post‘s coverage of Bob McDonnell thesis is at DEFCON 1 — just a couple days into it we’re now up to two-front page stories, three inside stories, two columns, one house editorial and one cartoon (as of yesterday, that is).

The thesis is interesting and controversial, even if it’s from the 1980s. It’s certainly worth coverage — maybe even a front-page story depending on the competing news. Heck, I bet that there are a few other politicians out there whose college and grad work are worth a good look. But Virginia Republicans and conservative pundits are worried that treatment of the thesis is just the latest example in the Post‘s uneven coverage of political candidates. I don’t know. Maybe they have good reason to hit one candidate hard while avoiding the controversial contemporary statements of the guy they endorsed during the Democratic primary.

There’s actually a lot about the coverage to take issue with, but I wanted to highlight one story for how it sets the scene. It’s a front-pager from Tuesday and it’s headlined “Governor’s Race Erupts Over McDonnell’s Past View.” The eruption consists of pretty standard campaign stuff — Democrats sending out emails about the thesis and McDonnell holding a lengthy conference call with reporters to answer questions about the thesis. Here are two paragraphs that were highlighted by one conservative pundit as the most favorable of the article:

Democrats have long attempted to characterize McDonnell as an ultra-conservative who is playing down his views on such issues as abortion, school prayer and gay rights so as not to alienate moderate voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, who increasingly decide statewide elections.

But McDonnell’s public record and his reputation among colleagues paint a more complex portrait. He appears as a man with deeply conservative views that spring from a strong Catholic faith but also as reasonable, open-minded and increasingly focused on such issues as jobs and transportation.

Just to be clear: On the one hand he’s a Catholic with conservative views but on the other hand he’s reasonable!

Anyway, if you’re interested, there’s much more. And I imagine there will be much more. Here’s a sample: “’89 Thesis A Different Side of McDonnell,” “Thesis Issue Builds, McDonnell Tries to Move On: Former Colleagues Say Views Persist,” and “Republican Turns to Female Backers to Talk Down His Past Views and Promote Economic Plans.”

Apart from the overkill on the coverage and the pitting of “reasonable” against “conservative” “Catholic,” I’m not sure how well the Post portrayed the thesis to begin with. I read some of it and there is certainly some controversial stuff in there, but take this for instance, from the same story excerpted above:

He criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples and decried the “purging” of religion from schools. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach “traditional Judeo-Christian values,” and he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.

Well, what he wrote wasn’t that complicated but apparently the Post doesn’t think it’s worth explaining (although Post blogger Ramesh Ponnuru does here). Basically, the Supreme Court found a right to marital privacy that included contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut. Later the court ruled — citing Griswold — that state governments can’t prohibit unmarried folks from buying contraception. McDonnell said that the later ruling “illogically” applied a marital right to unmarried people. So yes, he criticized the ruling but he did so on somewhat narrow grounds. He didn’t say anything about whether contraception should be legal and nowhere advocated restricting contraception. That’s not the feeling you get, however, if you read the Post.

His view that tax credits for child care should go to parents whether or not they use commercial day care were similarly butchered. He said that subsidizing only the choice to use commercial day care would preference that choice, negatively transforming the family by “entrenching a status-quo of non-parental primary nurture of children.” And as families figure out how to organize their affairs, tax credits to pay for day care — and not for a stay-at-home parent to care for their own children — can provide an incentive to go with day care. Government policies do affect the traditional family. I wish that newspapers would have more conversations about it. But the war being waged over McDonnell’s thesis is not a good example of what a responsible discussion should look like.

Another quick note. This Washington Post chat about McDonnell (by former assistant managing editor and Metro columnist Robert McCartney) describes Pat Robertson as having a “Protestant fundamentalist” outlook. For the eleventy billionth time, “fundamentalist” does not mean “those Christian folks on the right who we don’t like.” It’s a real word, with a real meaning. A word that the AP Stylebook recommends that journalist avoid:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

It’s not just pejorative. Pat Robertson, of course, espouses charismatic theology — something actual fundamentalists are not known for.

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Sanford’s mission from God

mark-sanford1When elected officials promote BS about politics or world affairs or the state of the economy, it’s a reporters responsibility to let readers know. (Not saying it happens often enough, but that is the expectation.) But what about when a pol says something religious that doesn’t pass the smell rest?

You get straight-faced reports like this coverage of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s battle to keep his job following his sordid spring:

Mr. Sanford vowed not to quit despite growing pressure from South Carolina lawmakers and Republican Party officials to resign or face impeachment. He said he intends to complete his term, not to hold on to power but to fight for conservative principles of governance.

“I feel absolutely committed to the cause, to what God wanted me to do with my life,” he said in an interview. “I have got this blessing of being engaged in a fight for liberty, which is constantly being threatened.”

That’s from the Washington Times. Also this week, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sanford’s self-styling as “zen-like.”

I’d like to knock the reporters for not calling Sanford on delivering religious cliches and using God as his scandal-survival wingman. But instead I have to commend them. They did their job and left judgments to be made by readers or resigned for God.

At least in this case Sanford didn’t pull an A-Rod and blame God. But coverage of Sanford’s saga hints at one of the toughest things about religion reporting. It’s also one of the elements I enjoyed the most: You’re writing about the personal beliefs that shape society. And as I said recently, it’s really hard to take at face-value anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth.

The trouble is that when a politician says a new government program would cost $20 million when it would really cost $70 million, a reporter can identify the disparity while still maintaining the neutral tone expected of newspaper journalism. But when they say that they’re on a mission from God to serve in government, despite disappearing to have a fling in South America, then it’s tough for a newspaper reporter to say an individual, in this case Sanford, doesn’t really believe that.

Reporters can, however, through the way stories are structured, remind readers to look at both a politician’s rhetoric and their deeds.

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Birthing babies and other delights

people-magazineOkay, I know readers are getting testy about all of the Ted Kennedy coverage (believe me, it’s wearing on me, too) but I have just one final story to highlight. It’s not about Kennedy per se but it uses his death as a hook to discuss the death of large Irish-American families in general. The New York Times story by Michael Wilson is worth highlighting because it does what so few stories about fertility do — it discusses how religion plays a role in the number of children women have. Huzzah! After making the case that Irish-American family size has plummeted, we’re told:

The smaller Irish-American family has been attributed to many factors, but the one most often cited is a decline in willingness to defer to the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. “The church’s guidance on all kinds of things, including family planning, doesn’t carry the weight it used to carry,” said Terry Golway, a writer who teaches American history at Kean University in New Jersey.

In New York, the migration of the Irish middle class from the city to the suburbs contributed to the decline of the double-digit family, he said. “Their world was not defined by the parish as it once was, when they lived in the Bronx,” Professor Golway said. “They moved to the suburbs, where it really was a melting pot. Not everybody on your block was Irish anymore.”

The story also quotes a woman who discusses her fertility and how it relates to her Catholic views. Not bad. I wish we could see more discussion of religion in the larger stories about fertility rates. This piece in the Washington Post from my August guilt file talked about how some economically developed countries have seen a surprising uptick in childbearing. There are references to ideology and immigration having a role but those angles aren’t fully explored.

And since we’re on the topic of birthing babies, there’s this absolutely horrific story that ran on MSNBC recently:

It’s not just in your head. There really is a bumper crop of baby bumps out there, from the famously fertile, like Heidi Klum, who’s flirting with her fourth set of stretch marks in five years, to the infamous Nadya “Octomom” Suleman, who earlier this year bore eight babies at once even though she already had six other kids at home that she could barely afford to take care of.

No, this wasn’t written by your 5th-grade daughter but an actual professional.

I love the spectrum — ranging from Heidi Klum all the way to Octomom. The story goes on to disparage mothers of larger-than-average families. “Experts” are quoted saying the mother’s seek attention, to get waited on during pregnancy, to avoid returning to work and to get comments and belly rubs from strangers. Because we all know how much pregnant ladies love unsolicited belly rubs. There’s discussion of “the void” that women are filling by getting pregnant.

It’s just the most amazing train wreck of a story — so much so that I’m actually thinking it’s good that they didn’t notice the correlation of certain religious beliefs to larger-sized families. Babble.com actually had a great take-down of the piece, if you’re interested.

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On threesomes and marriage

triplearch22The mainstream media really hasn’t done a very good job covering the heated debate over whether to extend the institution of marriage to same-sex couples. It’s been a problem for years and the coverage has been so amazingly one-sided that it’s surprising that all 30 states that have asked voters to define marriage as a heterosexual institution have done so. Part of it is that the mainstream media has long been an elite institution with views on homosexuality somewhat out-of-step with the general populace.

Five years ago, for instance, Pew found that journalists were more than twice as likely to self identify as liberals than conservatives and that 88 percent of journalists felt society should accept homosexuality compared with 51 percent of the general public. That same poll found that nearly half said that journalists’ ideological views color their work. Probably none of this is surprising to any media observer. But it means we get a number of emotional puff pieces about same-sex marriage with hardly any — if any — seriously engaging the concerns that the majority of voters in the majority of states have registered about making changes to how society has viewed marriage since its inception.

A few years ago, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote (in a column I can no longer find online) that “critics who say the paper has had few, if any, features portraying opponents of this social change in a positive or even neutral light have a point. The overall picture, it seems to me, could use more balance.”

Okay. It took five years but the Post found one — and only one, the reporter repeatedly reminds us — supporter of traditional marriage who it can portray in a “positive or even neutral light.” It doesn’t go deep in describing his arguments and it throws pretty much every other traditional marriage supporter under the bus in doing so — but it’s not actively hostile (toward him — and only him) like so many other pieces about traditional marriage activists are. Here’s how it opens:

The nightmares of gay marriage supporters are the Pat Robertsons of the world. The James Dobsons, the John Hagees — the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things like Katrina was caused by the gays.

The gay marriage supporters have not met Brian Brown. They should. He might be more worth knowing about.

That’s a pretty weaselly introduction, there. I’m sure the Post newsroom doesn’t feel the same affection for James Dobson as it does for Vice President Joe Biden but a few things here. Maybe they all look alike from the cozy confines of the newsroom but not every evangelical or charismatic Christian believes the same thing. It’s unfair to describe them as “whipping crowds into frothy frenzies” and while it’s a butchering of the actual statement regarding hurricanes being acts of God, be careful who you ascribe it to. Thanks Snopes!

Anyway, you get the basic device reporter Monica Hesse is using: Most traditional marriage supporters are crazed bigots but there’s this one guy who is not vomiting while his head is spinning around. His name is Brian Brown.

But apart from the misrepresentation of what a lot of people believe, the device is probably the only way you’re going to get a feature profile of someone with his views in the paper. And within its own logic, it works. Brown is the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which works to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. Hesse characterizes the aforementioned Christian-types as “fringes” who appeal to the far wings:

But this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.

Brian Brown speaks to these people. He has a master’s degree from Oxford, and completed course work for a doctorate in history from UCLA. He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice. He tries to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots, that the argument should have nothing to do with hate or fear, and everything to do with history and tradition.

The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.

You mean you can be sane and support traditional marriage? It’s a testament to the one-sided nature of the media treatment of this issue that this line could be published in a national newspaper. And yet, while it’s not news to many voters throughout the country that the arguments in support of traditional marriage could be considered sane, it probably is news to many media elite and their readers. And so we get this curious profile that treats Brown remarkably charitably. I mean, it quotes a critics but one saying relatively nice things about him.

These features are sort of a staple of the Post‘s Style section. They are usually very light and breezy and hardly critical of the subject of the profile. Brown’s is no exception. (For another puffy profile in last week’s Washington Post, you simply must read this one of ‘The It Girl of a New Generation Of Lobbyists’, Heather Podesta. The description of why she decided to take her third husband’s last name will make you laugh or cry. Or both.)

Here’s the portion that discusses Brown’s faith and a bit of his beliefs:

Brown is Catholic. He converted at Oxford, where he studied after a BA at Whittier College (he grew up surfing in California). He liked Catholicism’s traditions of social justice and work for the poor. Along the way, he met Sue, also a devout Catholic. After UCLA he accepted a position with the Family Institute of Connecticut, and worked to prevent the distribution of condoms in schools. “People would ask, ‘What does your husband do?’ ” Sue says. “It was embarrassing to say he worked on condoms. But it was nothing compared to this.”

His faith is important to him, but in his arguments he is ever the PhD candidate, addressing questions and dismissing counterarguments with fascination.

“I have gay people who are friends and family,” he says. “We can disagree on all sorts of things and still care about each other.” And later, “Of course, I have to take their arguments seriously. This issue is important. Ideas have consequences.”

He takes nothing personally. He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling. His arguments are based on his understandings of history, not on messages from God that gays caused Hurricane Katrina.

In short: The institution of marriage has always been between a man and a woman. Yes, there have been homosexual relationships. But no society that he knows of, in the history of the world, has ever condoned same-sex marriage. “Do they always agree on the number of partners? Do they always agree on the form of monogamy? No,” Brown says, but they’ve all agreed on the gender issue. It’s what’s best for families, he says. It’s the union that can biologically produce children, he says. It’s all about the way things have always been done. He chose his new church, St. Catherine of Siena, because it still offers a Latin Mass. Other noted conservatives have been parishioners there; Antonin Scalia has worshiped at St. Catherine’s.

I hear even some people who don’t choose Latin Mass Catholic parishes have these same views on the institution of marriage! But it’s a start. It shouldn’t be shocking to see some of these simple and straightforward positions of traditional marriage advocates in a newspaper but it is.
What I’d really like to see is a deeper exploration of those views and the various other arguments against same-sex marriage and some actual back and forth of the arguments for and against changing marriage laws. I’m sure advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage would love to see the same. We’ve had eleventy billion puff pieces — usually in favor of same-sex marriage — and we have this piece that is an uncritical look at one proponent of traditional marriage. But how about we move Brown and his arguments off of the Style pages and into the news pages where they can compete in the public policy marketplace.

Oh, one last quibble with the piece:

NOM’s campaigns have had missteps. “Gathering Storm,” with its melodramatic dialogue and fake lightning, prompted parodies as much as panic; one New York Times columnist called it ” ‘Village of the Damned’ meets ‘A Chorus Line’ ” for its instant camp value. Two Million for Marriage, the organization’s push to rally online activists around the country, was similarly unfortunate: Apparently no one at NOM had realized that 2M4M, the hip-sounding tag they’d chosen for the initiative, is also the abbreviation favored by gay couples looking for a threesome.

Okay, obviously it’s a bit dramatic and emotional of Hesse herself to claim that the purpose of the ad was panic. And while gay activists and the media may have disliked it, that doesn’t say much about its effectiveness. I’m always amazed at how stories fail to mention how successful traditional marriage activists are politically.

But more than anything, I wonder whose side it hurts more to learn that 2M4M is the favored abbreviation used by gay couples looking for a threesome.

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Changes in latitude, changes in attitude?

Let’s talk demographics for a moment. Hispanics are the fastest growing immigrant population in the United States. Around a third of American Catholics are Hispanic. And, according to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) website, Hispanic evangelicals are a booming demographic: “Hispanic born-again Christians make up 37 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population and 88% of all U.S. Hispanic Protestants, 43% of all U.S. Hispanic Mainline Protestants, and 26% of all U.S. Hispanic Roman Catholics.”

Where are the major media stories on Hispanic Protestants and Catholics? As the writer of this page from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life website comments, the very landscape of American Christianity is being transformed — and who, outside of ethnic media, is paying heed?

While most predominant among the foreign born and Spanish speakers, Hispanic-oriented worship is also prevalent among native-born and English-speaking Latinos. That strongly suggests that the phenomenon is not simply a product of immigration or language but that it involves a broader and more lasting form of ethnic identification.

These two defining characteristics — the prevalence of spirit-filled religious expressions and of ethnicoriented worship — combined with the rapid growth of the Hispanic population leave little doubt that a detailed understanding of religious faith among Latinos is essential to understanding the future of this population as well as the evolving nature of religion in the United States.

It is possible that what’s going on is that “Hispanic-oriented worship” (in Spanish, presumably) and the strong charismatic orientation of many Hispanic worship services has been challenging for some reporters. So I was grateful to reader Ben for sending GetReligion a HamptonRoads.com article by Steven Vegh highlighting an anti-machismo message resounding from the pulpits of some southern Virginia Hispanic evangelical churches.

This is not a perfect article, leaving out some context and making a few broad generalizations. It’s also possible that some Hispanic clergy and lay people will forcefully argue against making broad statements about Latin culture built on “machismo.” But writer Vegh is thorough, providing readers with quotes from a number of different sources, and developing a thesis based on the people he quotes, rather than the other way around.

Though it certainly got me thinking, I do find the lede a bit jarring:

As the new pastor at Vino Nuevo in Virginia Beach, the Rev. Gladys Mejias-Ashmore has been teaching a lot about family, parenting – and the dangers of machismo.

In Latin culture, the macho man looms large as boss of wife and family. But more than a few local Hispanic evangelical pastors are teaching that machismo violates Christian norms for husbands and fathers.

It’s a message Mejias-Ashmore said she never heard in church growing up in Honduras. “I used to think the Christian let the man do whatever he wants – even extramarital relationships.”

But after being “born again” and studying Bible passages on marriage, Mejias-Ashmore said she challenged her first husband about his drinking and adultery.

While it’s not unusual to have women pastors in some charismatic and minority communities (black churches have a long history of women in the clergy), I’m guessing that a number of conservative evangelical Hispanic churches might not allow women in these leadership roles. The fact that Mejias-Ashmore is the lead quote in an article about machismo is suggestive in itself.

One fascinating element in this article is how upfront some clergy and laypeople are in saying: yes, there is an issue here that should be confronted. Here’s one powerful quote:

Machistas, or male chauvinists, expect their wives and family females to be chaste, but “the man is free to do whatever – have affairs, have another woman,” said Gonzales from the Hispanic ministers association.

I’m not sure whether these evangelical churches fit into conventional left or right categories — I suspect that they do not. This press release on the NHCL site suggests that Hispanics may not take an approach to either Scripture or social justice issues that looks like either primarily white mainline or conservative churches. The gender role debate may also look different from the egalitarianism versus complementarianism dialogue that often goes on in white conservative evangelical congregations.

Quoting one harsh perspective on the role of the Virgin Mary seems wrong, given her importance as a role model in Hispanic culture and Catholic life in general.

While on the topic — remember the ladies, as Abigail Adams reputedly said to husband John. With the exception of one clergywoman, the reputed targets of machismo are absent from the story.

A few more caveats — obviously, not all Latino cultures are overwhemingly macho. Here’s where generalizations become dangerous. It would be interesting to know whether American-born Latinos are less “macho” than the immigrant men interviewed for the article, or whether immigrant families have been transformed by different cultural practices in America. And while conceivably someone might have a counterargument, only one point of view is expressed in the article.

But I confess that with all of its holes, I like this story for two main reasons. One, the author takes a look at an ongoing process of cultural transformation by talking to those in the trenches rather than eggheads. Secondly, we’re seeing way too few of these stories, and so this one becomes more interesting.

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Vogue’s squirm factor

As a magazine fan who does not consult Vogue about anything, I am quite happy to see that magazine give lengthy coverage to Jenny Sanford, First Lady (for now) of South Carolina.

Consider this byline-free article’s punchy lede, which cuts straight to the quality that makes Sanford a heroic figure for so many women – and men, for that matter:

Before Jenny Sanford came along, the options for wronged political wives were pretty poor. You could suffer silently (see Silda Wall Spitzer), deny everything (hello, Hillary), or make catty asides about the harlot who caused your husband to stray (Elizabeth Edwards). Then came Jenny Sanford.

To that list of long-suffering victims I would add Wendy Baldwin Vitter (wife of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.), whose expression of petrified vulnerability should end the sick tradition of a politician’s wife standing by her man at a moronic press conference.

Vogue‘s treatment of Jenny Sanford’s faith is another mater. She is, we are told, “pious without being smug.” Her one-page statement about her husband’s all-too-public adultery “mentioned God without making you squirm.” A quote from a longtime friend drives home the point that Sanford’s faith is so respectable because it’s apparently so deep in the background:

The Sanfords are conservative Christians, but they’re not the teetotaling, proselytizing sort. There are bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. Ayn Rand is on the bookshelf, but so is Gabriel García Márquez. The Bible sits front and center on the coffee table, alongside Forbes magazine. “You could be friends with her for 20 years, and she would never bring up the religious stuff,” says her friend Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina and a self-described liberal who once worked for The Nation.

Yet by the article’s own brief allusions, it’s clear that Sanford’s understanding of forgiveness has something to do with her faith:

“I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife.”

The article mentions that she saw her father kneel to pray each night, and says she attended “Georgetown University, the ne plus ultra for brainy Catholic girls,” but makes no effort to explain how she and her husband became Episcopalians. There’s no exploring of the rich questions about their political and social conservatism within a denomination not known for its conservatism. (In fairness, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is atypical in its theology.)

In this 2,800-word article, we read as much about Jenny Sanford’s full-throttle days while working at investment-banking firm Lazard Frères & Co. and living on Long Island (“Sanford was not the Paris Hilton of the Hamptons, but neither was she a saint”) as we do about what she believes and how it affects her choices during her public ordeal.

The turns of phrase are elegant, the piece is rightly admiring of this strong woman — and yet a huge portion of her interior life is missing. Had Vogue assigned the piece to a writer not so prone to squirming at the mention of God, it could have published a more insightful work of reporting.

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Why can’t we be friends?

gay_friendly_tshirt-p235900705360211774ud3o_400I’ve just returned from a vacation in Colorado and am catching up on the news of the past few days. I’m pleased by the amount of coverage we’re seeing of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent convention, although the depth of the articles varies wildly. Some are fantastic and cover a lot of ground and some are somewhat lacking.

Even though I’m Lutheran, I’m a member of a congregation in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. The two church bodies share the name Lutheran but not altogether much else when it comes to doctrine. So I’m not an expert in the ELCA, although I have a great many friends who are clergy or members of ELCA congregations. And I know more than a few formerly ELCA clergy who have joined the Missouri Synod or other Lutheran church bodies in the last decade. The theological underpinnings that led to the most recent vote in favor of rostering clergy who are in same-sex relationships has caused some clergy and laity to leave in the past.

Anyway, of the many reader submissions and private notes I returned to was one from reader “Tony” saying:

This post is worthy of your reading (it even calls GR out!)

Now, feel free to go over and read the post headlined “lutherans make historic vote, and the AP wire F’s it up” for some GetReligion-style commentary. (I wonder why “Lutheran” is lowercased but the cuss word is capitalized.) Anyway, it criticizes the following Associated Press headline and lede:

Lutherans to Allow Sexually Active Gays as Clergy

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination took openly gay clergy more fully into its fold Friday, as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to lift a ban that prohibited sexually active gay and lesbian people from serving as ministers.

Author Drew Tatusko writes:

Provocative right? Also dead wrong.

This sort of language focuses on sex again. It sounds like the ELCA is now going to allow sex holidays and maybe even sexual orgy liturgies for those who are really horny on Sunday mornings. Of course this feeds into the crap that groups like the American Family Association and Americans for Truth like to spew from their venomous bung holes.

The only problem with the critique of the headline is that, well, the ELCA did vote to allow sexually active gays as clergy. And it’s kind of hard to ignore that major vote when that’s what the whole story is about. Tatusko goes on to explain that homosexuals have better sex than heterosexuals before saying that reporter Patrick Condon can not be trusted — I kid you not — because he once told a Minnesota Republican blogger that he enjoyed reading his blog. Then Tatusko wonders how GetReligion will “spin” this article.

Well, as it turns out, this was one of the articles that I wanted to look at here. I won’t quibble with the headline, on account of it being factual and fair, and I can’t say that I find Tatusko’s writing to be terribly convincing — but there were a few other issues the story raised. Let’s look at the two paragraphs that follow the excerpt above:

Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in a committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.

The change passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA’s national assembly. It makes the group, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance.

“Gay-friendly” is the term I want to look at. What does that mean?
The ELCA adopted a “social statement” that, among other things, endorses “chaste, monogamous and lifelong” same-sex relationships. To the media, I’m sure that sounds quite friendly. Now, let’s look at that statement in the context of what the Christian church has confessed for thousands of years on the basis of Scripture. What the church has taught about sexual relations is that God created man and woman to live together as man and wife in a chaste, monogamous and life-long relationship. This is for our own good, for the procreation of children, for the intimacy of man and wife, etc. The church has taught that sex outside of this arrangement is sinful and that deviation from this natural order is a consequence of the fall into sin. And the church proclaims the forgiveness of sins to all of us who sin sexually.

Now, I know that many (all?) of the mainstream media believe with their heart, mind and soul in the inherent goodness of homosexuality and badness of the church’s teaching that homosexuality is not what God wants for us. But let’s just go with a thought experiment.

Pick something else that Scriptures teach is a deviation from God’s will. Anything will do, really, but let’s take an easy one from the Ten Commandments — “lying.” (On that note, it’s the eighth commandment, Elizabeth!) Okay, now let’s imagine that one church body endorses lying. And now let’s imagine that another church body takes the position that lying falls short of how God wants us to behave. This second church body has a doctrine against lying, its pastors preach against it and its publishing house has devotionals on lying. This second church body also has a doctrine on the forgiveness of sins — including lying. This second church body has pastors that absolve parishioners who confess that they are liars. Its pastors preach that sin is forgiven in Jesus Christ and it administers the sacrament of Holy Communion that, among other things, offers forgiveness of sins to liars.

Now which church body is liar-friendly? Some (be they liars or not) would much rather have a church in which lying is condemned — and forgiven — then one where they are told lying is A-OK and nothing to feel guilty about. Some would believe the second church to be infinitely more friendly. What’s more, some would feel that the church that embraced lying didn’t have liars’ best interests at heart. Some would feel that a church that embraced lying wasn’t friendly to liars at all and that what liars need is to have their sin clearly identified and forgiven.

So is it the job of the mainstream reporter to decide that one of the above churches is friendly and the other not? Or is that a theological issue that is too complex to be trivialized? Should it be any different if the churches are discussing sexual morality?

NB: As I’ve been following the proceedings of the ELCA convention, I was struck by how civilly the delegates disagreed with each other. (Or at least most of the delegates were civil!) Your comments should also be civil and focused on journalism.

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Twin rocking chairs for gay Lutherans?

TwinRockingChairsIf you were looking for cutting-edge discussions of gay theology back in the 1980s, all you had to do was head on over to the Iliff School of Theology, the United Methodist campus attached to the University of Denver. As one former faculty member of the university once told me, Iliff in that era was “the most liberal institution in American that still called itself Christian.”

One of the strengths of an openly liberal institution is that it’s a great place to learn that not all liberals think alike. True, it was hard to find anyone at Iliff who believed that the Resurrection was a actual event in history, as opposed to a concept in the hearts and minds of early Christians, but it was easy to find people with different liberal views on other issues.

Take, for example, the meaning of the word “monogamy.” As in the Washington Post headline (note the quote marks) on the hot story of the day:

‘Monogamous’ Gays Can Serve in ELCA

Largest Lutheran Denomination in U.S. Split on Divisive Issue

More on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America later.

As a visiting gay theologian once told me during a conference at Iliff, very few gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians have what he called a “twin rocking chairs forever” definition of monogamy. That was just too restricting, he said. Most gays, he said, believe that it is possible to be “faithful” to one partner and, thus, “monogamous,” while continuing to have sexual experiences with others.

Let me stress that his was not the only viewpoint that I heard on this issue. More on that in a moment. The key is to grasp that debates are common among gay, lesbian and bisexual theologians on this issue. Here is how I expressed part of that equation in a Scripps Howard column about a decade ago:

“Monogamy” isn’t such a scary word, once people get the hang of redefining it to fit the realities of modern life, according to gay provocateur Dan Savage.

“The sexual model that straight people have created really doesn’t work,” said the nationally syndicated columnist, in a New York Times Magazine piece on post-modern sex. “All it does is force people to lie. … In this society, we view monogamy like we view virginity, one incident and it’s over, the relationship is over.”

Heterosexual couples, he said, should relax and learn from homosexuals. Relationships must grow and evolve. “I know gay couples who have been together for 35 years. They have separate bedrooms. Sometimes they sleep together and sometimes they sleep with other people, but they’re a great couple,” he said.

Once again, that is only one point of view. I would urge journalists who are truly interested in this topic to read a book entitled “What Christians Think About Homosexuality,” by Larry Holben, a gay, Episcopal evangelical who is meticulously fair to thinkers on both sides of these debates, from true fundamentalists to believers on the far Christian left. To see a summary of his work, click here for three conservative camps and then here for three liberal camps, based on answers to the same 12 theological questions.

Back in my Denver years I kept hearing — especially while covering Iliff and the early Episcopal sex wars — three basic approaches to the monogamy question. I cannot believe that the debates have grown simpler, rather than more complex.

Gay+wedding+cake+topper[1]_jpegFirst of all, there are gay theologians whose definition of this term is very traditional, arguing that gay unions are forever and that those taking vows must remain sexually faithful to one another. Twin rocking chairs forever.

Then, there are those who, in effect, say that “monogamy” essentially means serial monogamy (this, of course, is the definition used by most heterosexuals today in a culture rooted in easy divorce). In other words, things happen and relationships break up. However, partners are supposed to be sexually faithful to one another while the relationship lasts. Twin rocking chairs for right now.

Finally, some say that gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians can be “emotionally” faithful to a partner, while having sexual experiences with other people — secondary relationships that do not threaten the primary, “monogamous” relationship. The twin rocking chairs are symbolic.

There are, of course, lesbigay theologians who reject monogamy and almost all other traditional limits on sexual experience. Take, for example, the trailblazing Episcopal priest and seminary professor Carter Heyward, author of books such as “Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.”

Now, what does this have to do with the ELCA decision? Here is the top of Jacqueline L. Salmon’s report in the Post:

Leaders of the nation’s biggest Lutheran denomination voted Friday to allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy in the church — making it one of the largest Christian denominations in the country to significantly open the pulpit to gays.

Previously, only celibate gays were permitted to serve as clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination of 4.8 million members. But delegates to a church assembly voted 559-451 to allow gays in “life-long, monogamous” relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church.

Later in the story, there is this additional information:

In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships.

Once again, this raises a key question: What is the definition of “monogamy” that is being used in this case?

Remember, please, that the Christian left contains many different points of view. My prediction is that the ELCA contains gays, lesbians and bisexuals — including in its clergy and in its seminary faculties — who use clashing definitions of this pivotal term.

Was this question even raised by Lutheran conservatives on the convention floor? Did anyone define “monogamy” before the term was written into this new statement of doctrine or social conduct? Did everyone simply agree to disagree — quietly — for the sake of unity on the left? This is an issue that would be worth a follow-up report.

Words matter, especially in debates about doctrine.

Editor’s note: Once again, please stick to the journalism issues in this post.

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