New York Times on gay Pakistan

Altogether now, let’s chant:

World Ends Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hit Hardest!

Mort Sahl is usually credited with coining this “fake but accurateNew York Times headline. Though offered as sarcasm, Sahl’s joke has survived for 25 years because it encapsulates the world view many critics see in the Gray Lady’s reporting. The Time‘s intellectual outlook, its weltanschauung, is of an insular urban American establishment. Though this viewpoint is often expressed in the espousal of liberal politics — that is but a surface manifestation of the problem of Times reporting. The deeper issue is of a lack of awareness of issues and beliefs outside the ken of its reporters/readers — an incurious provincialism.

Last week’s 1400-word story on gays in Pakistan is an example of this problem. The article entitled “Gay Pakistanis, Still in Shadows, Seek Acceptance” looks at efforts of the gay subculture of Pakistan to achieve acceptance. There is a great deal to recommend in this story in terms of its local color, characters, and quotes. The “on the spot” work is well done.

Here is the lede:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The group meets irregularly in a simple building among a row of shops here that close in the evening. Drapes cover the windows. Sometimes members watch movies or read poetry. Occasionally, they give a party, dance and drink and let off steam.

A street in bustling Lahore. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are a common sight.

The group is invitation only, by word of mouth. Members communicate through an e-mail list and are careful not to jeopardize the location of their meetings. One room is reserved for “crisis situations,” when someone may need a place to hide, most often from her own family. This is their safe space — a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis.

“The gay scene here is very hush-hush,” said Ali, a member who did not want his full name used. “I wish it was a bit more open, but you make do with what you have.”

That is slowly changing as a relative handful of younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West, seek to foster more acceptance of their sexuality and to carve out an identity, even in a climate of religious conservatism.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in Pakistan, based on laws constructed by the British during colonial rule. No civil rights legislation exists to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But the reality is far more complex, more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell” than a state-sponsored witch hunt. For a long time, the state’s willful blindness has provided space enough for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly.

This is well written in the sense of nicely constructed story line, vivid language, and detail. The author’s sympathies are clearly with its subjects — which is not surprising given the Times‘ outlook.

But there is so much that is unasked or unexplored in this story. And coupled with its dubious philosophical underpinnings it means the story just does not hang together. Let’s deal with the low hanging fruit among my criticisms first.  The news that there is a gay subculture in Pakistan is hardly new. Western media outlets have written about this for years. The Times article is a nice color piece on the current state of affairs, but is not groundbreaking. Not all stories can be original or fresh, but this one, unlike NPR‘s 2004 story, has missed the role of religion — Islam — in the debate.

It is true to say that Pakistan’s sodomy law was crafted by the British in 1860. Section 377 states:

whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.crimes against nature.

Yes I too wonder about the Victorians at times. The penal codes of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Jamaica contain the same language in their sodomy laws as Pakistan and are even labeled Section 377, while the laws of almost all of the Commonwealth nations had or have sodomy laws based upon this language. What is missing in this throw away line about the British being responsible for Section 377 is the introduction of Sharia law in Pakistan.

There are two legal codes at work in Pakistan — the secular British based Section 377 which is hardly ever used — and the modern Sharia law code which is.

The 2010 edition of the Spartacus International Gay Guide, a guidebook for male homosexual travelers, states with regard to the legal framework pertaining to homosexual activity and the situation of LGBT persons in Pakistan:

Homosexual activity is illegal, punishable according to Islamic Laws which were re-introduced in 1990 and according to paragraph 377 with life in prison, corporal punishment of 100 lashes or even death by stoning. Despite the strict laws of Islam regarding moral standards, gay men, transvestites and transsexuals live relatively undisturbed from the police. On the other hand they cannot expect much protection from the authorities. (p. 98)

At the tail end of the story, the Times reports on the U.S. State Department’s foray into the sexual politics of Pakistan.

That clash of ideologies was evident last year on June 26, when the American Embassy in Islamabad held its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride celebration. The display of support for gay rights prompted a backlash, setting off demonstrations in Karachi and Lahore, and protesters clashing with the police outside the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. This year, the embassy said, it held a similar event but did not issue a news release about it.

What the Times omitted to say was who was protesting and why. Getting an anti-American crowd going in Islamabad is not that difficult, but the Associated Press story about the incident stated it was religious leaders who were leading the the “Death to the Great Satan” crowds this time round. The AP wrote:

The group, which included the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, claimed the meeting — the first of its kind held by the embassy — was the second most dangerous attack by the U.S. against Pakistan, following missiles fired from unmanned drones. … “Such people are the curse of society and social garbage,” said the statement issued by the Islamic officials on Sunday. “They don’t deserve to be Muslim or Pakistani, and the support and protection announced by the U.S. administration for them is the worst social and cultural terrorism against Pakistan.”

By omitting to discuss Islam and homosexuality, and by not presenting the opposing view (disagreeable as it may be for the author) the Times has failed to report accurately. It also missed the opportunity of addressing the question: “How came there to be a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in Pakistan given the Islamic culture of the country?”

The answer is … Islam in Pakistan has changed over the past generation. The tolerant Sufi-dominated Islam of the past has given way to a Saudi Wahhabist Islam. In sum, not only does the Times fail to address the role religion plays in current attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Pakistan, it also fails to address how and why the current attitudes arose.

There is also a missed opportunity to explore what is hinted at by the discussion of the gay and lesbian identity. The Times notes that the “younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West” differ from the older generation — but also differ from the rural and less affluent or educated persons with the same sexual orientation or nature.

What we have here is the Times defining sexuality such that true gayness is found only in its Western version. Older, rural, less sophisticated persons with same-sex attractions need to evolve — to come up to the Times‘ standards of conduct and thinking. At heart, this article fails because of its blinkered vision of human autonomy.

As journalism the story is weak — no contrary views, no context, no religion — as a moral/intellectual enterprise it is blue-stockinged, blinkered and bourgeois.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Shock: Bishops decide to defend Catholic tradition!

OK, let’s deal with some basic questions about Catholic bishops and politics.

In terms of basic journalism language, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released pastoral documents about, oh, nuclear weapons, were these statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops speak out on America’s actions abroad, let’s say in Iraq or the Middle East in general, are there statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops release pastoral letters on issues of economic justice, are these statements merely political or are they rooted in Catholic social teachings, scripture and tradition? We should ask the same question about the bishops and their longstanding support of health-care reform. Yes, I know that politics can enter into the discussions of HOW BEST to pursue these aims, but no one wearing a bishop’s cross considers these goals to be mere politics.

How about discussions of abortion and euthanasia, topics that the Vatican has raised to the highest levels of doctrinal authority, arguing from the same theological principles as its teachings on the fundamental dignity of the poor, the suffering, the weak and, yes, the unborn. Is that mere politics? How about the death penalty? Immigration reform and the rights of immigrants? How about the deadly spiritual cancer of racism?

The bottom line, of course, is that journalists covering these kinds of Catholic statements and actions must attempt to recognize and grasp the doctrinal content linked to these public issues. Of course the bishops consider the political implications of their actions. But, in the end, they know that there are scriptures, traditions and doctrines that must be defended.

You see, in the ancient churches (hat tip to G.K. Chesterton) the saints have the right to vote. On many issues, the bishops cannot discuss whether or not to toss out 2,000 years of Christian tradition.

With that in mind, let’s look at the latest horror story from The Baltimore Sun, which is, alas, the home town newspaper whenever the bishops hold their meetings in the premier episcopal see of the Catholic Church here in America. By the way, when you get ready to click this link, pay attention to the actual content of the URL code. Interesting, right? And now the lede:

Meeting for the first time since voters in Maryland and two other states legalized same-sex marriage, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Tuesday that they have no plans to soften their position that genuine marriage can occur only between one man and one woman.

They have “no plans to soften their position” on the definition of marriage? Who do the members of the Sun team think these bishops are, for heaven’s sake? Baptists? Episcopalians? Presbyterians? Free-church evangelicals? The actual issue, of course, is what strategy the bishops will choose to pursue in defending centuries of doctrine on this topic — first and foremost within their own complex and divided flock. That’s the heart of the story.

Yes, we must read on:

Over the past year, a variety of hot-button issues have put the church and its teachings in the public spotlight. While some activists this week urged the church to focus on its mission of aiding the poor instead of politics, church leaders started looking for better ways to articulate their positions and win converts to their stances on issues that have played out in the political arena. …

The bishops said they plan to refocus their opposition to a provision of President Barack Obama’s health care law that requires most employers, including religious institutions, to provide health insurance covering contraception.

Once again, the newspaper avoids the actual issue in the health-care fight. The bishops support health-care reform, as they have for decades. The issue is whether the government can mandate that Catholic institutions provide products and services to their own employees — people who voluntarily work for Catholic ministries or who choose to attend Catholic schools — that the church’s doctrines proclaim are sinful.

Looming in the background is an even larger Constitutional issue, which is whether the government can recognize one level of religious freedom when doctrines are linked to worship, while refusing to recognize the same level of religious liberty when doctrines lead to actions in religious ministries that interact with the public. Is a Catholic parish fundamentally more religious than a Catholic soup kitchen? Is a Catholic Sunday school Catholic, while a Catholic high school is not?

When reading this article, please look for evidence that the Sun team has any willingness to accurately quote the voices of activists on both sides of that debate. Does the Sun leadership know that this is the topic being debated, or are the editors convinced that this whole public-square fight — involving Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, evangelical Protestants and other traditionalists — is mere a political spat about politics, about opposition to the current occupant of the White House?

Was that the case with nuclear weapons, racism, poverty, the Iraqi war, health care, immigration, labor, the death penalty and other public issues?

Come on people, cover the real debates, including the ones that are rooted in eternal principles, as well as fleeting politics. Do some reading. Ask some tough questions to informed people on both sides.

Come on. It’s journalism. Give it a try.

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Red-state American in her natural habitat

I gotta admit: Just a few sentences into this Washington Post feature on post-election Red America and I was already worried.

I just knew that this was going to be one of those sarcastic, elite-reporter-gets-to-know-ignorant-people-in-the-sticks kind of stories (i.e., see the pretty zoo animals with “Mitt Romney” campaign buttons):

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — She arrived early to take apart the campaign office piece by piece, just as she felt so many other things about her life were being dismantled. Beth Cox wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt, a cross around her neck and fresh eyeliner, even though she had been crying on and off and knew her makeup was likely to run. A day after the election, she tuned the radio to Glenn Beck and began pulling posters and American flags off the wall.

Her calendar read “Victory Day!!” and she had planned to celebrate in the office by hosting a dance party and selling Romney souvenirs. But instead she was packing those souvenirs into boxes, which would be donated to a charity that sent clothes to South America. Instead a moving company was en route to close down the office in the next 48 hours, and her friends were calling every few minutes to see how she was doing.

“I will be okay,” she told one caller. “I just don’t think we will be okay.”

Next comes the nut graf:

Here in the heart of Red America, Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama’s reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.

(An aside before we move on: Central Tennessee? Is there such a place outside of a Beltway newspaper page? Folks familiar at all with Tennessee know that it has three grand divisions: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.)

As I kept reading, I kept seeing signposts indicating a strong religion angle to this 1,800-word, front-page feature. “Values and beliefs” were referenced. The Romney supporter was described as “prayerful.” Her causes were “at the heart of her faith.” She counseled young married families “at church.”

I started marking up my printout of the story, prepared to point out the holy ghosts.

But then something strange happened: I actually began to like the story — and the flair with which the writer revealed important details all along the way. My initial concern that this would be a cardboard-cutout portrayal of a mindless social conservative mostly disappeared. Instead, the focus on a single voter allowed the writer adequate space to intertwine nuggets of nuance:

She blamed some of the divisiveness on Republicans. The party had gotten “way too white,” she said, and she hoped it would never again run a presidential ticket without including a woman or a minority. The tea party was an extremist movement that needed to be “neutralized,” she said, and Romney’s campaign had suffered irreparable damage when high-profile Republicans spoke about “crazy immigration talk and legitimate rape.”

But many other aspects of the division seemed fundamental and harder to solve. There was the America of increased secularism that legalized marijuana. And there was her America, where her two teenage daughters are not allowed to read “Harry Potter” or “Twilight,” and where one of them wrote in a school paper: “God is the center and the main foundation of my family.”

There was the America of gay marriage and the America of her Southern Baptist church, where 7,000 came to listen on Sundays, and where church literature described marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

That reference to church literature strikes me as a bit awkward because I suspect that the church would attribute that belief to a different source.

Later in the story, the reporter follows the woman to a small-group prayer meeting at the church and backs out of the way (letting the dialogue itself tell the story):

“The world will tell you to be so many things,” she advised them, and on this night she talked to them about the importance of preserving life, the sanctity of marriage, the advantages of raising children at home and the importance of “relying on family, and on your core values, and not on the government.”

“It’s not an easy road to be a Christian, and if it was, everybody would be on it,” she said. She passed out blank white note cards and asked each woman to write down a worry to surrender to God. Then, before closing, she asked what they wanted to pray for.

“Our president,” said one, and the women in the group nodded.

“Our values,” said another.

“All people in our country who are lost.”

“The soul of America.”

“Amen,” Cox said.

This is not a perfect narrative, and some questions go unanswered (such as the name of the church and the specific role of Cox’s vaguely referenced pastor husband).

But all in all, this piece converted me. Mark me down as a believer in this particular Post story.

Broken heart image via Shutterstock

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Sun’s celebration of brave, pro-gay marriage pastors

One of the big election-day stories in deep-blue, liberal Maryland was the narrow victory for same-sex marriage — especially since the polls were so close going into the final hours.

The key to the election, of course, was the African-American vote.

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that the newspaper that lands in my front yard covered this angle of this crucial event with a news story that celebrated the actions of courageous black pastors who provided the crucial push that led to victory. Readers will not be stunned to know that this Baltimore Sun piece provided zero space for commentary from African-American pastors who were on the other side, even when it came time to talk about how they allegedly ostracized the enlightened pastors who backed the gay marriage.

The key religion-news passages are at the beginning of the story and then at the very end, with lots of politics in the middle.

The two Baptist pastors didn’t know a soul at Gov. Martin O’Malley’s big breakfast for supporters of his same-sex marriage bill back in January.

Neither had ever been in a room with so many openly gay people.

“It was a different moment,” said the Rev. Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. He had attended the breakfast in Annapolis with a colleague, the Rev. Delman Coates, who leads a megachurch in Prince George’s County.

They listened. Observed. And at the news conference that followed, stood to the side. They left intrigued by the proposed legislation, but unsure of how much of a role they wanted to play in Maryland’s marriage debate.

Ten months later, the two had become the highest-profile pitchmen for Question 6, appearing in nearly identical commercials that played on television for three-quarters of the campaign. In Baltimore — during some stretches — the average person saw the commercials 10 times a week. Voters’ approval of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law last week can be traced in part to the decision by Hickman, 41, and Coates, 39, to lend
their names, faces and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community.

There are, of course, many, many different kinds of Baptist churches — forming a spectrum from the doctrinal right to, yes, the doctrinal left. The Sun team, needless to say, appears to have never heard this fact about church-history in modern America.

Thus, readers never find out who these pastors actually are and what they believe, in terms of the broader spectrum of African-American religion. Readers do learn that Coates is a graduate of Harvard (one must assume the Divinity School), which certainly suggests a mainline Protestant doctrinal orientation, as opposed to evangelical Protestant. Once again, the word “Baptist” tells readers very little.

Readers learn quite a bit about Coates and his personal story and how it has affected his views on gay rights. They learn nothing about his doctrinal views on this biblical issue.

At the same time, the story focuses on one of the straw-man issues of the election, which was whether churches would be forced to perform same-sex marriage rites. This issue was raised constantly in commercials and in the press even though, in reality, this was not an issue in the legislation.

Once again, the crucial issue here in Maryland focused on whether there would be two forms of religious liberty and expression — with one level of freedom inside church doors and a different level of religious liberty outside those doors, in public life. The Sun story says nothing about this issue, which was the heart of the informed and highly nuanced debates that took place in the state legislature and in most churches. This passage was typical:

Hickman, of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, also started thinking about same-sex marriage in 2011, after O’Malley said he would make legalization a priority.

“People were saying pastors will be locked up for resisting a same-sex ceremony,” he recalled. “I said we should get a better understanding of what it was.”

By the way, this Southern Baptist Church is not one of the many African-American congregations associated with the conservative world of Southern Baptists. “Southern Baptist” is the name of the congregation. Also, a glance at Hickman’s background shows that he, too, has a solidly mainline Protestant theological background.

In other words, other than the courage they showed in standing up to the surrounding African-American community, it should have been no surprise whatsoever to learn that these two pastors shared doctrinal views that have evolved to the religious left on gay rights. This doctrinal change is completely consistent with their backgrounds. Did editors at The Sun know that?

Meanwhile, religion content vanishes until the crucial final lines of the story, when readers are told:

… Hickman and Coates remained on the air for most of the campaign. Backlash came swiftly. And it was personal, Coates said.

“It’s been tough with some peers and colleagues,” he said. “Statements that I’m not a true preacher. I’m not part of the church. A range of judgments and attacks.”

He says critics predicted that Coates and Hickman would destroy their ministries. Since word of the campaign spread, both pastors have had to add services on Sunday to accommodate increased demand.

Is there any evidence of these personal attacks, other than the word of these two activists? How do we know that, in fact, their critics said or did what we are told that they said or did? Come to think of it, what are the actual views of other African-American pastors on any of these biblical, moral and political issues? Where are their voices — other than in second-hand threats that The Sun team accepts as the gospel truth?

What does The Sun team offer to readers on that side of the story? Please click here for the answer.

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What is this “American Catholic Church,” anyway?

What we have here is kind of a Son of the WomenPriests story — with an interesting twist.

When covering the WomenPriests, mainstream reporters have used some very awkward language suggesting, to be blunt about it, that the WomenPriests are valid Roman Catholic priests for the simple reason that they say that they are valid Roman Catholic priests.

The implication is that the Catholic Church is not in charge of declaring who is and who is not a priest in the Catholic Church. As your GetReligionistas have stressed in our posts on this topic — click here for a small library — this is something like a journalist saying he is a columnist at The New York Times for the simple reason that this reporter has decided that he is a columnist at The New York Times. Does the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals? If she proclaimed this to be true, would major newspapers print her claim as truth?

This brings me to a short political story in The Austin America-Statesman in which it was crucial to clearly present the ecclesiastical status of a man who was once a Catholic priest and, now, is a different kind of priest.

The shock, this time around, is that the American-Statesman team comes very, very close to getting an A-grade for its efforts on this journalistic equation. Here’s the top of the story:

Austin school board newcomer Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias narrowly defeated incumbent Sam Guzman early Wednesday morning to represent District 2, an area of East Austin deeply affected by last year’s school board decision to convert a neighborhood school to an in-district charter school run by an outside organization.

That controversial move made the unseating of a board member less surprising than it might have been.

What was a surprise was Mathias’ post-election comment to a reporter that he will be the first openly-gay school trustee, something he hadn’t mentioned during his campaign. However, people involved in the election — including his opponent — said they knew Mathias is gay, and it wasn’t an issue.

Now, that first reference to the man’s name is a bit strange. Most newspapers reserve “Dr.” references for people with medical degrees. Is that the case this time? It’s hard to know. Also, shouldn’t that be “the Rev.” Jayme Mathias? Some papers, in this case, would even say “Father” Jayme Mathias.

However, this man’s clerical status is a bit complex. However, that doesn’t mean that it could not be described in simple, brief, accurate language, in keeping with the fact that the religion element of this story is of secondary importance. Thus, readers are told:

Mathias, a former Roman Catholic priest, is the first non-Hispanic to represent District 2 since the school district moved to geographic representations in 1992.

“I’ve been ministering among the Hispanic community my entire adult life,” said Mathias. “I speak Spanish fluently. I’ve been so immersed in this culture, it’s absolutely part of who I am.”

Mathias said that in March he joined the more progressive American Catholic Church, which allows priests to marry or live in domestic partnerships. He is now pastor of Holy Family American Catholic Church.

Did the newspaper need to call the local Catholic diocese for clarification in this case? Probably not.

Did the newspaper — to provide clarity for readers — need to add at least one sentence, or phrase, about the history and size of the American Catholic Church?

I think that it would have helped. Why? Well, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. How many people are in this American Catholic communion? It’s hard to tell, but it appears there are 24 small parishes in this fold — in the world. Total global membership of 2,000 or so?

This would be an interesting detail to know, if the goal is to explain the pilgrimage of Mathias. All this would take is a sentence or two. That’s all.

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The ghost of Prince William County

It’s all about race.

And age.

Religion? Uh, surely that’s not a factor worth exploring.

That’s my interpretation of a front-page New York Times story today that focuses on the changing demographics in Prince William County, Va., and their impact on Tuesday’s presidential election:

A couple of decades ago, Prince William County was one of the mostly white, somewhat rural, far-flung suburbs where Republican candidates went to accumulate the votes to win elections in Virginia.

Since then, Prince William has been transformed. Open tracts have given way to town houses and gated developments, as the county — about a half-hour south of Washington — has risen to have the seventh-highest household income in the country and has become the first county in Virginia where minorities make up more than half the population.

If Prince William looks like the future of the country, Democrats have so far developed a much more successful strategy of appealing to that future. On Tuesday, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 15 percentage points in Prince William, nearly doubling George W. Bush’s margin over Al Gore in 2000, helping Mr. Obama to a surprisingly large victory in Virginia.

At GetReligion, our mantra is that “holy ghosts” all too often haunt mainstream news stories. We see these ghosts in stories where religion seems to be a major theme, yet somehow religion shows up nowhere in the text. Welcome to the ghost of Prince William County.

As Mollie wisely pointed out already today, reporters should proceed with caution when trying to make sense of the reasons people voted the way they did — and the religious motivations, if any, behind their choices. At the same time, it seems extremely strange for the Times to attempt to assess Prince William County’s voting patterns with no acknowledgment of the religion question.

For example, consider this paragraph:

The Republican Party “needs messages and policies that appeal to a broader audience,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush. “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

Who is that “shrinking base?” Would it include evangelicals for whom issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are closely tied to their religious beliefs? Could the rise of the “nones” be a factor?

Regrettably, the Times doesn’t bother to address such questions.

Diversity image via Shutterstock

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The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

It should be a quiet day on the religion-beat front, in the wake of yesterday’s nail-biters in the real world of politics. If the past repeats itself, as it often does, it will take a few days for the religion elements of the story to emerge, other than the usual “Obama won the Catholic vote (whatever that is)” headlines.

We do know several things for sure, on the day after. The ultimate ties that bind are race and religion, even when those two realities pull in different directions. The map also shows the degree to which many working-class voters in the urban Northeast and Midwest remain in deep, deep pain and many are convinced that the government is their ultimate, if not only, friend. GOP leaders seem to be deaf to their populist cries. (Then again, I am a registered Democrat who just bought a Chevy Cruze).

In its wrap-up analysis, USA Today went back to the map:

The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday — not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.

But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. “We have never had a more polarized electorate,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.

If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation’s hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues: The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here. For church-state insiders, all eyes are on his editing pencil and numerous First Amendment cases (free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty) are headed his way.

As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum “Nones” study and America’s growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2009, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.

In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America’s liberal religious denominations (such as the “seven sisters” of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.

The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality — the pluses and the minuses — of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party’s relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.

Here’s what Green had to say, a few weeks ago, after the press gathering announcing the “Nones” report. This is taken from a column I wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Sound familiar?

So where does this go? Where will journalists be looking for the next wrinkle in this story?

The reality that trumps many of these religious divisions is, of course, race. At some point, cultural conservatives are going to have to find a way to separate married and religious African-Americans and Latinos from the single adults and secular people in those large ethnic groups. White voters divide alone lines of religious practice (the “pew gap”) and marital status, while black and Latino voters do not.

If cultural conservatives are not able to do this, then do the math.

Meanwhile, here comes the deeper information from the exit polls. If journalists continue to march in lockstep, we are only days away from reports about the growing division between young evangelicals and old evangelicals (whatever the word “evangelical” means).

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Another visit with the usual “ex-gay” suspects

It’s a question that I always know I will hear after a lecture on the American model of the press and its emphasis on balance, fairness and the need to cover both sides of controversial stories — which requires journalists to find solid, articulate representatives of the arguments on both sides.

Some student will always ask a question that sounds something like this: “OK, but why couldn’t you just interview really dumb, unsympathetic people on one side of the debate and then articulate, smart people on the other side? Then the article would look like it was balanced, but it would really be just as slanted as an article that only quoted one side. In a way, it would be even worse because the dumb voices in the camp that the newspaper opposes would do even more damage to their cause in the long run.”

Case in point: This is what happens when you are covering a demonstration against legalized abortion and the television crews rush right past the rows of women with “I regret my abortion” signs and then film interviews with the loner male protester with a red face and wild eyes who is carrying a “Send the baby killers to jail” sign that has been smeared with what appears to be blood. Then the news crews interview women who calmly argue in favor of abortion rights. It’s a balanced story, right?

If you want to see this technique used with great skill, precision and even nuance, check out this New York Times report: “‘Ex-Gay’ Men Fight Back Against View That Homosexuality Can’t Be Changed.” Here is the summary paragraph, following the anecdotal lede about a believer named Blake Smith:

Mr. Smith is one of thousands of men across the country, often known as “ex-gay,” who believe they have changed their most basic sexual desires through some combination of therapy and prayer — something most scientists say has never been proved possible and is likely an illusion.

Ex-gay men are often closeted, fearing ridicule from gay advocates who accuse them of self-deception and, at the same time, fearing rejection by their church communities as tainted oddities. Here in California, their sense of siege grew more intense in September when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning use of widely discredited sexual “conversion therapies” for minors — an assault on their own validity, some ex-gay men feel.

Signing the measure, Governor Brown repeated the view of the psychiatric establishment and medical groups, saying, “This bill bans nonscientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” adding that the practices “will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”

But many ex-gays have continued to seek help from such therapists and men’s retreats, saying their own experience is proof enough that the treatment can work.

Central to this article is this question: Is there anyone in the Catholic-Jewish-Protestant mainstream of the so-called “ex-gay” movement (a term that I have heard many movement leaders openly reject) who argues that someone can completely shed all same-sex desires? Most of the people I have interviewed in this camp, over the decades, see human sexuality as a spectrum of complex desires and behaviors — many will cite the Kinsey Scale theory. They argue that it is possible for people to change their behaviors and, eventually, move in the direction of stronger opposite-sex desires.

You can see hints of that stance in this Times articles. What readers never hear, however, are voices that explicitly make a scientific case for that belief. Instead, the “ex-gay” label is applied to everyone, even when the story makes it clear that it does not apply to various camps within this alleged movement. For example, see this passage:

Aaron Bitzer, 35, was so angered by the California ban, which will take effect on Jan. 1, that he went public and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional. …

Many ex-gays guard their secret but quietly meet in support groups around the country, sharing ideas on how to avoid temptations or, perhaps, broach their past with a female date. Some are trying to save heterosexual marriages. Some, like Mr. Bitzer, hope one day to marry a woman. Some choose celibacy as an improvement over what they regard as a sinful gay life.

Whether they have gone through formal reparative therapy, most ex-gays agree with its tenets, even as they are rejected by mainstream scientists. The theories, which have also been adopted by conservative religious opponents of gay marriage, hold that male homosexuality emerges from family dynamics — often a distant father and an overbearing mother — or from early sexual abuse. Confronting these psychic wounds, they assert, can bring change in sexual desire, if not necessarily a total “cure.”

Then later on, there is this reference to a headline-grabbing dust-up related to this issue:

… This summer, the ex-gay world was convulsed when Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, the largest Christian ministry for people fighting same-sex attraction, said he did not believe anyone could be rid of homosexual desires.

This is not really news. Chambers has made similar statements in the past.

Once again, is there someone who argues that it is normative for someone who struggles with same-sex attraction to be totally “rid,” or “healed,” of same-sex temptations? I know there are some out there who make that case, but I have never run into someone making that argument in mainstream Catholic, Jewish or Protestant circles.

I am sure that the editors believed that this article is, if anything, overly fair to the “ex-gay” stance, with many of the “usual suspects” articulating it’s arguments. It’s true that this article goes out of its way to quote some, repeat SOME, of the believers on that side of the aisle. It’s also clear that the Times team heard about (and perhaps even ran into) people who did not fit into a narrow “ex-gay” mold. I also wonder if anyone discussed the serious Constitutional issues involved in this California law’s attempts to limit the rights of parents, when dealing with issues involving sex and religious faith.

What we end up with is another visit with the usual suspects. I guess you have to be willing to imagine that new ground exists in order to find the voices that help a journalist explore it.

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