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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No melodrama please, we’re Amish


As most American denominations have more or less accommodated themselves to the culture around them, the Amish and their countercultural ways have remained a topic of fascination to their fellow citizens. Only a 20-minute drive from where my family lives, Lancaster County has made an industry of Amish life — some Amish participate in reaching out to tourists who want to vicariously experience Amish life.

Given the big market for “clean” romance targeting conservative Christian readers, it seems reasonable that entrepreneurial non-Amish writers would use the Amish as subjects — and make a nice living doing so.

A recent article by Pittburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Ann Rodgers charts the popularity of “Amish” romances.

Among the tourist trinkets at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies.

For the women readers who have made Amish romance the fastest-growing genre in Christian fiction, these books aren’t exactly steamy aphrodisiacs. Hand-holding is a heart-stopping event.

A hero’s greatest desire is often to teach an English, or non-Amish, heroine about Jesus. Plots may stir an irresistable urge to bake rhubarb pie.

Most Amish-themed romance novels are written by non-Amish authors and are aimed primarily at an evangelical Christian readership. While Amish women do read them, leaders of Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have actively discouraged or banned them.

As I’ve said before, I see a journalistic purpose in religious “culture” stories beyond the culture wars — those that map the decisions that shape the lives of many readers in mundane life. Kudos to Rodgers, who is such a thorough reporter, for picking up on a trend and interviewing not only scholars, authors and publicists but members of Amish communities who object to the books.

Imagine yourself at a rest stop in Pennsylvania, picking up an Amish romance (ok, I can’t imagine doing that, but perhaps you can). Wouldn’t you want to know if they are accurate? Wouldn’t you be interested in how they are received by the Amish?

“Romance books are a great hindrance to a Christian marriage,” said Andrew Troyer, a deacon in that community.

He hasn’t read any, and he said he knows these are intended to promote Christian virtue. But they encourage the wrong foundation for marriage, he said.

“It gets young people all pumped up for the perfect setting, and that’s not reality. Marriage is God-ordained and divine and it’s wonderful to have a Christian marriage. But it takes give-and-take.”

What a wonderful quote — that’s classic Amish doctrine right there. Rodgers nicely distinguishes between the plot lines in some Amish novels (oft tailored to meet the expectations of conservative Christian readers) and the reality. But she also speaks to Linda Byler, an Amish romance writer from the Amish community — and perhaps the only Amish romance writer. Should Byler’s work take off when she signs with a major publisher, that may lead to tensions within the community — and the potential for more good stories.

While I doubt that many readers will now hesitate before picking up that novel on the Turnpike (it may be the least expensive “trinket” in the rest stop), they will have a much better idea of whether the author they are reading reflects accurately on Amish life — and may become more interested in finding out about the real lives of this private community than in romantic fantasies about them.

Picture of Amish girls from Wikimedia Commons

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When a conservative skips church

t_olsonThe impression we get from this New York Times profile of the other Ted Olson — that’s conservative legal mind Theodore Olson, not Christianity Today managing editor Ted Olsen — is that you’ve got to skip Sunday school if you want to think independently on the subject of same-sex marriage.

I doubt the reporter intended it, but let’s start by backing up. Who is Theodore Olson and why is The New York Times writing about him?

Theodore B. Olson’s office is a testament to his iconic status in the conservative legal movement. A framed photograph of Ronald Reagan, the first of two Republican presidents Mr. Olson served, is warmly inscribed with “heartfelt thanks.” Fifty-five white quills commemorate each of his appearances before the Supreme Court, where he most famously argued the 2000 election case that put George W. Bush in the White House. On the bookshelf sits a Defense Department medal honoring his legal defense of Mr. Bush’s counterterrorism policies after Sept. 11.

But in a war room down the hall, where Mr. Olson is preparing for what he believes could be the most important case of his career, the binders stuffed with briefs, case law and notes offer a different take on a man many liberals love to hate. They are filled with arguments Mr. Olson hopes will lead to a Supreme Court decision with the potential to reshape the legal and social landscape along the lines of cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade: the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide.

Given the traditional battle lines on the issue, Mr. Olson’s decision to file a lawsuit challenging California’s recent ban on same-sex marriage has stirred up stereotype-rattled suspicion on both sides.

“For conservatives who don’t like what I’m doing, it’s, ‘If he just had someone in his family we’d forgive him,’” Mr. Olson said. “For liberals it’s such a freakish thing that it’s, ‘He must have someone in his family, otherwise a conservative couldn’t possibly have these views.’ It’s frustrating that people won’t take it on face value.”

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Olson is painted as a heretical anomaly, someone misunderstood by both his own party and the people who whom he could find common cause on the issue of gay marriage. The story expands, and I kept waiting for the introduction of Olson’s religious beliefs. I didn’t think they were tantamount to the story — there are plenty of political conservatives who take a more socially liberal tact (we often call them libertarians). But gay marriage and California’s Proposition 8 have become so entangled with religious themes that it seemed natural that the NYT reporter would broach Olson’s faith.

The answer was, well, odd:

One of those whose advice he sought was Robert McConnell, a friend from the Reagan Justice Department. Mr. McConnell, a practicing Catholic, said he told Mr. Olson that as a religious matter, he believed that marriage ought to be reserved for two people who can procreate. He said Mr. Olson replied that while he respected his convictions, he considered it a civil-rights issue.

Mr. Olson, who is not a regular churchgoer, began to elaborate on his view that religious beliefs were insufficient legal justification for government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, but soon paused. “You don’t agree with me, do you?” Mr. McConnell recalled him saying.

Not a regular churchgoer … what in the world does that mean? He goes once a month, only on Christmas, only for funerals? When he does go, where does he go? And what about his beliefs does this infrequent attendance suggest? It would seem a lot more relevant to me to identify the religious beliefs Olson does or doesn’t subscribe to than it would to determine with what frequency he attends church. After all, the emergent church movement is full of Christians who would say they don’t buy into the whole church concept, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t gathering in Christian fellowship or that they would be any more likely to support gay marriage.

Conversely, I’m a regular churchgoer who, brace yourself, voted no on Prop. 8. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill here. Maybe I’m the only one who had such a sharp reaction to that one sentence. To be sure, Jo Becker has penned an excellent story here about a fascinating development in the gay marriage battle. But the framing of McConnell’s recollections imply that attending church creates a bondage that prevents sound-minded people from coming to such conclusions about gay marriage policies.

Olson, we can easily infer, is liberated by the fact that he doesn’t really do that church thing — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Theodore Olson during his stint as Solicitor General

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Who ya callin’ a liar?

456px-Rembrandt_Harmensz__van_Rijn_079We haven’t seen a bill voted out of the House of Representatives yet, but the culture war about health care reform is in full tilt, with allegations from conservatives that bills will include federal funding for abortions — not to mention “death panels” that will chose who will live, and who will die.

Interestingly, President Obama, instead of attempting to soothe the troubled waters, has chosen to enter the fray at this point with some pretty strong language of its own.

The Presidude got my attention when I heard the way he characterized some of his more outspoken opponents in a phone call with the “religious left” yesterday. It’s fascinating to see how various media outlets have handled the “false witness” call — what they have chosen to emphasize, and what has been left out.

Let’s begin with the lede of the straightforward story from CNN.com:

President Obama appealed Wednesday to faith-based groups to help garner support for his plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

“I need you to knock on doors, talk to neighbors, spread the facts and speak the truth,” he told religious leaders and reporters on a conference call that was streamed over the Web at faithforhealth.org.

“This debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are as a people,” he said. “I believe that nobody in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance.”

Some 140,000 people participated in the call, the coalition of more than 30 faith-based groups that organized the event said in a written statement.

Obama urged the listeners to reject misinformation about his plans, noting, “There are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness.”

As you know, that’s the Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:16): “You will not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In his words to the rich young man in Matthew 19, Jesus also refers to this commandment — in other words, it resonates.

The CNN story really doesn’t identify who is identified with, or who identifies themself as a member of the religious left. Of course, the “religious right” has been putting up with this kind of broad-brushing for decades. Here’s a list of the faith groups behind the campaign “40 Days for Health Reform.” But this still doesn’t give us an idea of the movement’s strength (which probably comes down to how many competitive ads they can run in which markets). Readers can glean some useful information about the make-up of the coalition here but, as with other cable outlets, they must consider the source — and discount the code words. More and more, the burden is on readers to wade through opinion masquerading as fact to get to a few nuggets of information.

Take a look at the story in the New York Times. You don’t often see reporters as experienced as Zeleny and Hulse tip their hand so broadly in the lede (italics mine):

President Obama sought Wednesday to reframe the health care debate as “a core ethical and moral obligation,” imploring a coalition of religious leaders to help promote the plan to lower costs and expand insurance coverage for all Americans

Talk about strong language. Wouldn’t you think, after reading this paragraph, that we have a President who is, at the least, losing momentum on health care reform? The writers spend little time talking about the faith context of the call, apparently seeing it as part of a broader strategy (which it obviously is). Another sign of a possible journalistic consensus is Reuter’s Ed Stoddard’s post on the blog FaithWorld which begins:

U.S. President Barack Obama enlisted the “Religious Left” on Wednesday to help galvanise public support for his faltering drive for healthcare reform, using the language of faith as he accused some of the critics of his biggest domestic project of “bearing false witness.”

It’s very possible that this is the reality –Obama’s health care plans are “faltering.” But it’s also interesting to see how language can help shape reality for those not in the middle of the health care brawl. Stoddard’s also put on an intriguing post on a new ad campaign by the Family Research Council — the conservative group claims that “Obamacare” will help fund abortions.

On the right, CBN News White House Correspondent David Brody sees Obama’s “bearing false witness” comment as a takedown of evangelicals. Meanwhile, on the left, this new coalition is the best thing since sliced bread.

Confused, yet? Sadly, it seems as though the “truth” is going to be very hard to sort out. Consider abortion — will the new bill fund abortions, or not?

Maybe. And maybe not.

One thing we know — the rhetoric and posturing in all sides is going to get worse before it subsides. And there either is going to be a health care bill — or there isn’t.

Take two tablets and call me in the morning (that’s Rembrandt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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Hear our cry, oh Lord

criducouerSince I became a member of my congregation almost a dozen years ago, we’ve had a huge increase in the number of young children attending. Hang on, this is linked to a news story.

Our small “cry room” worked well for years but it got to the point that it failed to meet our needs. So a few families with young children took over the library and board room, turning it into a pretty snazzy cry room. Although our sanctuary and church facilities aren’t configured in a way that permits a cry room with visual access, the Divine Service is piped in so that parishioners young and old can follow along over the toddler maelstrom.

It may seem inconsequential, but since I became a mother a couple of years ago, how to manage my children at church often consumes my thoughts. I never appreciated the luxury of worshiping as a single woman until it was gone, I fear. Anyway, I want my entire family to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service — something of a challenge when managing a squirming, shrieking toddler who hasn’t quite figured out how to behave properly and a newborn with her own set of demands.

So I was really happy to see this story in the Kansas City Star about, of all things, cry rooms. “Some think churches’ crying rooms are a blessing” was written by Steven Vegh of Religion News Service. (I think it may have originally been published in the Virginian-Pilot.) Here’s a sample:

Crying rooms may seem like a win-win: Congregations get quiet, parents have access to worship and kids can be kids.

Yet the faith world is of two minds about whether fretful tykes should stay in the pews or wail out of sight and mind.

Some pastors say a church can’t call itself a family of faith unless every member, however young, is welcomed and included in worship services.

Another view is that children should stay put in services and be taught by their parents how to behave during worship.

Barnes said many pastors complain to him that crying rooms devolve into a place where children simply run wild.

On the other hand, who wants to hear a toddler wailing during the sermon?

“You have to consider not just the pastor but the person sitting next to the child — they become irritable,” said Bishop Rudolph B. Lewis. His New Light Full Gospel Baptist Church has had a crying room for 15 years.

Amen! I find it almost impossible to focus when there are disruptions from the congregation. Although my brother told me that I should treat learning how to focus as a spiritual discipline.

I’m glad that this conflict was mentioned, though, of whether parents should train children or let them run free. I don’t utilize the cry room at my church very much because I want my daughter to learn how to join the rest of the congregation in worship. There’s a time to play and I am not sure it’s during the middle of worship services. So my husband and I only take her out of the sanctuary briefly if she acts up and return as soon as possible. I’m sure I’d be singing a wildly different tune if I had a more difficult child, of course.

I also rather liked the kicker on this story:

Elder James Jackson, a Community [Presbyterian Church] member for more than 40 years, called the crying room an asset. But he’s also glad to hear an infant’s cry on Sundays.

“If you have a church and do not hear any crying babies, it’s a dying church,” he said. “Your church isn’t going to survive long.”

It’s one of my favorite things about my congregation — we have members who are newborns, members who are near death and everything in between. Interacting with people in different phases in life enriches me and helps me grow spiritually. It’s nice to see a religious slice of life story that looks at this phenomenon.

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Kiss kiss bang bang

templedefacedSome days, posting for GetReligion requires a great deal of work to explain some theological nuance that a reporter failed to understand. Other days, the work is downright easy. As is the case with pointing out the bias and problems in this hacktastic Associated Press piece on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The headline as published in the Washington Examiner gives a taste of the piece:

‘Kiss-ins’ smack back at Mormon church as faith’s image suffers from Calif. gay marriage fight

So the image of the Mormon church has suffered? Really? I would love to know what percentage of Americans think the Mormon church rocks for standing up for traditional marriage versus what percentage think less of them. Heck, I’d love to know what percentage of Americans even know about LDS involvement in Proposition 8 or the violent response it received from some gay rights advocates. But you won’t find any such supporting data in the story which relies on a rather narrow vantage point of gay activism.

One reader who submitted the story put it well — it’s both a puff piece on gay activism and a hit job on the LDS church.

Reporter Jennifer Dobner begins rather dramatically as follows:

The Mormon church’s vigorous, well-heeled support for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California last year, has turned the Utah-based faith into a lightning rod for gay rights activism, including a nationwide “kiss-in” Saturday.

But the “nationwide ‘kiss-in,’ ” according to the story, featured “200 or so” folks in Salt Lake City, a whopping 22 in Washington, D.C., and “about 50″ in Atlanta. Definitely worth a story but you might be careful how much you oversell it. I mean, I’ve thrown house parties with more people than that.

Of the many people featured on the gay rights activism side of the story is Atali Staffler, a Brigham Young University graduate student whose father is gay. She was raised Mormon but is no longer active in the church. Here she explains her view on why the church should not be involved in the public square debates over same-sex marriage:

“I encourage them to promote the values they believe in and to defend their religious principles in advertisements, but civil rights have nothing to do with religious principles,” she said.

Tell that to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!

The somewhat laughable quote is not balanced out by anyone pointing out the various and sundry ways civil rights have to do with religious principles. Instead we get a series of quotes about how awesome it is to kiss. I should note that this is all related, according to the story, to the trespassing arrest of a gay couple who smooched on church property in Salt Lake City. There’s also a brief mention of something happening in El Paso but there are literally no substantiating details provided about that alleged canoodling event. So the kiss-ins are in response to these other events.

But check out this paragraph:

National organizers say Saturday’s broadly held gay rights demonstrations were not aimed specifically at the Mormon church. But observers say the church’s heavy-handed intervention into California politics will linger and has left the faith’s image tarnished.

I am not sure what the term “broadly held” means — although there are many examples of such ambiguous or confusing language in this poorly written and/or edited piece. But check out that second line. Who in tarnation are these “observers” who are saying these things? I mean, that opinionated line is horrific. It needs to be inside a quote. Otherwise it seems that the “observers” who have a particular view about whether or not the church’s intervention was “heavy-handed” or just, you know, regular American engagement in the democratic process are probably just reporter Jennifer Dobner and her friends. Also, that second excerpted sentence is just poorly written. What will linger? And are the people who didn’t like the LDS church getting involved in politics the sort of folks who held a particularly good view of the church prior to Proposition 8?

So who is the “observer” we hear from after that somewhat slanderous statement above?

“What I hear from my community and from straight progressive individuals is that they now see the church as a force for evil and as an enemy of fairness and equality,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. Kendell grew up Mormon in Utah. “To have the church’s very deep and noble history telescoped down into this very nasty little image is as painful for me as for any faithful Mormon.”

Wait a minute. Stop the presses. The executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights hears from other gay activists that they don’t like the church’s support for traditional marriage? You don’t say. That quote is followed by one from another ex-Mormon who is gay.

And then this:

Church insiders say Prop. 8 has bred dissent among members and left families divided. Some members have quit or stopped attending services, while others have appealed to leadership to stay out of the same-sex marriage fight.

But church spokeswoman Kim Farah said Friday that Mormon support for traditional marriage has nothing to do with public relations.

“It’s too easy for those whose agenda is to change societal standards to claim there are great difficulties inside the Church because of its decision to support traditional marriage,” Kim Farah said. “In reality the Church has received enormous support for its defense of marriage.”

protester__antimormonSAY WHAT? Did reporter Jennifer Dobner just claim that she had sources inside the church who happen to agree with her rather obvious bias in this piece? What are their names? Oh, they don’t have names? What are their positions? Oh, no positions? Well, can we at least get a quote so we’re not relying solely on Dobner’s claims? No? Anyone else think that Dobner might have just made that bit up?

And then, again, we have the second paragraph that makes no sense and is poorly written followed by the sole quote from a church spokeswoman.

In case you were wondering whether Dobner was incapable of letting her bias get the best of her, we also get this wording:

The church has actively fought marriage equality legislation across the U.S. since the early 1990s and joined other faiths in asking Congress for a marriage amendment to the Constitution in 2006.

Is the church fighting “same-sex marriage” legislation or “marriage equality”? And if a reporter can’t figure out how to phrase things without gaming the debate, should they be writing on the topic?

The reporter then uses a bunch of scary language to describe the LDS church involvement in Prop. 8 before introducing Linda Stay, a woman who will also be featured in a documentary about LDS involvement in Prop. 8. It says she “finally” quit the church after Prop. 8 but we don’t know what her level of involvement was leading up to the deciding event. We do learn that she has two gay children, one of whom was married in California.

While the filmmaker who features the family says their story is representative of “many” LDS families, we don’t really get any context to understand whether the millions upon millions of other LDS folks feel the same way or are generally pleased with their church’s involvement.

And check out this hit paragraph:

With the gay rights fight far from over, some believe Prop. 8 could continue to frustrate the church’s image for years to come, much like polygamy — the church’s own one-time alternative form of marriage — and a policy on keeping black men out of the priesthood, issues that have lingered years after the practices were abandoned.

“Some” believe? And who provides the supporting quote for this view? It’s the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Kendell, again.

I’m not Mormon but you don’t have to be to see that this article — which is being published far and wide — is an ugly and unfair journalistic hit piece. The agenda of the reporter is obvious and both she and her editors for this piece should take a refresher course in Journalism 101. Or they should go write for the agenda-driven press where a slanted piece such as this belongs.

All comments not focused on journalism will be deleted.

Images of anti-Mormon protests via BeetleBlogger.

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Pretty polys


As a reborn opinion journal, Newsweek has to keep up with cultural trends. A few weeks ago, it announced to its readers that polyamory, the practice of multiple relationships in which each partner is aware of the other ones, is going, if not mainstream, than at least tributary.

Researchers are just beginning to study the phenomenon, but the few who do estimate that openly polyamorous families in the United States number more than half a million, with thriving contingents in nearly every major city. Over the past year, books like Open, by journalist Jenny Block; Opening Up, by sex columnist Tristan Taormino; and an updated version of The Ethical Slut” — widely considered the modern “poly” Bible — have helped publicize the concept. Today there are poly blogs and podcasts, local get-togethers, and an online polyamory magazine called Loving More with 15,000 regular readers. Celebrities like actress Tilda Swinton and Carla Bruni, the first lady of France, have voiced support for nonmonogamy, while Greenan herself has become somewhat of an unofficial spokesperson, as the creator of a comic Web series about the practice –called “Family” — that’s loosely based on her life. “There have always been some loud-mouthed ironclads talking about the labors of monogamy and multiple-partner relationships,” says Ken Haslam, a retired anesthesiologist who curates a polyamory library at the Indiana University-based Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. “But finally, with the Internet, the thing has really come about.”

I’ve been waiting for a story like this — an article that bills polyamory as the trend to watch. A couple of years ago, I was hoping to write a polyamory story, researching the movement and interviewing practitioners (I got sidetracked). So, I confess, I was eager to see what Bennett would do with this topic.

While the article is easy to read, there were some big holes — gaps that seem to me to trivialize the issues around polyamory and those who worry about it.

First of all — what’s this about a “coming-out party?” Yes, a few new books on polys have appeared this year. But Alan over at Polyamory in the News has been tracking media coverage, including mucho mainstream media coverage, for at least four years. What may be more novel about this story is that writer Jessicca Bennett was able to find polys in Seattle willing to let her use their real names. In fact, Greenan, the center of the triad, is quite good at promoting herself — and has commercial motives for doing so. It would have been harder to find a less obvious profile choice, but it would have given the story more depth.

My impression, back when I was researching this subject, was that a triad with a filmaker/actress was more the exception than the rule. Instead, polys are schoolteachers, in law enforcement, administrative assistants — many reside in conservative communities. Polys pretty much look like the rest of us (if you are a striking filmaker/actress, I apologize).

In other words, there’s a strong “glamour” component to this story that disrespects the seriousness that polyamorous partners feel that they deserve — and the strong feelings that they can evoke among conservatives. Check out Practical Polyamory, Anita Wagner’s blog (she’s quoted in the article) if you want to see a down-to-earth perspective on polyamory.

While this particular triad is not, polys are also engaged in religious communities. Among them are Unitarian Universalists, pagans and those who represent other faiths. There’s no discussion of the religious connections here.

But does the existence of approximately half a million polyamorous families mean that “traditionalists better get used to it?” That’s at least debatable. It’s also snarky, distracting readers from taking the piece seriously.

Bennett does address a few of the difficult issues in polyamorous relationships: jealousy, parenting, and those who see acceptance of gay marriage as opening the window for polyamory (and who knows what else) to fly in. There is also, as she notes, tension between some polys and proponents of gay marriage, though it’s not clear how many polys want to be married.

Striking in this article is the lack of conservative religious voices that address polyamory from a theological and doctrinal perspective, like that of R. Albert Mohler, Jr., (who did comment, in the Christianpost.com). Although I like Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family’s quote (he gets your attention) it’s got more of a political feel to it.

Even more disturbing to me, as a writer, is that nowhere in the article are there quotes from more traditional (and I’m not even talking conservative) therapists, some of whom take a rather dim view of polyamory. Why do we only hear from polyamory proponents in the therapeutic arena? A few peeps from anthropologist Helen Fisher (whose name is mispelled near the end of the article) isn’t enough.

The writer doesn’t really explain why polys are convinced that “more love” is possible — or why some religious leaders and secular proponents of monogamous marriage are indeed watching with concern. How about a little gravitas, Newsweek?
I’m still looking for the story that does justice to the many voices contending for dominance in American culture when it comes to relationships and marriage — among which polyamory is one important, but by no means yet a dominant thread.

Love Outside the Box is from Wikimedia Commons

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