What’s in a name?

roseBack in April when Texas authorities seized children from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we discussed how well the media distinguished between them and the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As far as media coverage went, we thought reporters handled the distinction pretty well. We definitely took issue with how well they retained their objectivity with the story.

But the LDS church commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans and found that 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the “Mormon Church” based in Salt Lake City. According to the survey, six percent said the churches were partly related, 29 percent said the groups were not connected at all, and 29 percent weren’t sure.

So the LDS decided to do a big public relations campaign and enlist religion reporters help in clarifying the distinction. Whereas Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune ran a rather brief story, the Associated Press’ Eric Gorski used the campaign as a hook to explore the issue in greater depth:

As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.

Church officials knew the sect’s similar name and practice of polygamy — part of Mormon church life until it was banned more than a century ago — would cause people to confuse the two.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, is starting a public relations campaign that seeks a delicate balance: distinguishing itself from a small, separate group that claims some of the same history while not denigrating someone else’s beliefs.

It’s a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren’t interested in attacking someone else’s beliefs,” LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. “At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us.”

“Mormons,” he said, “have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas.”

I love the way that Gorski really makes the most out of each word. There is rarely an unnecessary clause in his prose. The middle of the story gives a ton of specifics — the LDS took no stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Texas or subsequent battles. Gorski explains why the campaign was launched and how it centers around videos on the LDS web site that aim to demonstrate that church members are like anyone else in the community.

He also explains how the church aims to explain its former practice of polygamy relative to the FLDS’ current practice of polygamy. He gives the specifics of the public relations campaign, such as an article that emphasizes that most polygamous marriages involved just two wives and that Mormon women in the 19th century could choose whether to marry and could leave their polygamous marriages. He notes a few things that were left out, such as the fact that church founder Joseph Smith had at least 28 wives, some as young as 14 and that his successor Brigham Young married at least 20 women. But he gets a response from LDS Apostle Cook about why comparisons of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs to the early Mormon church prophets are unfair. There’s no “gotcha” in the reporting.

In addition to another religious scholar, Gorski speaks with historian Jan Shipps, who is a highly-regarded non-Mormon scholar of the Latter Day Saint movement:

Although the Mormon church distances itself from polygamist groups like the FLDS, the groups are not unrelated, said Jan Shipps, a historian who specializes in Mormonism. They share common roots, call themselves Mormon and recognize Joseph Smith as a prophet, she said.

“You can see why the (LDS) church is doing its best to draw a line between the two,” she said. “The problem is that by drawing the line, they don’t recognize the shared history both accept.”

Shipps said it’s accurate to call sects like the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” because she, and other scholars, considers Mormonism a new religious tradition with several expressions.

The LDS church, which considers itself Christian, sees it differently.

As part of the new initiative to set itself apart from polygamist groups, the church’s general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week urging sensitivity in coverage and asking that the term “fundamentalist Mormon” not be used.

“Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated,” he wrote, “and then started their own religion.”

I love how straightforward Gorski is. He doesn’t come down one way or the other, even if he gives the LDS official the last word. His story from beginning to end shows the most important point: the LDS church seeks to distance itself from the FLDS. But he also shows that the church’s goal of getting journalists to refrain from calling the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” is not universally shared. The one thing that would have been nice to have included in this story is some perspective from the FLDS themselves. What do they think of the LDS public relations campaign? It would also have been nice to find out what the LDS think the group should be called. All I could find on the LDS site was the not-so-specific “polygamist sect in Texas” and the clunky “the polygamous group in Texas that calls itself the FLDS,” neither of which are probably going to catch on at copydesks.

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About that pregnancy pact . . .

teenpregnancyWhen Time magazine broke the story about the alleged Gloucester High School pregnancy pact, the entire media world erupted. It’s been covered on all the cable news shows, papers nationwide and has even been covered by international media. It’s kind of odd that this story exploded at the same time J.C. Penney’s debuted their new teen sex ad to middle America.

Anyway, while it didn’t occur to me to question the scandalous pregnancy pact story, Daniel wisely pointed out that it was thinly sourced and based more on conjecture and hearsay than facts.

So it’s interesting that TIME’s follow-up more or less completely backtracks on the story. Not that you’d know it from the headline:

Gloucester Pregnancy Plot Thickens

If by “thickens” they mean “gets watered down” then I’m with them. Reporter Kathleen Kingsbury, whose first story blamed lack of access to contraceptives and the movie Juno for the pregnancy boom, admits the pact allegation came from one source and that the one source isn’t so sure anymore:

Since Time first wrote last week of this “pact,” as Sullivan called it, a media firestorm has hit this seaside town on Massachusetts’ north shore. News outlets from as far away as Australia and Brazil have been quick to home in on the more salacious details surrounding these young mothers-to-be. But at a press conference today, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk emerged from a closed-door meeting with city, school and health officials to say that there had been no independent confirmation of any teen pregnancy pact. She also said that the principal, who was not present at the meeting, is now “foggy in his memory” of how he heard about the pact.

With more context, the story explains that some of the pregnant girls had been identified at risk of becoming teen mothers as early as sixth grade:

“What we’ve seen is the girls fit a certain profile,” [Pathways for Children CEO Sue] Todd said. “They’re socially isolated, and they don’t have the support of their families.”

The schools superintendent says that rather than a pact, some girls who were already pregnant decided to band together to stay in school and raise their children together. The follow-up story does a much better job than the first story of talking about the role that family values or the lack thereof might have played in the situation. Not that anyone will be reading this follow-up story but if they did, they’d hear classmates say the pregnant teens had little parental supervision, were permitted to stay out all night if they wanted and were afflicted by peer pressure. But the reporter reiterates that the school official who used the word pact now says he’s not sure who told him about the pact or when.

Still a very dramatic story, sure, but not quite as dramatic as first reported. Also, the phrase “decided to get pregnant” is a bit odd considering that Time hasn’t confirmed that with any of the girls in question. The New York Times‘ Lede blog noted that other media outlets were unable to confirm Time‘s sensational story:

Over the weekend, Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester told The Associated Press that an initial inquiry had turned up nothing to confirm the assertions of Joseph Sullivan, who was quoted as saying that 17 girls under the age of 16 had “confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.” Other officials backed up Mayor Kirk’s statement today in comments to The Boston Herald.

Doubt was also expressed by the local newspaper that had been covering the surge in pregnancies long before Time. Patrick Anderson, the lead reporter on the story for The Gloucester Daily Times, told Editor & Publisher that “the idea of the pact is not something we had reported and not something we have found.” The new element, he said, “took an already unusual story and turned it into something operatic.”

It’s just good to remember to express caution with sensational stories such as this. In addition to other great comments on Daniel’s post, reader rw had a very important criticism:

This story also needs a reality check against what goes on in the nation’s poor inner cities vis-a-vis the white suburbs. Teen preganacy rates in, for example, Washington, DC schools are 67 per 1,000 female students – four times higher than the “spike” experienced in this a white comunity.

I see this as another example of the news industry’s love affair with middle-class white girls who find themselves in a bit of trouble, while minority girls who are having problems an order of magnitude worse than the girls of Gloucester are ignored. For another example, compare the hours of coverage of given to Elizabeth Smart vs. Erica Pratt.

It’s an excellent point. The media obsession over this story relative to media concern over pregnancy rates in minority communities is the real scandal. And, as Daniel already pointed out, it’s important that stories such as these don’t neglect the role that values play in their creation.

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Gay marriage: More religious depth, please

depthSome religion stories err because the reporter, instead of diving into the topic’s waters, skims along its surface. As a result, a reader comes away thinking he has not learned much. I certainly did not learn much after reading two recent stories about homosexuality in California.

For The Washington Post, reporter Ashley Surdin wrote about a lesbian woman who sued a medical provider for failing to inseminate her artificially. The doctor said that she denied the woman treatment because it conflicted with her religious beliefs. The case is now before the California Supreme Court. While an interesting dispute, Surdin did not give her readers much context:

“Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case,” [Kenneth Pedroza, an attorney for the two doctors] said. “There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life.” And just as patients have rights, he said, so too do doctors.

Jennifer C. Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal who is representing Benitez, said that while the law protects doctors who refuse certain treatments on religious grounds, it does not allow them to do so on a discriminatory or selective basis. In other words, when doctors refuse a treatment, their refusal must apply to all patients — not to a group, such as unmarried women or lesbians.

“All you have to do is imagine, for a moment, a doctor agreeing to an abortion for women of color but saying, ‘I will not’ for white women. Or a Jewish doctor saying, ‘I will do an abortion for Muslim women, but not Jewish women.’ Or vice versa,” Pizer said. “Just imagining those possibilities shows how deeply problematic such a notion would be.”

A trial court sided with Benitez in 2004, ruling that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California’s anti-discrimination laws, regardless of religion. An appeals court overturned that decision one year later, finding that the previous ruling had denied the doctors’ religious rights.

These passages begs lots of questions. At what point does the doctor’s right to exercise her religion trump the patient’s right to treatment? Also, why did the lower court rule that anti-discrimination laws outweighed those of religious freedom and the second one did not?

Surely both questions deserve a sentence or two. Without a hint at an answer, the reader comes away with a two-dimensional presentation of reality. Perhaps Surdin should have distinguished, or had an authority distinguish, between rulings that allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions but not allow them to refuse to dispense contraceptives.

For The Los Angeles Times, reporter My-Thuan Tran wrote about a similar issue: wedding vendors who refuse to sell their wares to newly married same-sex couples. As you might imagine, some vendors do so for religious reasons. To her credit, Tran found a Christian minister who doubles as a wedding photographer:

Eric Nelson of Nelson Photography in Lake Forest is a wedding photographer and ordained minister through the Trinity Evangelical Christian Church.

Nelson has already booked a same-sex wedding in July, but his religious beliefs and his business sense took him in two directions.

So he’ll only be taking the photos. He will not officiate gay weddings, which he said conflict with his Christian beliefs.

“To me, it’s not about being uncomfortable,” Nelson said. “It’s a choice, like a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning.” Photographing a same-sex wedding is not the same as “solemnizing a wedding,” he said.

The south Orange County photographer-minister said he would likewise turn down officiating weddings for heterosexual couples who he knew were involved in drugs or crime. “If you come to me and I find out you don’t live in the best lifestyle and are not the type of person I would perform a wedding for, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I have a choice.”

Nelson’s comments are unexceptionable; many readers will agree with him, as with the idea that homosexual marriage conflicts with traditional religious teaching. I think readers would be better served, however, if Tran had probed Californians religious reasons for opposing gay marriage. It’s clear what the California Supreme Court thinks: gays today are no different from blacks 60 years ago. But it’s not clear what traditionally religious Californians think.

Of course, my call for more depth has a downside; newspapers today are short on space. But in these two stories, the lack of depth meant a loss of understanding.

NOTE: Please stick to the point of my post. All other comments will be treated with extreme prejudice.

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Morality-free porn coverage

picassoThe Columbus Dispatch had one of the most straightforward accounts of a porn try-out session I have ever seen in a mainstream newspaper Thursday. Substitute the subject of pornography, and you could have easily placed the story in the Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market where tomatoes and cabbage are for sale to the general public.

Here is a sample of the article:

Now, at 20, the University of Toledo student is hoping for a “comeback” in Playboy — a curious notion for someone who had to be persuaded to wear shorts, instead of jeans, to the Columbus call.

“People dare you to go off the high dive. I think this is her jump, you know?” said her mother, Jackie Lampros-Moore, waiting outside Megan’s audition room.

“It’s like: ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ ”

To her credit, Megan answered her interview questions confidently — or, at least, loudly — and didn’t shake as much as she thought she would.

She winked and smirked for photos in a blue bikini, then agreed to take off her top.

Here, a reporter faces a nearly impossible challenge of being objective in a news report. There is the perspective that pornography is a legitimate trade that helps women and that it should not be seen as (morally) wrong. This is the perspective that this article seems to convey to an extent. There is of course the more traditional (or feminist?) view that pornography exploits women and should not be condoned. This view is largely absent from the story but lurks between the lines.

See this quote from a mother of one of the women. I cannot say for sure whether she is proving encouragement or sarcasm:

After the five-minute audition Tuesday, Megan returned to the lobby to tell her mother that she had just been photographed completely naked.

“Oh, nice, princess!” the proud mom exclaimed.

And then, like a true amateur model, Megan headed to get a Whopper.

Most Playboy wannabes are similarly uninitiated, said Jeff Cohen, executive editor and publisher of special editions, who estimates that 90 percent of the hopefuls have never modeled.

I didn’t provide the emphasis on the word “nice.” It was included in the story.

After thinking about it over the weekend, I appreciate that this story allows the reader to draw their own conclusion. It reminds me of Stephanie Simone’s “up close and personal” look at abortion clinics. Regular readers of this blog will recognize that as quite a compliment.

On Friday, I noted that the coverage of the alleged pact between high school students all under the age of 16 to get pregnant lacked much coverage regarding morality and values. The challenge here is related, but the absence of values coverage is more stark and perhaps that’s appropriate. The characters in the Playboy story are given voices. The opposite was true in the coverage of the pregnancy “pact” stories where the characters declined to speak to reporters.

In this case, no one challenges the decision to disrobe for the cameras, and there are no apparent consequences to society. Perhaps with intimate up-close coverage as provided here, this is the best way to go. Readers are given the freedom to draw their own conclusions from a straightforward news account.

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon completed in 1907 used under fair use rational. Copyright is claimed by Picasso’s estate.

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That quiet, historic London rite

AnglicanBomb1 01 02We have some GetReligion readers out there who are beginning to think like reporters, when it comes to watching the Anglican wars.

What about the timing of all of those stories about the recent high-church union rite for Father Peter Cowell and Father David Lord held on May 31? Why did it take so, so long for this hot story to break after the rite? A reader writes:

Since there were 300 people at the event, it was hardly a secret. And since the event was May 31st, the news was actually late. Why didn’t the “news emerge” earlier? Why did it “emerge” now?

It would make sense if this were part of a PR campaign that also includes the wedding of Gene Robinson and was timed to create increasing outrage in the build up to GAFCON. …

– Perpetua

So what is the point of all of this? To push the Global South bishops into rushed and rash action?

You can read all kinds of Anglican political points, as usual, over at the Articles of Faith weblog written by Ruth Gledhill at The Times.

However we must try very hard to keep our focus. For your GetReligionistas that means looking again at the media issues, as opposed to the local, regional, national and global Anglican issues. To get inside the issue of the timing of this media coverage, take a look at this “A discreet wedding” essay in the New Statesman by Brian Cathcart. He was struck, in particular, by the fact that the rite — the status of the word “wedding” is in dispute for conflicting strategic reasons on left and right — was followed by a bubbly reception in the “Great Hall of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.”

Cathcart looks at this in the context of the hyper-fueled, kill-your-grandmother-for-a-headline context of the tabloid British press, where Anglican affairs are still hot political stuff:

Let us get this straight. It is possible to conduct “the Church of England’s first homosexual wedding” — an event so important it is apparently set to cause “an irreversible schism” in the worldwide Anglican community — in London on a Saturday in May, and the national press does not notice for a fortnight.

Footballers and Wags, take note. The ingredients of a discreet wedding, it seems, are these: hold it in one of the country’s best-known churches (featured in both Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love), with rose-petal confetti, a robed choir, morning suits, bridesmaids and a VIP congregation, and then, after a reception in the historic public building next door, process to dinner at the Ivy in an open-topped carriage drawn by horses.

It is probably irrelevant these days that the church of St Bartholomew the Great is a stone’s throw from Fleet Street, but the Ivy! The paparazzi practically live on the pavement there, and many of the top-end, expense-account columnists and editors, minor celebrities that they are, love to be seen eating there.

Did this historic couple really alight from their carriage and breeze in, unsnapped? Did they celebrate with friends and family in the restaurant, on a Saturday evening, without a single journalist realising it was a story?

Bingo. That is the media question that is worth asking. Forget media bias, for a minute. Think merely of self interest. Where were the reporters and the photographers? Literally no one heard about this historic rite for two weeks? Around the corner from Fleet Street?

I, for one, am amazed. It’s silly to even talk about conspiracy, since that would have to involve too many people in too many newsrooms. Are there any journalists out there who can take a stab at a logical explanation? I have none.

GetReligion contest! Who can create some new Anglican warfare graphics? I’ll try to think of a prize, other than the glory of it all.

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Values-free teen pregnancy coverage

junoThe news of a pregnancy boom at the Massachusetts fishing town’s Gloucester High School has made an amazing fast lap around the Internets over the last couple of days.

The story seems to stem from Wednesday’s publication on Time magazine’s Web site of the allegation that about eight girls younger than 16 had made a “pact” to get pregnant. Publications from Reuters, The Boston Globe, CBS News, The Independent and a New York Times blog have all picked up on the scandalous allegation and cited the Time piece as the source almost as if it were a fact despite the scanty amount of factual detail available at this point.

Here’s the original Time piece:

As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies — more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. Some adults dismissed the statistic as a blip. Others blamed hit movies like Juno and Knocked Up for glamorizing young unwed mothers. But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there’s been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, “some girls seemed more upset when they weren’t pregnant than when they were,” Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. “We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy,” the principal says, shaking his head.

Most of the news organizations picking up on this story, except maybe The Globe, have relied heavily on the Time piece for those tricky things journalists call “facts” and the more pliable things known as analysis.

One question that I wish I could get an answer to is whether Time had more than just the principal as a source for the “pregnancy pact” allegation. Do written reports exist on any of this documenting these alleged facts? How about the “24-year-old homeless guy?” I believe he has just been accused of what is commonly known as statutory rape and could be facing years of hard time if prosecuted and convicted.

Moving beyond my personal frustration with the lack of evidence supporting the “pact” allegation, the Time piece, which was largely followed by the other news organizations, made only a slight effort to address the moral issues behind the recent national trend of a rise in teen pregnancies. The fact that this is an economically depressed “fiercely Catholic enclave” that has seen the break-up of families is featured prominently in the article. But that is about all we get in terms of morality and values coverage.

The solution to this apparent problem — handing out birth control pills at the school with or without parental consent — has not been greeted with open arms in this community to say the least. The article insinuates that it’s those fierce Catholics who are forcing the only viable solution to this problem out of town. But as the article briefly mentions at the end, how would birth control have kept these girls — who made a pact to get pregnant — from getting pregnant? I suspect there is a deeper issue here that a few birth control pills would fail to prevent.

An interesting angle in the article comes in the following two paragraphs of the six paragraph story:

The girls who made the pregnancy pact — some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers — declined to be interviewed. So did their parents. But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally,” Ireland says. “I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.”

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. “We’re proud to help the mothers stay in school,” says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.

There is an ironic disconnect that can be read in-between the lines. The school’s policy of removing the inconveniences of being a teen parent sounds like fine progressive social policy. But why should school officials be surprised when their students actually go ahead and get pregnant? Why should teen pregnancy be viewed — as it is in the article and by school officials — as a negative particularly when they believe that a child will provide them with a source of unconditional love?

The missing element from all of these articles is questions and answers on what is happening to the community’s morals and values for girls to not only feel free to get pregnant, but desire to do so outside the boundaries of which society generally considers appropriate. Before you call me a morally prudish, note that these girls are below the state’s age of consent, which means there was potentially a crime involved when these girls became pregnant depending on the age of the potential father.

But beyond the rather arbitrary, but legally necessary, issue of the girls being under than the age of consent, will reporters start asking the difficult moral questions involved in these stories? How did children in this “fiercely Catholic enclave” start to think that pre-martial sexual behavior was acceptable? When did it move on to a desire to be a mother in order to obtain unconditional love? Perhaps it was the day-care centers or the sex education courses? Or was it just the fact that the community has become economically depressed? How does Barack Obama’s message about the importance of fatherhood play into this story? Apparently even liberal politicians believe it is socially undesirable for children to grow up without the active presence of a father.

Or is the father’s relationship with his daughter(s) now somehow out of bounds for progressives? See this post titled “Pure Tyranny“, on Judith Warner’s New York Times Blog on June 12, 2008:

It was also from The Times, from May 19, and featured 70-odd girls, of “early grade school to college” age, with their fathers, stepfathers and fathers-in-law-to-be, at the ninth annual, largely evangelical “Father-Daughter Purity Ball.”

“The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing” — and which culminated, for at least one father and his daughters, with a dreamy walk in the night around a lake, “was a joyous public affirmation of the girls’ sexual abstinence until they wed,” said the Times article.

“From this, it’s only a matter of degree to the man in Austria,” I’d scribbled across the first page.

The “man in Austria,” of course, was 73-year-old Josef Fritzl, who was around that time also making headlines after it was discovered that he had kept his daughter, Elisabeth, 42, locked up in a cellar for 24 years, during which time he’d raped her regularly, and had her bear him seven children.

Another New York Times blog The Lede appropriately highlighted Thursday the “Dueling Teen Pregnancy Tales: Jamie Lynn and Gloucester High” in post that suggests that Time missed the larger story that teen pregnancies are becoming rather acceptable these days. A guest blogger at the Crunchy Con blog also highlighted the moral angle to the story, appropriately titling the post “Seventeen.”

Of course there is the giant question of whether or not this is any of society’s business. Aside from the issue of these children being below the age of consent, there is nothing illegal about their actions in getting pregnant and desiring to have a child. Sure it may seem irresponsible, but that’s no one’s business, right? Even parents apparently shouldn’t have the right to consent to school practitioners prescribing contraceptives to their children. Or should they? Within these articles there is a sense that what is happening is somehow deeply troubling, but no one is really asked to address that element.

Reporters make a huge mistake when they leave values and morality out of their coverage. Sure, discussing these issues means addressing traditional ideals most progressive thinkers and politicians assumed were abandoned by society 40 years ago, but they continue to lurk in the background. And reporters, unfortunately, generally continue to ignore them.

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Clinging to journalism doctrines

toasterAfter one brief palate-cleansing look at decent stories on the same-sex marriage issue, we can now return to the mainstream media’s attack on defenders of traditional marriage. At this point, I’m not sure how inadvertent the biased stories are.

Take this feature from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. Headline:

California’s gay marriage law revives religious debate over homosexuality

Some cling to literal reading of religious texts. Others call for new interpretations.

One would think that in a year such as this, when Barack Obama got in a spot of trouble for characterizing some rural voters as Bible-clingers, the copy desk would be more sensitive to the word. Some “cling” to the Bible as written while others “call for” new interpretations? Are you kidding me? That is just a shameful and stupid headline.

Perhaps those of us that “cling to” the idea that journalists should at least try to be unbiased in their reporting can comfort each other. Unfortunately, reporter Duke Helfand doesn’t really improve things with his story, which purports to look at the Scriptural battles over gay marriage:

“Homosexual intimacy is out of bounds. It’s not what God created us for,” said Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Mouw cites Romans 1 in the New Testament that decries men and women abandoning “natural relations” and men “inflamed with lust for one another” committing “indecent acts with other men” — behavior that carried death as punishment.

Behavior that carried death as punishment under what law? Jewish? Roman? But Mouw is talking about New Testament teachings. And unless some new verses have been added to Romans recently, I don’t recall Paul calling for the death penalty for homosexual behavior. I mean, unless reporter Duke Helfand is taking the exegetical position that what Paul is doing in his Romans sermon is calling for the death penalty to be imposed on those who sin in general — be it sexual sins, pride, envy or any of the other sins he enumerates in that chapter. To the Christian, the wages of sin may be death — but that’s kind of the whole point of the “good news” of the Gospel.

Anyway, Mouw’s views are followed by the Rev. Mel White’s, former Fuller professor who got married to his male partner on Wednesday:

“The Bible says as much about sexual orientation as it does about toasters or nuclear reactors,” White said. “We have to grow with the times.”

Other clergy reject the scientific argument and say homosexuality is a choice.

I’m not sure why Duke Helfand didn’t write the entire story about this huge piece of breaking news. Science has decided this contentious issue? Sure, scientific studies on this topic are conducted all the time — but has there been a definitive conclusion? Have we found the elusive gay gene? What’s more, many clergy are opposed to homosexual behavior whether it’s innate or immutable. So it’s sort of a silly statement either way, designed to make it seem like there are good people (the scientific types) versus bad people — the idiots who have no basis in reason or science for their awful, backward views.

The entire story is more of an instructional guide for how to argue against traditional religious opposition to homosexuality as opposed to an objective piece of journalism:

Theologians and biblical scholars trace the origins of the dispute to a handful of passages in the Torah, New Testament and Koran.

Perhaps the most frequently cited is Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: It is an abomination.”

The passage from the Torah is repeated, with slight variations, in Christian scripture, which, like the Jewish text, orders death for violators. The Koran also denounces homosexuality, in Chapter 7, Verse 81: “For you practice your lust on men in preference to women: You are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”

reactorThis is just another bizarre passage. It belittles the issue to cast it as a dispute over a “handful” of passages. The teachings about homosexuality — no matter which side you’re on — are about much more than a handful of Scriptures. There is an entire ethic — woven throughout Scripture — about sexuality in which homosexuality is just a part. There are also 2,000 years worth of tradition and church teaching about the matter.

And is Helfand aware that Christians also hold the Torah as Scripture? The Torah — aka the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — may be called the Pentateuch or the Law by Christians but they’re the same books of Moses. Perhaps someone should tell the reporter that they say the same thing. But as for New Testament passages on homosexuality, there is no death penalty, as we mentioned. So Helfand’s writing is just a mess in that last paragraph.

He quotes a Roman Catholic priest saying that the church teaches that homosexuals are to be treated with love and respect but that society does not have the authority to redefine the natural and divine institution of marriage. But that argument is only placed there so that it can be countered:

But other clergy criticize what they see as a selective analysis of the texts. Jesus condemned divorce and remarriage, they point out, but that hasn’t stopped many Christians from splitting and remarrying.

The Old Testament not only denounces adulterers and children who curse their parents, it demands the death penalty for both. It prohibits sex between husbands and wives during menstruation, even though theologians acknowledge the practice occurs without any formal reprimands.

This is not journalism. And no editor should ever permit Helfand to perform any exegesis of any Scripture at any point in the future. This reads like something Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens would write, except not as erudite or witty. Where oh where is Stephanie Simon? How can the paper have fallen from those heights so quickly?

Anyway, Helfand quotes the director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion saying that everybody without exception reads the Bible selectively and that all texts need to be interpreted with regard to the culture and society that they were written in. He shows how the issue has been debated in Conservative Judaism and in some sectors of Islam. The piece then ends with an obligatory quote from Father Thomas Reese, the Larry Sabato of religion stories.

You’ve got to hand it to Helfand. In a sea of bad stories related to California’s same-sex marriage ruling, he’s one big fish.

As always, please keep comments focused on media coverage.

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Holy smoke! What a headline!

CanterburyNuke3Again and again, we need to stress that newspaper reporters rarely, if ever, write the headlines for their stories.

I mention this because of a stunning headline in The Telegraph about the pre-Lambeth strategy meeting that conservatives are having right now in Jerusalem (after making a quick exit from Jordan, for complicated and perhaps political reasons). There are many complex angles to the Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON, which is why this particular headline simply leaps off the page:

Anglican church schism declared over homosexuality

Say what? You mean that there are conservative Anglicans who have literally given up on the Anglican wars, declared a split and started a new Communion?

Well, actually, that would be a big “no.”

Meanwhile, I find it hard to blame reporters Tim Butcher and Martin Beckford for the lede of their story, because it doesn’t seem to be supported by their own reporting, either. So read this:

Hardline church leaders have formally declared the end of the worldwide Anglican communion, saying they could no longer be associated with liberals who tolerate homosexual clergy.

There are a lot of problems there, beginning with the fact that the fight over the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians is only one piece of a much larger battle that has been unfolding around the world for at least a quarter century (click here for a lengthy look at that).

However, if you read on you’ll see that the Telegraph report tells you what is new information and it also explains that the odds for a formal schism have increased. Yet the story — unlike the headline and the lede — does not veer into inaccurate finality. Here’s a piece of the new info, focusing on a document called “The Way, the Truth and the Life”:

The Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter AkinolaThe Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, states in one section: “There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified Communion.

“Now we confront a moment of decision. If we fail to act, we risk leading millions of people away from the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures and also, even more seriously, we face the real possibility of denying Our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.

“We want unity, but not at the cost of relegating Christ to the position of another ‘wise teacher’ who can be obeyed or disobeyed. We earnestly desire the healing of our beloved Communion, but not at the cost of re-writing the Bible to accommodate the latest cultural trend. We have arrived at a crossroads; it is, for us, the moment of truth.”

Sounds final, yet Akinola immediately discusses the ways that healing could occur or that the damage of a split could be minimized. Anglicans are at a crossroads, perhaps, but not through the crossroads.

That’s the crucial point: The leaders of the Global South Anglican churches are still focusing on trends and events in North America and have not turned their full attention to the Church of England. In other words, there is no split yet. This story is simply another example of a reality I have mentioned many times on this weblog — no one knows, yet, where the Church of England will end up. Thus, no one knows the shape of any split.

In other words, no one knows if there will be a new Communion on the doctrinal left or a new Communion on the doctrinal right and no one knows how any of that will affect Canterbury Cathedral.

You can see this reality in this section of the Telegraph story about the document in question:

More than 100 of the traditionalists met yesterday at a hotel on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea to agree how it would be made public. There was some disagreement about whether it was a template for a schism, which could lead to a new “orthodox” wing of the church, or merely a realignment of Anglicanism’s power base away from Canterbury.

CenterburyNuke4In other words, there is no formal schism yet. There is no alternative structure or even a legal, public discussion of one, at this point in time.

If you want to report that makes this more clear, check out Rachel Zoll’s Associated Press report about GAFCON:

Organizers of the Global Anglican Future Conference say they will not formally break with the 77 million-member Anglican family when the meeting ends June 29. Even so, the gathering is a clear challenge to Anglicans who want their fellowship to remain unchanged.

“This is a show of force, unity and global significance,” said the Rev. Peter Moore, former dean of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry, a conservative Pennsylvania seminary. “The Anglican Communion is in the process of breaking up. What will emerge from that, I don’t know.”

The event, starting Wednesday with closed-door sessions in Amman, Jordan, moves Sunday to Jerusalem for public discussions and visits to holy sites. About 1,000 attendees — including bishops, clergy, lay people and their families — are expected in Israel. The timing is key. The summit occurs one month before the Lambeth Conference, the
once-a-decade meeting of all Anglican bishops, organized by their spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Zoll also offers this crisp slice of history, which says more in a few sentences than many lengthy reports I have read through the years.

The Anglican Communion is a loose association of churches that grew from the colonial missionary efforts of the Church of England. Most Anglicans in Africa, Asia and Latin America embraced the missionaries’ traditional outlook.

In recent decades, as membership dwindled in liberal-leaning European and North American churches, the rolls of Global South churches, as they are known, expanded dramatically. The majority of Anglicans now live in developing countries and are scandalized by Northern views of Scripture. The leadership of the conservative summit comes mainly from these provinces.

So, the wars rage on and on. There have been new developments.

But Anglicans have a unique gift, a charism for compromise, negotiation and delay. That is what makes the Telegraph headline and lede so, well, unintentionally humorous. There may be a fork in the Anglican road in sight. But no one has come close to working out the legal and doctrinal details yet.

This could go on and on and on and on. World without end.

POSTSCRIPT: I should mention that the Telegraph report includes a reference to work by Canon Vinay Samuel, an Anglican theologian from India, who leads the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. That Centre is, in fact, linked to the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public life, which publishes this weblog. I need to mention that I have not been in touch with Samuel about GAFCON and, now that I think of it, I would bet the moon and the stars that he would disagree with many if not most of the comments that I — as an ex-Anglican — would make about recent events on the Anglican scene. So blame me for my own views about the media coverage of all of this, because they are my own (and I am pretty stubborn).

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