Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

Members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to disassociate with its national body to join a more conservative denomination.

With a vote of 1,337 to 170, the church decided to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Another vote cemented the church majority’s desire to join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was formed by former PCUSA congregations in 2012. Other churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, have also recently made the move.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s website. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

At this point, here’s what I want to know: What exactly makes the new denomination more conservative? Conservative is such a subjective word.

Will the rest of the story provide insight into the specific theological and doctrinal issues at play?

Sort of.

But in general, this 630-word report (read: not a lot of space for a reporter to provide deep background) seems pretty disjointed and disorganized.

For example, the Morning News quotes a supporter of leaving the PCUSA up high:

Kent Krause, a church elder, said the debate about leaving PCUSA has been bubbling for decades.

Many members of the congregation disagree with the a la carte religious beliefs taken by the national body, he said.

“There’s disagreement to the extent that the church believes the PCUSA has adopted the universal approach that there may be lots of ways to salvation as opposed to what is the basic reformed belief that salvation through Christ is kind of the main [path],” he said.

OK. Universalism is, according to the church elder, a key issue. How do the opponents of the split respond to that claim?

Go ahead and cue the crickets, or click this link if you’re really curious.

The story moves from that issue into a paragraph of background on property issues related to the decision. (The Morning News does not mention this, but my GetReligion colleague Father George Conger tells me that Highland Park Presbyterian’s leaders have been talking to the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth about how to leave. The diocese won a recent victory against the national Episcopal Church in the Texas Supreme Court. The court held ownership of church property is governed by what the deeds to the building say, not what the denominational hierarchy says. According to Conger, the Anglican wars in Texas appear to have cleared the way for conservative Presbyterians to quit the PCUSA and keep their buildings.)

But back to the real reason for the split …

Later in the story, there’s this:

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Detroit paper ducks Bible when female Baptist bishop quits

I haven’t been around that many Baptists of late, but one of the first things that struck me in The Detroit Free Press story about Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams and her departure from the pastorate of Zion Progress Baptist Church was that “bishop” title.

The leaders of free-church congregations, Baptists included, are free to call their clergy whatever they wish. But how common is that “bishop” title? Maybe a bit of explanation? A sentence at least?

Then, of course, there is the reason for Abrams’ resignation:

Facing a backlash from conservatives in her congregation, a noted Christian leader in Detroit resigned Friday from her church after announcing earlier this month she had married a woman.

Bishop Allyson D. Nelson Abrams stepped down from Zion Progress Baptist Church, where she had served for five years as its first female pastor. Her announcement from the pulpit earlier this month that she had married a woman stunned many local Baptists.

Abrams’ resignation comes just days after the U.S. District Court in Michigan took up a challenge to the Michigan Marriage Act that bans same sex marriage.

Abrams, 43, used to be married to a man, but she told congregants Oct. 6 she was in love with Diana Williams, a bishop emeritus with the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C., a church that broke off from the Catholic Church. The two married in March in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Given the conservative views of many Baptists on the issue of homosexuality and female pastors, Abrams’ announcement caused an intense debate among local Christians. She said many supported her decision to come out while others opposed her gay marriage. Some urged her to stay with the church, but Abrams said she resigned because she didn’t want to further create division. Some in the congregation had found out about her same-sex marriage before she made her Oct. 6 announcement and were making it an issue that was dividing the church.

You don’t say?

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A Pope Francis story, from the other side of the notebook

Like many GetReligion readers, I was somewhat rattled by that recent Washington Post story about the mainstream press and its love affair with what it thinks Pope Francis is saying about the doctrines of the Catholic church.

Wait a minute. That’s not what the story was about. It was about the state of conservative Catholic nerves in the freewheeling age of Francis.

To refresh your memory, that story started out like this:

Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay people and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone — including atheists — many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable: They are openly questioning the pope.

But, but, when did the pope say that Catholics were not to be “obsessed” with doctrine, period? Yes, I know that he said the church needs to take a more balanced approach to the defense and advocacy of some doctrines (such as the right to life), focusing on balancing mercy and pastoral care with its proclaiming of ancient truths.

Oh, and conservatives never questioned the actions or decisions of the Blessed John Paul II? One word on that thought: Assisi. And the poet and former actor John Paul II wasn’t interested in communicating with people outside the church? Really?

Still, it was clear to many readers that the Post team tried to provide some sense of perspective after that rather apocalyptic lede. The story did say this, after all:

Never mind that the pope has also made clear his acceptance of church doctrine, which regards gay sex and abortion as sins and bans women from the priesthood. Behind the growing skepticism is the fear in some quarters that Francis’s all-embracing style and spontaneous speech, so open as it is to interpretation, are undoing decades of church efforts to speak clearly on Catholic teachings. Some conservatives also feel that the pope is undermining them at a time when they are already being sidelined by an increasingly secular culture.

That’s close. Doctrinally conservative Catholics are primarily worried about the mainstream press misinterpreting the pope’s words or yanking them out of context. However, the Post noted that concern, too.

I was also struck by this rather blunt statement from a major Catholic voice here inside Beltway-land:

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Moore of the same, but still a worthy effort

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I had a sense of deja vu this week as I clicked on a 2,000-word Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore:

For years, as the principal public voice for the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s biggest evangelical group, Richard Land warned of a “radical homosexual agenda” and pushed for a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

His successor, Russell Moore, sounded a different note when the Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. “Love your gay and lesbian neighbors,” Mr. Moore wrote in a flier, “How Should Your Church Respond,” sent to the convention’s estimated 45,000 churches. “They aren’t part of an evil conspiracy.” Marriage, he added, was a bond between a man and a woman, but shouldn’t be seen as a “‘culture war’ political issue.”

Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the Southern Baptist Convention and its nearly 16 million members. The country’s largest Protestant denomination pushed to end abortion, open up prayer in public schools and boycott Walt Disney Co. over films deemed antifamily. Its ranks included many of the biggest names on the Christian right, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines. Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

I kept thinking: Haven’t I already read this?

In fact, I had, to an extent. The dearly departed Bob Smietana of The Tennessean scooped the WSJ on this story by three months and got his just reward.

The mention of Disney, Robertson, Falwell, et al also felt a little stale — as if we’d plowed this same ground a time or two before.

But you know what? I kept reading, and the WSJ — as it so consistently does — enlightened me with insightful, well-sourced details and context.

Yes, the WSJ makes broad statements like this:

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Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Over the weekend, I did a post titled “Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story.”

I complained, not for the first time, that The Associated Press seems to have decided that stories about same-sex marriage need to include only one side: the side excited about same-sex marriage.

My post prompted this comment from a gay-rights advocate who identified himself as Scott L:

Sounds like the AP is behaving like a responsible organization in 2013. Marriage equality is a reality in much of the country. Accept it.

I spiked that comment and a few others that railed against the gay-rights movement because they fell outside our policy for reader feedback:

Engage the contents of the post. This is a journalism weblog. Please strive to comment on journalism issues, not your opinions of the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.

In a nutshell, as we’ve explained many times, GetReligion is a website that focuses on journalism and media coverage issues. We advocate for fair and accurate news reporting and identify ghosts in religion news coverage. But Scott L took to Twitter to accuse me of bias:

After I encouraged Scott to make his point with a clear journalistic focus, another reader (with whom I have had a few personal and professional ties over the years) chimed in:

I replied:

But as I explained, I couldn’t have a serious discussion in 140-character bits on Twitter. And also, I was on deadline with my real job yesterday.

So here we are … so I’ll attempt to answer the questions.

First, on the notion that pro-gay comments get moderated or deleted. Yes, that’s right. And so do anti-gay comments that have nothing do with journalism. This is not a site to advocate one side or the other. It’s a site to discuss journalism. If you want to suggest that journalism needs to tell only one side of the story, do that and explain why in terms that make it clear you’re not simply arguing the doctrinal or political issues.

Second, on Greg’s question of whether it’s disingenuous to require both sides of every story. There’s nothing disingenuous at all about my contention that fair, responsible journalism should include voices on both (or all) sides of big, important public debates.

Do we ask the KKK to comment on NAACP stories? Not necessarily. But if you’re writing about a KKK rally, yes, try to get a comment from the KKK. Sorry, folks, but that’s journalism. Sometimes, we quote people with whom we vehemently disagree.

I’ve written 450-plus posts for GetReligion since 2010. I’d invite Scott or Greg or anyone else to send me any links to my posts that were advocacy on either side of an important issue and not advocacy for quality journalism.

For Scott and Greg, the debate over same-sex marriage may be over, and they may have strong opinions on which side is correct, which is certainly their right in a free country. But from a journalistic perspective, a responsible reporter can’t make that determination.

The latest example that I’ll use comes from Tennessee, where AP again seems to have decided to tell only one side of the story:

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Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Case closed.

The Associated Press has decided, apparently, that stories need to include only side. Stories about same-sex marriage, that is.

Earlier this month, I highlighted a doozy of an AP puff piece out of Salt Lake City on some Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality. Now comes another AP puff piece — this one datelined Harrisburg, Pa.

To be fair to AP, I should point out that the latest story does include two sides — New Jersey same-sex marriage advocates who are on the verge of victory and Pennsylvania same-sex marriage advocates who are having more trouble persuading their state to do the right thing.

Same-sex marriage opponents? Ah ha ha. Get out your magnifying glass and try to find them in this story.

The top of the editorial — er, news story:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania and New Jersey are on tracks that could lead to the Northeast being the first full region in the country to legalize gay marriage – but the routes are hardly parallel and the horsepower anything but equal.

A flurry of recent court decisions has gay couples in New Jersey, where same-sex marriage has long been debated, hurrying to make wedding plans for when they can legally marry starting Monday – even as a moderate Republican governor with apparent presidential aspirations appeals.

Across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, advocates are pecking away at a 1996 gay marriage ban by introducing bills in the Legislature, defiantly issuing marriage licenses in localities and taking the issue to court – with few people conceding the tactics will work anytime soon in a big state with a socially conservative spine.

Who does AP allow to speak in their own voice — inside quote marks — in this story?

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Luke Russert on snark, journalism, faith and easy targets

Let’s start the day with a quick thought from Luke Russert of NBC News, who recently sat down with David Brody of The Christian Broadcasting Network — the rather rare reporter in the Christian television world who often talks with real, live national leaders and thinkers.

Russert, of course, is the son of the late Tim Russert of Meet The Press fame, who an outspoken Catholic and quite respected by activists and leaders on both sides of American politics. Why? He was a veteran Democrat who had some understanding of the beliefs of blue-collar workers, labor-union members, Midwestern Catholics and other members of the old Democratic Party coalition that included some room for moral conservatives.

Thus, Tim Russert was known for occasionally stating the obvious truth that others declined to voice.

So, let’s let this exchange with the young Russert speak for itself:

DAVID BRODY: Do you believe the media, or if not so much the media, writ large, the much larger population has some sort of bias against whether it be a strong conservative evangelical or maybe a strong Catholic, whatever it happens to be, you know, people of faith. It just seems that if you wear it on your sleeve too much you can get bit to a degree.

LUKE RUSSERT: I think that’s absolutely accurate and I think the current world in which we live in, specifically with the American media, snark is valued. And it’s very easy to come after people of faith no matter what they’re religion is — Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu. That you’re sort of tagged with this label of being puritanical and not understanding of others or of different viewpoints and I think that’s kind of, it’s lazy, number one, and I think it’s just something that just feeds the snickering masses if you will in that regard. …

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Pod people: Facts are your friends, journalists

Here at GetReligion, we make no secret of our bias.

That bias: our deep affection for good, old-fashioned journalism.

In two recent posts, I highlighted stories at opposite extremes of that ideal. I discuss those posts with host Todd Wilken on this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast.

In my “When religious liberty clashes with gay rights” post, I praised a Wall Street Journal story on lawsuits over wedding professionals — such as bakers and photographers — refusing to serve same-sex couples. I noted that the Journal quoted sources on both sides of the issue and fairly framed each side’s broad arguments.

That post prompted some interesting discussion from readers (some of it actually related to journalism). Reader cvg commented, in part:

This seemed like a good article. I wouldn’t say the quotes were really well balanced. The SSM quotes reflected personal trauma, while those on the liberty side didn’t. Perhaps it is the language each side naturally uses: one naturally in tune with successful PR, and one naturally out of tune? I suspect there would be stronger balance if quotes reflected how disturbing it can be for a person of faith to be forced to act against deep seated convictions. However, is it the journalist’s job to dig for balance, if those reflected each side don’t naturally portray such balance? Probably not. However, if you’re really after portraying balance, a decent follow up wouldn’t hurt. Too much leading?

My reply:

cvg,

You definitely make some interesting points concerning the balance on the quotes.

One issue at play: Attorneys are being quoted (instead of plaintiffs themselves) in most of these cases, and attorneys speak legalese.

Another issue: the relatively short word count on the story, which doesn’t allow for any source to elaborate a whole lot.

Still, I was pleased that the Journal made an attempt to let each source make its best case, albeit in a short amount of space.

Meanwhile, in my “Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not” post, I raised a number of questions about what I characterized as an Associated Press “puff piece” on Mormons challenging the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Reader Darren Blair commented, in part:

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