Unbridled yearning for same-sex marriage

One of the big stories last week was whether the Supreme Court would hear cases regarding marriage law. The court hasn’t said it will hear a marriage law case. But the coverage leading up to that was most telling.

The person who sent along this Los Angeles Times story remarked that he’d never read a story with so much “yearning” in it:

Supreme Court decides this week whether to rule on gay marriage

Timing will be at issue as the justices confer. In the past, the court has been faulted for waiting too long or moving too quickly on recognizing constitutional rights.

You can begin to get the picture in the headline. Apparently the court’s decision has already been made. It’s just a question of whether they will wait too long or move too quickly — or hit it just right in the middle — when they “recognize” same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Isn’t that remarkable?

I’m always struck by how shallow the coverage of this rather foundational issue is. The issue in newsrooms today isn’t about what the definition of marriage is or what it should be. Newsrooms are not about exploring consequences of changing marriage law, unintended or otherwise. Newsrooms are not about shining light on anything that might in any way cast doubt on whether marriage law should be changed to include same-sex couples.

They’re about providing cheerleading coverage in favor of changing marriage law and negative coverage of those opposed to changing marriage law.

To be fair, many reporters have flat out admitted that they’re not interested in doing journalism regarding marriage law so much as activism. That candor is appreciated. (More here, here, here, here.) But I do wish we had some brave journalists who would rather do journalism than pat themselves on the back about how awesome they are to all agree about changing marriage law. The one-note coverage is, I’m sure, fun and self-affirming within the newsroom, but much less fun to be subjected to as a news consumer. And I’m entirely skeptical about the overall benefit to civil society of journalists treating marriage law in such a manner.

The piece is fine, I guess, if you’re down with the yearning and accept the premise that the court has already deliberated and decided the case. The reporter is a long-time Supreme Court beat guy so maybe he knows something we don’t.

There was one line that made me think of something:

A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 as discriminatory and irrational.

I’m one of those nerds who likes to read court decisions for fun. That decision is a treasure trove of interesting information and well worth a read. For instance, as noted in the story above, the judge says that marriage as traditionally defined is irrational! If you can’t write years’ worth of stories about that, I’m surprised. He decreed that traditional marriage is “an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage.  That time has passed.” In other places, he says that children don’t need mothers. They’re unnecessary to the well-being of the child. (Ditto for fathers, natch, all that matters is two adults, of any sex.) He devoted several pages of the to identifying religion as a prime source of anti-gay animus, listing examples from the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention, and noting that 84 percent of weekly churchgoers voted in favor of Prop 8.

It’s amazing stuff, here. And yet there were precious few stories about many of these angles. Particularly few when it came to reflective pieces more than a day or two after the ruling.

I can’t help but think that the same media that has written for approaching a full decade on one U.S. Senator’s thoughts on a gay-related court case might have a tad more interest in the particulars of an important court ruling with implications for religious exercise, gender roles and kinship. But maybe that’s just me.

There’s still time for the court to say it’s going to take up one of the cases. Let us know if you see any coverage that deviates from the expected narrative.

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Covering Catholics who are more like ‘Catholics’

GetReligion readers may recall the case of young Lennon Cihak, who — at the very least — told the Rev. Gary LaMoine (in photo) that he disagreed with the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual ethics and marriage. Thus, the priest — after long talks with the family — decided that the young man should not be confirmed as a grown-up, loyal Catholic believer.

Now, it seems that there has been another news development in that headline-grabbing case. This update is, frankly, not much of a surprise.

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – A nontraditional Catholic organization has offered to confirm a Barnesville 17-year-old after he was denied confirmation because of his support for gay marriage.

“I did speak to the father of the young man and let them know the Evangelical Catholic Diocese of the Northwest would be happy to confirm the young man if he is interested in doing so,” said Bishop James Wilkowski, of Chicago.

The family of Lennon Cihak says the Rev. Gary LaMoine of Assumption Catholic Church in Barnesville wouldn’t confirm the boy after learning from a photo on Lennon’s Facebook page that he supports gay marriage. Lennon’s parents, Shana and Doug, who have lived in Barnesville their entire lives and have always been members of Assumption, say they have also been denied Holy Communion there since the dustup.

Actually, that is a very sketchy version of the basic facts, especially the statement that the priest’s decision was based on the Facebook photo alone, or even the photo and the teen’s statement opposing Catholic teachings on marriage.

But nevermind, that’s not what this post is about.

What, pray tell, is the Evangelical Catholic Church? Here is what the story offers:

Wilkowski describes the Evangelical Catholic Church as “separate but equal” to the traditional Roman Catholic Church. “We are a validly consecrated Catholic faith community,” he said. “We do have some pastoral differences between the Roman Church and ours.”

One difference is that priests can marry. Another is that women can become priests. The church also offers a quicker path to annulments after a divorce — a process that Wilkowski said can take up to 10 years in the traditional church, leaving members in limbo.

The Evangelical Catholic Church is also “non-discriminatory,” when it comes to the sexual orientation of its members. … The church was founded in 1997, he said.

So how many parishes does this church have? How many members, in this separate-but-equal — in comparison to Rome — jurisdiction? Frankly, it’s hard to tell, but it is clear that this is another tiny splinter on the very complex tree of the Old Catholic universe. This is the first I have ever heard of this body and I’ve been covering that alternative-Catholic world for decades. These tiny church bodies have a way of evolving and morphing.

So is this enough information about this small, alternative church, in a basic news story? Should journalists let a bishop of a church of this kind simply make these kinds of statements and that is that, with no response from Catholic leaders?

To be blunt: No way.

This story needed a few more factual sentences and some kind of on-the-record Catholic response.

So is it possible to accurately describe the Old Catholic world in a daily newspaper? A GetReligion reader sent us an example of a story that at least made the attempt. Patrick Krisak said: “I thought this was interesting and well done. I have a few more questions about the council, the other churches on it, and what the local Catholics think of the whole thing, but I was pleasantly surprised to find much more here than I expected.”

The news hook, in this story from the Catskills in New York, is that a local interfaith groups has been reluctant to admit one of these alternative Old Catholic parishes. Thus, readers learn:

Bishop Francisco Betancourt, a founding pastor of the independent Catholic Holy Innocents church in Halcottsville, said that his church has been trying to join the Margaretville Interfaith Council for 12 years, ever since the church was established. Throughout that time, Betancourt said, his efforts have been met with a resounding silence — a response that was never quite clear enough to be ‘no,’ but never a welcoming ‘yes.’

The reason his church has not been welcomed, Betancourt says, is Holy Innocents’ willingness to perform same-sex marriage, an issue that Interfaith Council leaders acknowledge is deeply controversial among their members.

Now, this is a rather long news story and, thus, there is room for more detail. Yes, the usual Brazilian bishops play a starring role. While I am sure that Catholics loyal to Rome will be able to pick holes in this historical narrative, it’s still nice to see a newsroom make the attempt to provide some background:

Holy Innocents is one of hundreds of independent Catholic churches around the world that trace their lineage of ordained priests in a direct line of succession back to the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but have severed their relationship with the Vatican. Some are more conservative than the Vatican itself; others are theologically liberal.

Holy Innocents is a member of the Catholic Apostolic Church In North America (CACINA), an offshoot of a Brazilian church founded in the 1940s by an excommunicated Roman Catholic bishop. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, CACINA practices the ordination of women and married people, admits same-sex couples to the sacrament of marriage, and allows divorced parishoners to remarry and receive the Eucharist.

Betancourt said that has been told by his parishoners that local Catholics have challenged the legitimacy of Holy Innocents as a church, and that he has confronted the priest of Margaretville’s Roman Catholic Sacred Heart parish, Father Paul Catena, about the issue.

Catena could not be reached for comment. Sacred Heart’s representative to the Interfaith Council, Dick Tucker, declined to speak with the Watershed Post.

Once again, a few crisp statistics about the Catholic Apostolic Church In North America — number of members, the number of parishes (there appear to be 10 parishes in all) — would help.

Still, this was a nice try. A bit of progress!

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Quote of the year on Catholics and American politics

I don’t know how you feel about anonymous quotes, but, as a rule, I am opposed to them.

However, when faced with an important anonymous quote, one of the first questions I always ask as a journalist is, “Who is the author of the piece and does this person have the kind of authority and access that makes this anonymous quotation believable”?

In this case, the author of the following Our Sunday Visitor column is a person who every religion-beat reporter in her or his right mind just knows has the kind of access to land this killer quote. We are, you see, talking about Russell Shaw, author of one of the essential books for those who work the religion-news beat: “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.”

What does Shaw know about serious discussions that go on behind closed doors when the U.S. Catholic bishops get together? How much does he know about the delicate dance that goes on in the halls of Catholic power, when it comes to dealing with politicians and with reporters? Scan this short biography and tell me. The key is the nearly two decades as a press spokesman and information director for the American bishops.

Several years ago, I used this anecdote to capture some of the lessons Shaw learned about religion news and the Catholic hierarchy. This guy knows things. He also knows what he cannot know.

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone “with a good reason for wanting to know” emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

“There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn’t know — for sure — who those 31 bishops where,” said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book. …

“The secret ballots were destroyed,” he noted. “These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they’ve voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there’s no way to do that.”

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

With all of that in mind, please scan the list – click here – of the Americans who are currently cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Then read this recent offering by Shaw, which contains the anonymous quote mentioned at the top of this post. I offer this as part of our ongoing post-2012 election discussions here at GetReligion about why it is unwise for journalists to keep pinning current-day political labels on the foreheads of people whose lives are defined by centuries of religious doctrines.

So here is the soundbite that I think might be the religion-beat quote of the year.

The cardinal looked grim. “This is the situation now,” he said. “One political party is dangerous and the other is stupid.”

Since that was said in a private chat, it wouldn’t be fair for me to name the speaker. But his comment expresses sentiments that probably are widely shared in the American hierarchy today, as indeed they’re shared widely by many Americans. Bipartisan disgust with politics is a sorry byproduct of our recent, toxic election campaign. If the country should actually topple over the infamous fiscal cliff, plenty of people would suppose both parties gave it a shove.

The cardinal’s words also have considerable relevance for the Church, underlining something that’s now more clear than ever. While the Church is obliged to take both deeply flawed political coalitions as facts, it has no natural home in either. No cause for smugness here, though. Before lecturing the parties, the Church needs to face up to internal problems of its own, which requires recognizing what those problems are.

Yes, some of the paragraphs that follow in his column are linked to familiar patterns about the various kinds of “Catholic voters” and how the pronouncements of bishops inspire some of them, primarily those who embrace Confession and other Sacraments, and infuriate many others, especially cultural Catholics who go to Mass one or two times a year, if that. This is old terrain here at GetReligion.

The reason I think Shaw’s column should matter to informed reporters is that he digs into this subject — Catholic life beyond normal political labels — deep enough to end up in a totally logical place, yet a place that few politically-obsessed reporters would end up.

Where is that? Pulpits.

At their fall assembly in November, the bishops approved a document on preaching (.pdf) that makes the familiar point that a typical congregation today includes a lot of people who are “inadequately catechized.” Here is a delicate way of saying even many who go to Mass don’t have a clear notion of what the Church teaches and don’t see how it applies to them. That has deeply negative implications for political behavior and nearly everything else.

If Catholic teaching matters, this needs to change. The bishops should give early attention to a massive, continuing and intellectually serious program — one not directly tied to politics and the election cycle — to educate Catholics in the doctrine of their Church, including social doctrine and doctrine on human life and marriage. Isolated statements in the face of election year passions aren’t enough.

Homilies should be a part of this new effort but only part.

Read it all.

I mean, read all of Shaw’s column or read all of the U.S. Catholic bishops document on preaching. Take your pick or read both. There’s news in there, news that is hard to label.

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Honest teen meets an orthodox Catholic priest

Two decades ago, while I was serving as the religion writer for The Charlotte News (the afternoon newspaper that later merged with The Charlotte Observer) I heard about a fascinating event in a major local parish.

It seems that at the end of a confirmation class, one of the teen-agers told the youth minister that he simply did not believe some of the doctrines included in the vows that he would be asked to recite as part of the sacramental rite. He could not, in effect, affirm the authority of the Episcopal Church and its teachings. Did that really matter?

The youth minister said it certainly did matter and advised the young man to withdraw from the confirmation class.

At that point, something interesting happened. The teen was fine with this, but his parents went totally ballistic and proceeded to lead an effort to get the youth pastor fired. I heard about this through back channels because my wife and I were attending a nearby church.

I told my editor that this was a really interesting story because it symbolized the whole plight of mainline churches in our society today. Would these churches, under any circumstances, stand their ground and defend the doctrines that had been given to them by generations of earlier believers and saints? I thought this was a highly symbolic event and, in particular, I was struck by the fact that this teen was more being more honest about his beliefs than his parents and some of their friends.

The bottom line: Is there any connection between accepting the teachings of a church and becoming a professed, sacramental member of that body? Did the vows in the confirmation rite have meaning or could one merely speak the words with fingers crossed and that was that?

The editor just didn’t see the point.

Well, clearly, that was before Facebook and denying the divinity of Christ is not as important, in the long run, as rejecting your church’s teachings on the sacrament of marriage. Consider this news out of the Midwest.

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – If you want to be a Catholic, you have to be 100 percent Catholic.

That’s the lesson one family here learned after their 17-year-old son was denied confirmation after the priest at the Assumption Church here found a pro same-sex marriage post on the teen’s Facebook.

The decision by the Rev. Gary LaMoine to deny the religious rite of passage for Lennon Cihak in mid-October shocked his mother, who said her son has gone to church every week and volunteered around the community in preparation for his confirmation this year.

“You kind of know the Catholic beliefs, but I never thought they would deny somebody confirmation because you weren’t 100 percent. I guess that’s what shocks me,” Shana Cihak said.

It helps to know that the mother’s version of this story — the hook for the first news story — is somewhat different from the account given by the Rev. Gary LaMoine and, it appears, her own son. More on that in a minute.

The key is that the parents have backed their son’s right to be confirmed. It also appears that some of the other members of the confirmation class clicked the “like” button on the pro-gay rights Facebook message. The other kids, it appears, were confirmed. The story went on to add:

… (Now) the family is not allowed to participate in Communion there, Doug [Cihak] said, and he’s worried as to how far the sanctions will go, expressing concern about being able to be buried alongside his parents.

Still, Doug insists he’s not mad at LaMoine, calling him just a “messenger” of the church. The same could not be said for his wife, who said she doesn’t plan on returning to the church ever again, her son nodding in agreement.

The son, meanwhile, stressed that he is still a Catholic. The goal in the future is to find a parish with a priest who is more, well, flexible:

“I don’t want the church to be put down. I don’t want the Catholic religion to be put down,” he said. “It’s just the way the priest has things running. He’s so strict. He won’t loosen up about things.”

Meanwhile, a Catholic wire service has the priest’s side of this:

…Fr. LaMoine, the pastor of Assumption Parish in Barnesville, told LifeSiteNews.com that there were other concerns that contributed to the decision to delay Lennon’s Confirmation, and that the final decision was made by Lennon himself, not the priest. According to Catholic teaching, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation that confirms Catholics as “mature” Christians. It is usually administered to young teens.

Fr. LaMoine said that his conversations with the Cihak family began in early October, when he sent a letter to Lennon’s parents, Doug and Shana, encouraging them to start coming to church to support their son.

The priest told LifeSiteNews.com that he only discovered Lennon’s gay marriage post by accident on October 25, the day after having a two-hour meeting with the family. During that meeting the priest had brought up the fact that the Cihaks were not coming to church, as well as “other matters” that the priest said, “I can’t get into here.” No mention was made of Lennon’s views on marriage during that meeting.

The following day Fr. LaMoine’s secretary, who is Facebook friends with Lennon, chanced upon the controversial post and alerted the priest to it.

In other words, it appears that the family has been having issues with the church, or at the very least this priest, for some time. This incident is part of a larger picture.

Now, it also appears that this one teen-ager is not alone. This story has legs, because the priest has informed members of the parish — via letter — that at least one of Lennon’s friends backed him up in rejecting the church’s teachings on marriage.

In the letter, addressed to the parish of Assumption Church at 307 Front St. N., the Rev. Gary LaMoine says “a couple of candidates chose not to enter into full communion with the Catholic community because of their disagreement with the teaching of the Church concerning marriage.” … LaMoine says Lennon voluntarily withdrew from the program after LaMoine saw the photo and challenged him on why he was “rejecting a central teaching of the Church.”

But even if Lennon hadn’t withdrawn, LaMoine said he wouldn’t have confirmed him, he said on Friday.

“We just simply couldn’t do it no matter what, given what was out there,” LaMoine told The Forum in an interview. “He could be confirmed, but he’d have to change his mind about some things, and I don’t know if Lennon is going to do that.” …

Lennon is drawing support online. Since its inception on Thursday, the “I Support Lennon Cihak” Facebook group had garnered just under 1,000 “likes,” as of 8 p.m. Friday. The teen tweeted on Friday evening: “No matter how much negative feedback I get, I will ALWAYS support the #LGBT community … Support what you believe in!”

So what’s my point?

My point is that I still think this is a valid story for news coverage, in large part because of the parents’ opposition to their church’s teachings and their anger at church leaders attempting to defend centuries of Christian doctrine on these matters. Sure, the Facebook wrinkles are timely, but the essential questions in the story are both ancient and modern: Should people be honest when they take sacramental vows?

Whatever your stance on the actions of these parents, and their candid son, that’s a fascinating question. Should Catholics be Catholics? That issue is worth some coverage.

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Preachers and politics: Be careful out there folks …

Today’s digest from the Religion News Service (sign up for this very helpful service, if you have not already done so) points readers toward a very important story in the wake of this year’s White House race. Come to think of it, this story has been highly relevant in every single national election year since, oh, 1973. Here is the short RNS blurb for this story:

Church-state and atheist groups have long complained about churches endorsing candidates; now they’re going to court in a bid to force the IRS to do something about it.

The key word in that statement? The answer is “candidates.”

Thus, the actual RNS news report, as it should, provides the following crucial information:

IRS rules state that organizations classified as 501 (c) (3) non-profits — a tax-exempt status most churches and other religious institutions claim — cannot participate or intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any political candidate.” …

IRS rules do allow for some nonpartisan activity by religious institutions, including organizing members to vote and speaking out on issues. But endorsing or supporting specific candidates could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

Thus, it is acceptable for religious organizations to discuss the specific doctrinal stands taken by their faith and then to apply them to specific issues in the public square. It’s fine for African-American congregations to tell members that the God of Holy Scripture demands that his people fight to defend the poor and the weak. It’s fine for Catholic bishops to tell their flocks that, for those in sacramental relationships with ancient churches, it is a sin to support the killing of unborn children and the unnatural deaths of the elderly.

But this is where things get interesting, in light of the new lawsuits by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and others. Thus, the RNS report notes:

The lawsuit … challenges the legality of several full-page newspaper advertisements paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, another 501 (c) (3), that exhorted voters to vote along “biblical principles.”

Other complaints include:

– Roman Catholic Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote an appeal on diocesan letterhead inserted in parish bulletins warning voters that they could “put their own soul in jeopardy” if they voted for a party or candidate that supports same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

– Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who criticized President Obama in a homily and then exhorted parishioners that “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences.”

– Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who, in an article appearing in the local diocesan newspaper, wrote of “non-negotiable” political issues, and that “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’ ”

Now, that second Catholic case — the Jenky case — is interesting. One must assume that it would also be illegal for pastors in African-Americans to praise Obama and then to urge the faithful to vote according to their consciences.

In light of surveys from the Pew Research Center, it does appear that journalists need to be probing these issues on both sides of church aisles. We know that it is illegal for churches to endorse specific candidates by name, which, for example, the Graham advertisements did not do. We also know that it is legal for churches to preach on specific issues, to relate them to church teachings, and then to remind their members what actions their churches consider sinful and what actions they consider to be faithful to scripture and tradition (whether we are talking about the environment, the death penalty, health care, abortion, gay rights or whatever).

This chunk of the Pew report is long, but essential reading:

While many regular churchgoers say they have been encouraged to vote by their clergy, relatively few say church leaders are discussing the candidates directly or favoring one candidate over the other. Black Protestants are far more likely than white Protestants or Catholics to say they are hearing about the candidates and the importance of voting, and the messages they are hearing overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama.

Among those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, about half (52%) say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting over the past few months. Just one-in-five (19%) say their clergy have spoken about the candidates themselves, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) black Protestant churchgoers say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting, compared with about half of white evangelical Protestant (52%) and white Catholic (46%) churchgoers. Only about a third (32%) of white mainline Protestants who attend services say their clergy have discussed the importance of voting.

Black Protestants are twice as likely as churchgoers overall to be hearing about the candidates at church. Among regular churchgoers, four-in-ten (40%) black Protestants say their clergy have spoken directly about the candidates, compared with 17% of white Catholics, 12% of white evangelicals and just 5% of white mainline Protestants.

Most regular churchgoers say the messages they are hearing in church are neutral when it comes to the 2012 election — whether or not they mention the candidates directly. Only about three-in-ten say what they are hearing at church is more supportive of one candidate or the other. Among those who feel their clergy’s messages favor a candidate, roughly equal numbers say the messages support Obama (15%) as Romney (14%).

What people are hearing varies greatly by race. Nearly half (45%) of black Protestant churchgoers say the messages they hear at church favor a candidate, and every one of those says the message favors Obama. Fewer white churchgoers say they are hearing things that favor a candidate, but among those who are, the messages are far more favorable to Romney than Obama. In particular, white evangelical churchgoers say their clergy have tended to be more supportive of Romney (26%) than Obama (5%). Among white Catholic churchgoers, 21% say their clergy’s messages have been more supportive of Romney, compared with 4% who say the messages have been more supportive of Obama.

What, precisely, does it mean to say that sermons “favor a candidate” or that they are “more” supportive of one candidate or another?

This is where journalists must be very, very precise about the actual language that preachers are using. Is it illegal for a black pastor to urge church members to vote for the candidate who will best understand the concerns of African-Americans, in a race involving a black candidate? Is it illegal for a Catholic priest to remind parishioners that abortion is intrinsically evil in a race in which one candidate has a muddled record on sanctity of life issues and the other has one of the most faithfully pro-abortion-rights records possible in American politics? It’s easy to do similar equations when dealing with other cultural, moral and political issues that, beyond all doubt, are linked to centuries of doctrine.

Journalists must remember that activists on both sides — left and right — are wrestling with these issues. Be careful out there, because God is in the details and the same is true of the First Amendment.

Stay tuned.

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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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