RNS gets a bigger blog

sally quinnThe professionals over at Religion News Service would like us to pass along the fact that they have radically updated and enlarged their blog about religion news.

In other words, they have a religion news blog.

As opposed to GetReligion, which is a blog about how the mainstream media cover religion news.

It’s always good to underline that difference, since so many people get confused about what we’re trying to do here.

The note that RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom is sending around takes you right to a hot item, on that is directly linked to the whole “What in the heckfire is that massive ‘On Faith’ site all about?” discussion that pops up here from time to time.

Here’s that opening post from Eckstrom, which has a punchy headline: “Sally Quinn doesn’t get it.”

The folks over at The Washington Post‘s On Faith blog opened a cybercan of worms when On Faith hostess Sally Quinn weighed in on the gay marriage debate and asked what the big deal is all about:

“Homosexual couples are simply two people who love each other. Please explain to me how that can be wrong in the eyes of God. Didn’t God make us all in his image? Please explain to me why it is not better for society that two people who love each other cement their relationship in a legal union. Please tell me how it could possibly be harmful to society to have two loving people form a union.

I simply don’t get it. I really don’t.”

So she asked for some help, and as could probably be expected, she’s getting quite an earful.

Well, there is this thing called the Bible, you see, and people in different pews on left and right violently disagree with one another about the meaning of its contents and how the ancient churches have read key scripture passages about marriage and sexuality and sacraments for 2,000 years or so. And, well, it’s a long story.

Bookmark the new RNS blog. Now. There’s only one RNS.

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The missing majority (again)

marriagebanYesterday I pointed out the Los Angeles Times‘ rather incomplete survey of “liberal and conservative congregations” on the issue of same-sex marriage. Seventy-five percent of the religious figures who took a position in the article were exuberant about the recent California Supreme Court ruling redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.

This week the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” religion opinion site posed the following questions:

The California Supreme Court has overturned that state’s ban on gay marriage. Is marriage a legal right or a sacred rite? Should the state be involved in marriage? Should religious institutions?

Some of the 16 responses from panelists are interesting, informative and engage the question. But what struck me was that only four of the responses were critical of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Is this further confirmation that in the world of mainstream media, 75 percent of religious adherents have no regard for the traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim view of marriage? I know that the Washington Post/Newsweek site is an opinion site but that’s just bad journalism.

It’s fine to read the views of Starhawk, Deepak Chopra, and Bishop John Bryson Chane, among others, but when moderator Sally Quinn asks questions that seem to be on the level of 8th-grade home room discussions, the debate isn’t exactly riveting:

Homosexual couples are simply two people who love each other. Please explain to me how that can be wrong in the eyes of God.

Tmatt reminded me of former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent’s words on the matter in 2004:

(For) those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that “For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy,” (March 19, 2004); that the family of “Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home,” (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that “Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes,” (Jan. 30, 2004). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (“Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,” by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

But back to the Washington Post/Newsweek forum: In addition to the interesting and valid discussions being conducted by pagans, moderate Baptists, progressive Catholics and United Church of Christ clergy, that site would be an excellent place for a thorough discussion of Christianity’s (and Judaism’s and Islam’s) historic teaching on marriage. There is so much there to discuss that is interesting.

I’m sure Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham know a couple of Roman Catholics who can defend the church’s teaching on marriage. Why is it that when a big same-sex marriage story happens, the media in general can’t seem to find articulate defenders of traditional marriage to talk to even though the majority of the country is with them?

Photo by Flickr user arimoore used under a Creative Commons license.

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Return of the creepy traditionalists

Purity T Shirt PICT0052Allow me to jump in with a quick post about the reactions to yesterday’s “Are faithful dads creepy or what?”

Once again, here is the end of the New York Times report about Randy and Lisa Wilson and the other families involved in the “Purity Ball” in Colorado Springs, Colo.

If most teenage girls would not be caught dead dancing with their dads, the girls at the ball twirled for hours with their game but stiff fathers. … The dancing continued past the ball’s official end at midnight. Mr. Wilson had to tell people to go home. The fathers took their flushed and sometimes sleepy girls toward the exit. But one father took his two young daughters for a walk around the hotel’s dark, glassy lake.

So far, there has been a solid, quite constructive, tread of comments on this post. I urge you to go check that out.

Special thanks, in particular, to Times reporter Neela Banerjee’s kind notes offering some clarification about the content of her piece.

Lots of people on various blogs seem to obsess over that last line of the story. People have read into the story what they want to, which is fine, but as the author, let me clarify the last line: it was meant to show a father doing part of what he was broadly being asked to do at the ball, and that is, spend time with his daughters. It was a late hour, true, for a walk, but the uniqueness of the gesture struck me.

[second Banerjee comment]

Oh, the sons: I couldnt get into the story that dads and sons do things together, too, to also shore up abstinence. But Randy Wilson said they are largely things like hiking or camping, away from the public eye. The ball, by its public nature, gets covered.

Let me, once again, stress what I said in the first post. I thought that this piece was solid and well-reported, although I did raise questions about whether it was accurate to say that this event was promoting “evangelical ideals” that sex should be delayed until marriage, since that same doctrine can be found in a wide array of traditional expressions of other faiths. Was the issue, I asked, a matter of evangelical, megachurch style?

I totally agree with Banerjee that the end of the story can be interpreted in different ways. If fathers going for walks and talks with their daughters creeps you out, then that’s going to creep you out. The same goes for all of that dancing and praying and stuff.

Obviously, the whole issue of patriarchy and gender roles is a big part of this story and that is a valid subject for coverage and fierce debate. It is also true that a similar event in a Muslim context would raise a wide variety of reactions, depending, in part, on whether the ritual is in the Sudan, Egypt, Turkey, London, urban Detroit or suburban Dallas.

The question is whether one finds moral equivalence between vows/Purity Balls and honor killings/arranged marriages, etc. There is a tendency in some quarters to find all all of these religious and cultural beliefs and behaviors as part of one sliding scale of gender oppression. There are no apples and oranges. All of these traditions are deadly rocks.

I dare say, however, that faced with a fine story about a Muslim community doing a similar event, in a more American, moderate style, the folks at “On Faith” and elsewhere would not have been quite as creeped out. I often advise mainstream reporters that when they cover stories about conservative Christian parents, they should close their eyes and pretend that they are talking to Muslims, Native Americans, Buddhists or some other minority group worthy of cultural respect.

Overall, I think the comments thread underlines my thesis, which is that the creepy journalistic reaction — in some powerful places — to Banerjee’s centers on the event’s public advocacy of ancient doctrines that sex outside of marriage is sin and, thus, that premarital and extramarital sex is bad in the short and long terms. Some people, including many religious leaders, sincerely believe that parents have little or no right to teach this to their children. Strong efforts to teach these traditional doctrines creep them out.

Of course the families covered in this story believe in the defense of other virtues. This event simply focuses special attention on one side of a modern crisis that has been identified by writers on left (Read between the lines of “Reviving Ophelia“) and right — that daughters are uniquely hurt when their fathers are absent, unfaithful and unloving.

Are parallel efforts taking place with young men? Of course. Would coverage of those events creep out many of the same journalists and readers? Of course.

The question is whether any of this leads to biased, unfair, inaccurate coverage of either side of the debate, including the occasional portrayal of evangelical parents as creepy aliens. Let the constructive discussion of the journalism issues continue.

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Are faithful dads creepy or what?

Purity T Shirt PICT0056A long, long time ago — so long ago that it predates the creation of my tmatt.net archives — I wrote a column about the birth of the “True Love Waits” movement, an attempt by the Southern Baptist Convention and conservative Christians in a host of other churches to urge teens and young adults to save sex for marriage.

The lede on that column, however, offered a twist.

Right from the beginning, the movement’s leaders found that the biggest obstacle facing church leaders trying to host “True Love Waits” events was not doubt among the youngsters. The problem was that the parents, especially the fathers, were hesitant to stand up in public and take a public vow that they would not have sex outside of marriage. There were, you see, too many divorced people in these evangelical pews, too many people who hesitated to take a public vow that might require them, even in their own hearts and minds, to repent of their actions in the past.

All of this underlined another theme emerging from the divorce age. Young people, especially girls, are much more likely to be sexually active before marriage in homes wracked by divorce and, especially, when their fathers are absent, unfaithful and unloving.

With that in mind, let us turn to a recent New York Times story by Neela Banerjee, entitled “Dancing the Night Away, With a Higher Purpose,” which focuses on the ninth annual father-daughter “Purity Ball” at the Broadmoor Hotel in the symbolic city of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Actually, before we read the story itself, let’s take a look at the praise for the story over at The Revealer website, which, like GetReligion, looks for the good and bad in mainstream religion-news coverage.

Does the following sentence strike you as a little creepy? “In their floor-length gowns, up-dos and tiaras, the 70 or so young women swept past two harpists and into a gilt-and-brocade dining room at the lavish Broadmoor Hotel, on the arms of their much older male companions.” If so, that’s either because you’re not familiar with the new ritual of father-daughter “purity balls,” or maybe because you are. The NYT’s Neela Banerjee turns in a modest masterpiece of lifestyle reporting that manages to bring new insight to the much-covered — so to speak — subject of the chastity movement. “The graying men in the shadow of their glittering daughters were the true focus of the night,” observes Banerjee — it’s the fathers by whom, and maybe for whom, this ball is produced. “Loss tinged many at the ball,” she writes, noting the distinctly adult melancholy of the proceedings. And then this strange last line, worthy of Fitzgerald: “But one father took his two young daughters for a walk around the hotel’s dark, glassy lake.”

You can read very similar reactions over at Salon.com and at “On Faith”, the religion opinion site run by Newsweek and the Washington Post. The first sentence by “On Faith” columnist Claire Hoffman says it all:

My oatmeal churned in my stomach this morning as I read the NY Times story about the Purity Ball in Colorado Springs, where evangelical Christian fathers take their young daughters (or daughters-in-law to be) out for an evening of dancing and pledge-making to be godly and protect the girl’s virginity.

It’s the headline for that piece that really raises the crucial question: “Odd Purity Ball.”

Now, the question is whether the New York Times, Salon.com, Newsweek and the Washington Post could imagine a normal, or a not-odd “Purity Ball.” What would such an event look like that did not produce creepy feelings and upset stomachs in these newsrooms of power?

Here’s the key section of the original Times piece:

… (After) dessert, the 63 men stood and read aloud a covenant “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.” The gesture signaled that the fathers would guard their daughters from what evangelicals consider a profoundly corrosive “hook-up culture.” The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing, was a joyous public affirmation of the girls’ sexual abstinence until they wed.

Yet the graying men in the shadow of their glittering daughters were the true focus of the night. To ensure their daughters’ purity, they were asked to set an example and to hew to evangelical ideals in a society they say tempts them as much as it does their daughters.

“It’s also good for me,” said Terry Lee, 54, who attended the ball for a second year, this time with his youngest daughter, Rachel, 16. “It inspires me to be spiritual and moral in turn. If I’m holding them to such high standards, you can be sure I won’t be cheating on their mother.”

r50One question: Why say that the banquet is about “evangelical ideals,” as opposed to some basic doctrines common to other churches and other faiths? Is this a matter of cultural style?

Here, however, is the fact paragraph at the heart of the debate that must be covered:

Recent studies have suggested that close relationships between fathers and daughters can reduce the risk of early sexual activity among girls and teenage pregnancy. But studies have also shown that most teenagers who say they will remain abstinent, like those at the ball, end up having sex before marriage, and they are far less likely to use condoms than their peers.

The argument is not over the facts in that paragraph. The argument is over two things, the statistics behind the word “most” in the statement about the impact of these events on premarital sex, and the impact of various forms of sex education in general.

Let me stress that this is not the topic we will be discussing in the “comments pages,” unless you are the rare comment-button clicker who can address the news coverage of those topics without ripping the beliefs of other people.

No, I am more interested in knowing precisely why GetReligion readers think that the images and ideas in this story create such angst. Why, precisely, is this event so “creepy”? While the Times story is solid and well-reported, it does take us once again into that world of neo-National Geographic coverage of the strange and alien tribe called megachurch evangelical Christians. Why end the story with that “dark, glassy lake”?

At this point, in terms of news coverage, is the mere advocacy of traditional religious teachings against sex outside of marriage a ticket to media mockery? Let me stress that I do not believe that the original Times piece has to be interpreted in that way. But the reactions to it are fascinating, to say the least. As a journalist, they kind of creep me out.

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An imam and a pastor vs. California

GayMarriageYesterday I complained about a Los Angeles Times story that profiled only one couple — an Evangelical Christian one — to represent the 61 percent of California voters who voted to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It was their support of the traditional definition of marriage that was ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court last week.

In a later article, Times reporters Maria La Ganga, Hector Becerra and Rebecca Trounson surveyed leaders of various liberal and conservative congregations about how they feel about the ruling opening marriage to same-sex unions.

Ten sources were quoted or otherwise represented. Two were opposed to the ruling and six were overwhelmingly supportive. Of those opposed to the ruling, one was a conservative congregational Christian pastor and one was a Muslim imam. Two additional sources, who were noncommittal, were the president of an ecumenical seminary and a Baptist pastor. The six other sources or examples were a Unitarian Universalist Church (they played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at Sunday services); a rabbi at a Reform Jewish congregation (which offers “outreach to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community”); the politically active All Saints Episcopal Church; the president of a multidenominational, theologically liberal Christian seminary; the rabbi of a Conservative Jewish congregation and the rabbi of another Reform Jewish congregation.

So the two examples of clergy who were opposed were a Muslim imam and a conservative Christian pastor? Way to pound the pavement there, team of three reporters! The story focuses on whether the ruling that there is a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage will affect their marriage policies. It seems like a somewhat weird question. Most religious groups base their doctrine of marriage on laws even higher than the California Supreme Court. Mostly, those religious groups that celebrated same-sex unions will continue to do so and those that don’t celebrate same-sex unions won’t. Still, the most interesting quotes were from clergy for whom the ruling had an effect:

A mile or so away at All Saints Episcopal Church, the Rev. Susan Russell led a between-services forum on the religious, legal and political ramifications of the court’s decision.

“The justices have ruled in favor of the sanctity of marriage and against bigotry,” Russell declared, as the audience cheered. “This is good news for all Californians.”

But even though All Saints has been blessing same-sex unions for more than 15 years, the ruling unleashed a wave of uncertainty.

“At this point in the Episcopal Church, our prayer book still defines marriage between a man and a woman,” Russell said in an interview. “There’s some question about whether we can, within the canons of our church, extend the sacrament to same-gender couples.”

The decision raises questions, too, about what All Saints’ blessing ceremonies mean anymore, Russell said. Should couples who have had such ceremonies get married too? Will the civil steps suffice? Or should they go through another church ritual? And what kinds of ceremonies will All Saints provide as it moves forward?

The questions are personal for Russell, who celebrated her union with her partner in an official blessing ceremony two years ago. Russell said she and her partner haven’t begun discussing what the new ruling will mean for them. As for her church, she said, “I’m glad we have 30 days to think it through.”

The article also quotes a Conservative rabbi who says that he did not celebrate the unions of gay and lesbian couples in his past but will as a result of the decision. And the Rev. William Epps, pastor of historic Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, says that he had given no thought to the ruling. Asked if he would marry a homosexual couple, he said it would be something he’d pray about.

All in all, the article bent over backward to represent the views of religious adherents who support same-sex marriage. Their quotes are interesting, lengthy and help the reader really understand their positions. For instance, much of the division between those who retain the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and those who don’t is based on differing views of Biblical authority. In that vein, these quotes from Conservative Rabbi Harold Schulweis are fascinating:

Schulweis has been a rabbi for more than half a century and has seen his religion evolve, he said, first allowing women into the full “ritual life of the community,” then ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, and eventually embracing homosexuals.

“It’s one of the most exciting parts of seeing religion as not static and inflexible but as sensitive to different times and different information and different knowledge,” Schulweis said.

“What in the world did people in the biblical time know about homosexuals?”

But the richness of these quotes highlight the great failure of the piece. Where are the equivalent quotes from the many religious adherents who oppose redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples?

When 75 percent of the people taking a position in an article about the religious response to redefining marriage support the change, that’s just ridiculous. California has more Roman Catholics than any other state in the nation. I believe that almost one in three Californians is Catholic. California also has more Latter-day Saint temples than any other state in the union save Utah. The idea that the reporters would highlight three Jewish rabbis (all of whom somehow support redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples), an Episcopal priest, and a Unitarian Universalist Church but only one Christian clergyman who holds the traditional view of marriage as a union of one man and one woman? It would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive and inaccurate.

Back when a Massachusetts court changed the legal definition of marriage to permit same-sex couples to marry, one media critic described the general coverage as “upbeat.” Acting like 75 percent of the clergy are embracing a legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions would have to qualify as more of the same.

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Evangelicals in the mist

fieldguidetoevangelicalsEight years ago, more than 60 percent of California voters banned same sex marriage. It was this majority vote that was overturned by the California Supreme Court.

So I like the basic idea behind Susannah Rosenblatt’s story for the Los Angeles Times. She wrote about some people who believe that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman:

Besides her faith, family is at the center of Cathi Unruh’s life.

That is, family as defined by their understanding of God’s will: a husband, a wife and their children. The El Segundo native even home-schooled her four children to more firmly root them in the family’s evangelical Christian faith.

So for Unruh, the quick translation of Thursday’s ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage is simple. It goes against God’s plan. A union between a man and a woman is “God’s standard of what is best, what’s most healthy, physically, spiritually and emotionally,” she said.

She and her husband, Kris, who met while touring with an evangelical music group, believe homosexuality is akin to sins such as adultery and stealing. Although the couple would readily vote for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they don’t support bullying those who don’t share their values.

“I don’t sit and smack them upside the head with what I believe,” Unruh said Thursday in her home. “It comes down to a personal relationship, just caring about them as an individual. I would share what I believe.”

The only people profiled for the entire story, by the way, are the Unruhs.

Why choose only one couple to write about? Why make them evangelical Christians? Why this one couple, with no real reason given for why these people are typical or atypical?

Permit me to quote a relevant quotation from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association:

Widen your source base. When reporting on same-sex marriage, avoid the stereotypes trap.

As the NLGJA notes, not everyone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual supports same-sex marriage. And not every religious adherent opposes same sex marriage. Considering that such a significant majority of voters in California oppose same-sex marriage, I think the reporter could have included much more diversity.

To be fair, Rosenblatt does concede that the Unruhs aren’t necessarily representative:

The Unruhs are hardly alone in their thinking. They are among the 61% of voters who decided eight years ago to ban gay marriages in California, a sentiment shared by a broad cross-section of people for a range of reasons.

For the Unruhs, it’s religion. More recent polls show the state is much more evenly drawn on the matter.

This is one of my pet peeves. I’m not saying that recent polls don’t show the state is much more evenly drawn, but is that a poll of the general public, of voters, or of likely voters? How statistically reliable is the poll? We have no idea because we’re not given any information. Not to mention, what does “much more” mean? Why not just use the actual numbers and actual poll? Otherwise, it seems like it’s dismissing the Unruhs and the 61 percent of other voters in California.

The rest of the article reads like a typical anthropological study of a bizarre species. For people who have actually met Evangelical Christians, it’s ridiculously boring. Did you know, for instance, that people can oppose same-sex marriage while still welcoming gay people into their home? And did you know that in addition to learning about Christianity, Evangelical Christian homeschoolers assign philosophical works by Plato and Nietzsche?

weddingbands 01Still, the piece doesn’t really delve into anything interesting. They mention their reliance on Scripture but no Bible passages about marriage are mentioned. This line also struck me as weird:

And they believe heterosexual marriage is supposed “to give us a picture of the relationship [God] desires to have with us,” Kris Unruh said.

Putting the word “God” in brackets is bizarre. I wonder if the Unruhs said “He” and were referring to Ephesians 5:22-33 where the Apostle Paul describes marriage as a picture of Christ‘s relationship with His bride, the church.

Even if the story wanted to limit sources to voters who oppose same sex marriage on religious grounds, this article could have been so much more interesting.

Why just portray this couple? Why act as if this is a story about conservative evangelicals fighting against the rest of California? Why not talk to any traditional Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or any of the other multitudes of religious groups that believe marriage should be preserved as an institution between one man and one woman?

Why write about this one family? All. Alone. And. Bizarre.

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Shameless (but newsy) plug for colleague

CaseyFightingIt’s a strange thing, having modest colleagues.

I was out of town this past weekend and have not caught up with that stack of Washington Post newspapers from last week, stacked outside my office. Thus, I missed an essay in the opinion section that ran with the headline, “Not the Party Faithful Anymore.” The author is someone named Mark Stricherz.

It is not surprising that this piece focuses on the evolution of abortion politics in the modern Democratic Party, seeing as how that is one of the subjects at the heart of Mark’s book, “Why The Democrats Are Blue.”

The key, he writes, is a group of voters that he calls the “Casey Democrats,” in honor of the late Robert P. Casey Sr., governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995. Who are these voters? Why are they different than the old “Reagan Democrats”?

Like Casey, these voters — blue-collar and religious, often Catholic — are liberal on economic issues but conservative on cultural ones. Where they once looked to union leaders and their fellow union members for political guidance, they now look to their religious leaders and fellow churchgoers. And in the last decade, to the dismay of Democratic strategists, they’ve been voting for Republican presidential candidates. According to Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg, they made up the 10 percent of white Catholics who identify with the Democrats but didn’t vote for Sen. John F. Kerry for president in 2004. And if Sen. Barack Obama can’t do better with the Casey Democrats, his presidential bid may fare no better than Kerry’s. …

Democrats’ difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters’ sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic Party and its relatively cosmopolitan values around religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices,” blogged Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira after the 2004 election.

So what should the party do?

On one level, reporters might start paying attention to what the party has already been doing in the special elections for the U.S. Congress. But I wrote about that the other day, so let’s not go back there right now. It’s clear that Sen. Barack Obama knows that he needs these voters, which is one reason that he so actively sought the endorsement of Sen. Bob Casey Jr., of Pennsylvania.

But what might happen, in terms of actual political action (as opposed to rhetoric)? Mark has a suggestion:

… Democrats must address voters’ real concerns about protecting families and human life, as Gov. Casey did. “Catholic voters have emerged more pro-life,” pollster Greenberg wrote in a 2005 memo, “but they are very responsive to a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions.”

As the front-runner for his party’s nomination, Obama can start to win over Casey Democrats by endorsing the Pregnant Women Support Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Casey. This legislation would, among other things, provide adoption information to pregnant women, give lower-income women free sonograms and require abortion clinics to obtain informed consent from women seeking to end a pregnancy.

SullivanFaithfulThat would cause a firestorm on the left, but would represent a true move to the center.

It will also be interesting to see if Obama actively seeks the endorsement of Democrats For Life, perhaps with an endorsement of that group’s 95-10 package of legislation, seeking to reduce the number of abortions in America.

Again, this would cause a firestorm and it would represent a major change in his stance on this hottest of hot-button issues. This is the kind of package of compromise actions that — according to Pew Forum research — a majority of centrist Democrats and even a surprising number of liberals favor. And, again, it will be interesting to see if the abortion “conscience clause” is restored to the Democratic Party platform, with or without Obama’s support.

Casey Democrats will be watching.

Meanwhile, it also appears that this same Mark Stricherz person was featured a few weeks ago in an online forum at the “On Faith” site, which is operated by Newsweek and the Post. Click here, to see his email debate about the Democrats, abortion and faith issues with the omnipresent Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, author of the new “The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap.”

While we are at it, that Post feature says that Mark is a contributor to GetReligion.com — as opposed to GetReligion.org. Oh well, at least the link there works.

Please let us know if you see any other interesting articles by this guy.

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Sex scandals in free-church pews

presThere’s a new sex scandal unfolding in the world of evangelicals, a small story that points toward an imporant and very complex larger story.

Here’s the top of a short, newsy report in the Dallas Morning News:

PLANO – A Prestonwood Baptist Church minister arrested for soliciting a minor online has resigned from the church, Pastor Jack Graham told his congregation Saturday evening.

Dr. Graham addressed the crowd at the start of the church’s regular worship service. He said the church had accepted Joe Barron’s resignation, which took effect immediately. …

Police arrested Mr. Barron, 52, Thursday morning after he drove from Plano to Bryan to meet with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl he had met online, authorities say. The girl turned out to be a Bryan police officer working in an ongoing Internet sex sting.

There’s a small clue as to the scope of the story in those basic facts. The church’s “regular worship service” is on Saturday night? Actually, that would be “a” regular worship service, since the congregation is so large that people worship in waves, in services at two locations. It is also important to note that Barron was “a” minister, as opposed to being “the” minister, or senior pastor. Here is one paragraph of crucial info:

Mr. Barron was one of about 40 ministers at the 26,000-member Plano megachurch. He’d worked there for about 18 months, ministering to married adults, ages 42 to 58.

Yes, 40 ministers in one congregation.

This scandal should blow over very quickly, since the minister in question is not a powerful figure whose name is easy to link to GOP politics. Of course, if there is some kind of link, then all bets are off.

But there is an important story here, one linked to clergy sexual abuse — in Protestantism. To be specific, there are important reasons that it has been hard for activists to gain much traction trying to bring more attention — justifiable attention — to the subject of clergy sexual abuse among Southern Baptists and other free-church denominations.

The problem is real. And there are also very real legal problems facing those who want to clean the situation up, complications that are different from those facing, for example, Roman Catholic reformers. I have been interested in this topic for some time and here is a piece of a Scripps Howard column from five years ago:

“The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached ‘horrific proportions,’ ” according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had “engaged in sexual intercourse with members” and nearly 40 percent had “acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior.”

Sadly, this report added: “Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists.”

So why is it hard for reformers to attack this problem? Why can’t Southern Baptist authorities crack down?

Ah, there’s the problem. In a free-church movement — one with no bishops, no authoritative central structure — the local congregations are pretty much on their own when it comes to this kind of work. Let’s go back to that Scripps piece:

Where does the buck stop, when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow. If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, “conservative” and “moderate” churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16-million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process? … Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition’s total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

Do you see the point? For lawyers, the goal is to find a structure to sue, yet in the free-church way of doing things, there often is no structure larger than the local church or there are real questions about the authority and clout of the larger regional or national structures.

Everything is voluntary. There is no there, there. Things get even more complicated in the rapidly growing world of totally independent megachurches, both evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist.

There are activists working on all of this, including a Southern Baptist branch of the SNAP network that has received so much coverage in the Catholic crisis. Also, Southern Baptist journalists have also taken on the topic and you can pay attention to the ongoing coverage of this issue at the EthicsDaily.com site. Check it out.

This is an important — although frustrating — story worthy of more coverage. Let us see if you see stories worth passing along.

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