The divide heads north

anglicanchurchcanadalogoMuch of the mainstream media coverage of the controversies in the Anglican Communion have focused on The Episcopal Church. Canada’s Globe and Mail looked at how things are playing out in another part of North America. Robert Matas wrote a story on Friday about a parish in Vancouver deciding to align with Anglicans in South America. He took the novel and welcome angle of determining why the parish had made its decision. For his lede, he told readers about the Bible study that parishioners at St. John’s Shaughnessy Church had taken part in prior to voting to request oversight from Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Anglican Province of Southern Cone:

The rector, Rev. David Short, talked a lot about church unity that day, Lesley Bentley, a spokeswoman for St. John’s Shaughnessy, said yesterday in an interview.

Mr. Short spoke about the importance of church unity with Scripture and of a common understanding of Scripture, particularly around core values, Ms. Bentley recalled. “It was about the supremacy of the Bible and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.”

The study group did not talk about the blessing of same-sex unions, she added. “From our point of view, that is not what the vote was about,” Ms. Bentley said.

Matas explains that the diocese that includes Vancouver voted to allow clergy to bless same-sex relationships. Further, Matas writes, most churches in the region supported the move. St. John’s Shaughnessy didn’t, walked out of the diocese and tried to maintain ties with the Anglican Church of Canada. That didn’t work:

As a result, St. John’s Shaughnessy since 2002 has been unable to arrange the ordination of young men and women trained at the parish who are ready for the ministry.

I imagine there might be other ecclesiastical repercussions as well, no? Anyway Matas gave parishioners the opportunity to explain themselves:

The dispute is over a much more fundamental issue than a disagreement over same-sex blessings, Ms. Bentley said. Bishop Michael Ingham, who heads the Diocese of New Westminster, deals with Scripture in a completely different way than the congregation at St. John’s Shaughnessy, she said.

“He looks at Scripture through the lens of what is happening in society now and tries to make Scripture adapt to society. We look at society through the lens of Scripture and say, how does Scripture inform us about what is happening in society now,” Ms. Bentley said.

Obviously views about homosexuality are a part of the divide in the Anglican Communion. But even a casual observer can tell that the issues run much deeper than that. It’s good to see a Canadian reporter tell part of that story. He also followed up the next day with a broader story about the 15 Canadian congregations that are currently deciding whether to realign with Southern Cone.

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Faith-based marchers on marriage

samesexmarriageThe same-sex marriage wars have flared up once again in Maryland, which should not come as a surprise. It also seems that religion will play a major role in the discussions of whether the state legislature should back a legal redefinition of marriage or pass some other measure addressing the issue. Duh.

The big news is that Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has endorsed same-sex marriage. Thus, Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman writes about a day of public hearings:

Gansler joined a steady march of lawmakers, clergy, concerned citizens, activists, children of gay parents and others who testified on both sides of the issue over several hours before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The panel is also considering a bill to put a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage on the November ballot, and a bill that would create domestic partnerships in place of civil marriage, a possible vehicle for civil unions. …

Opponents argued that gay marriage would tear at the fabric of society and force public schools to teach approval for same-sex unions. They suggested that voters should decide the issue through a constitutional amendment. Twenty-seven states have constitutional provisions that prevent same-sex marriages, though Maryland does not.

Now, a “steady march” of people testifying means that there were quite a few names and titles used in that meeting. One would assume that there were a wide variety of marchers, from both sides of the religious and political spectrum. That’s a hard thing for a reporter to know how to handle. Who do you quote? Who do you leave out? What kinds of voices to you use to symbolize the clashing sides on this hot, hot political issue?

Note, also, that the legislature is trying to test a compromise approach — with civil unions. The Washington Post story on the same hearings also stressed the religion angle, of course, and offered this language on the potential for a centrist compromise:

Yesterday, the committee considered several measures. One would allow same-sex marriages, and another would abolish civil marriage ceremonies confined to heterosexual unions and replace them with domestic partnerships for all couples. …

Advocates and lawmakers acknowledge that the legislature is unlikely this year to approve either same-sex marriage or a change to the constitution to ban it. But a compromise on civil unions for gay couples, giving them a broad range of legal rights, has a shot at passage. The Senate committee, which has several members who are social conservatives, could be more receptive to civil unions.

civilunion handsIn other words, what happens if the state leaves “marriage” alone and creates a “secular” state that applies to secular unions, same-sex or otherwise? The crucial political question — I imagine that people such as Barack Obama and John McCain are paying attention — is whether leaders on either side of the debate will accept a compromise, period.

That’s the politics. My questions are, of course, about religion. So let’s go back to that “march” of people arriving to testify at the hearings.

Question No. 1: Did anyone speak for the Catholic archdiocese? Did anyone speak for the Catholic left?

Question No. 2: Did anyone speak from the Orthodox Jewish community, which is very vocal in Baltimore? Did anyone speak from the Jewish left?

Question No. 3: If evangelicals spoke on the right, did anyone from the “emerging church” world speak on the evangelical left? Take that Brian McLaren guy. Was there anyone there from his Maryland flock?

In other words, if religion is a huge part of this story, I would like to know a few details a few symbolic facts.

You can’t tell the players without a program. I realize that reporters cannot list all of the names of the people marching to the podium in this kind of hearing. But there are symbolic groups in Maryland religion. Were they represented? Do their voices matter?

If Catholic leaders were not there, at all, that is a story in and of itself.

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Skimming along the surface of love

shallow To mark St. Valentine’s Day, Monica Hesse of The Washington Post wrote about polyamorous couples. Her story described the lives of eight people who are in relationships with more than one person.

Polyamory isn’t about sex, polys tell you. It is about love. It is about loving your primary partner enough to love that they have a new secondary partner, even when their New Relationship Energy with that person leaves you, briefly, out in the cold. It’s about loving yourself enough to acknowledge that your needs cannot be met by one loving person. It’s about loving love enough to embrace it in unexpected form — like maybe in the form of your primary’s new secondary! — in which case you may all form a triad and live happily together.

According to Hesse, polyamorous people have problems. They often get jealous of their partner’s partner; they feel entitled to romantic fulfillment; and they cuddle a lot. But in her account, polyamorous people are not much different from monogamous couples. They worry about childcare; they seek community; and they fall in love. As Hess ends her story,

Later that night, Victoria and LaVasseur have signed up to be facilitators at a cuddle party — a nonsexual outlet for people of all ages to spoon, tickle, pat and snuggle each other. It requires facilitators because cuddle parties come with 40 minutes’ worth of rules on how to snuggle respectfully.

The two of them aren’t sitting anywhere near each other; in fact, LaVasseur is demonstrating proper cuddle etiquette with another woman, one old enough to be his mother.

Victoria looks on contentedly; she catches his eye and they smile.

They seem ridiculously in love.

As you have perhaps guessed, Hesse’s story was intellectually shallow. Beyond some glancing criticisms of polyamory, it failed to address the practice’s moral and theological aspects. After all, their view of relationships differ with those enshrined by Christianity and Judaism. Instead of eternal sacrifice and duty, they believe in individual desires and choices.

Hesse should have asked her subjects at least a few intellectually rigorous questions. Imagine a partner is sick or dying: Is it permissible to ditch that person for a partner who’s healthy? Are there any times in which God calls on you to sacrifice your desires and impulses for those of another?

Since the sexual revolution began four decades ago, newspaper reporters have sought to normalize practices once deemed sinful and evil. Think of divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality. And they should explore them. But pretending that traditional religion doesn’t have objections to a radical secular practice is insulting.

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Monologue about those ‘Monologues’

mono Kavita Kumar of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about a Catholic college’s decision to not stage a production of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. Her story claimed that officials at St. Louis University canceled the controversial play for various reasons:

Campus administrators refused to sponsor the play last year, after several years of sponsorship, because they said that doing the same play year after year is redundant and didn’t add much new.

SLU leaders said their decision was not censorship, but students suspect that is just what it is.

Conservative watchdog groups and others have protested at SLU and other Catholic campuses where the “Monologues” is performed because they say the play, with its frank discussion of female sexuality and homosexuality, is inappropriate.

Kumar’s explanation cannot be dismissed out of hand. Why campus administrators pulled the plug is almost unknowable.

But let’s call a spade a spade. Kumar’s story is biased. The play’s opponents come across as censorious and closed-minded. Now maybe they are, but Kumar provided no evidence for this implication.

“Conservative watchdog groups and others” have said, repeatedly, that they object to the play not for its frankness but rather its morality. For example, the president of Providence College criticized a scene in the play in which a teenage woman is raped or forcibly seduced by an older woman. Kumar should have noted this objection.

In addition, critics have objected to description of the play as a “new bible” for women. As you might imagine, traditional Catholics take issue with any sort of new bible, not just this one.

Perhaps Kumar wrote the story under tight deadline pressure. But it’s too bad that she adopted a superficial understanding of the dispute between Catholic colleges and the play. There is a real story about how traditional Catholics and the play’s secular writers view female sexuality. But getting it requires a reporter to engage in a colloquy not a monologue.

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He said, Clinton said

clinton esquire 01The Clinton era has, so far, produced more than its share of he said-she said, or she said-he said or even he said-he said stories. It does not seem that this will end anytime soon, which puts journalists in an interesting position.

The most important words in all of journalism, I always tell my students, are, “comma, space, said, space, name, period.” In other words, journalism is about the clear attribution of quoted material.

So what do you do when you have a person of very, very high authority standing up in public and quoting someone else? Quoting both sides of a conversation in which this authority figure was a participant? By journalism standards, this is a second-hand quote — but one that comes from an eye witness, so to speak.

Then, what happens when the other person in that conversation says, in effect, “nope.”

I ran into this situation this past week when I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column about President Bill Clinton’s speech at the close of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. Now when a meeting opens with President Jimmy Carter, ends with Clinton and has Vice President Al Gore in the middle, you know that you are dealing with Baptists in the South, but not Southern Baptists.

Clinton built his entire talk around a parable that explains the importance of “biblical literalism” and why this view of the Bible must be rejected — gracefully — but completely rejected (unless, of course, we are dealing with Bible verses about social justice, equality, etc.) by all thinking people. If you want to watch his speech and some of the others from the event, click here and look through the menu. Sorry, but it requires Microsoft software.

Here is the crucial chunk — sorry, but it’s large — from my column:

As Bill Clinton tells the story, it wasn’t your typical Baptist prayer breakfast.

The guest of honor at the White House was the Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention’s new president. The two men went jogging near the National Mall and had breakfast on the Truman Balcony with Vice President Al Gore. The three Southern Baptists didn’t agree on everything, but the atmosphere was friendly — in large part because the president admired Young’s preaching so much.

But the crucial exchange in that 1993 meeting centered on a question about the Bible, said Clinton, speaking to last week’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. This unprecedented summit drew about 10,000 Anglo, African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists from 30 North American conventions and organizations linked to the Baptist World Alliance.

Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young “looked at me and he said, ‘I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don’t want one of those slick political answers. … Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.’

“I said, ‘Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.’ He said, ‘That’s a political answer.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. You asked a political question.’ “

b host winWell, you know what’s coming. Right?

The Rev. Ed Young is a very busy man, as you would expect for a megachurch leader who has about 46,000 members who worship on the six metro campuses operated by Second Baptist Church in Houston. Young is a veteran leader on the Southern Baptist conservative side, but one used to dealing with a stunningly diverse and, yes, rather sophisticated super city. He knows how to be smooth.

Young’s staff was very helpful and he had also seen a transcript of the Clinton sermon. So let’s pick up right there in the column:

… (It) isn’t surprising to learn that Young has a radically different take on what happened that morning. He agrees it was a friendly meeting, but doesn’t remember eating breakfast. However, the preacher said the logistical details are beside the point.

“The main thing is that I have never asked anyone on this earth that question,” said Young. … “I have no doubt that someone, somewhere has asked Bill Clinton if he thinks the Bible is literally true, but it wasn’t me. That isn’t a question I ask. I mean, Jesus says, ‘I am a door.’ … How do you claim something like that is literally true?”

In fact, Young doesn’t remember mentioning “biblical inerrancy” during that White House meeting, the theological term at the heart of 30 years of conflict in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

However, the men did discuss the divisions in their church, Young added, and Clinton offered an articulate defense of his more liberal approach to the Christian faith.

Young says that he agreed, at that time, not to discuss the contents of that breakfast with the press and he would prefer to honor that promise. But he said they did talk — no surprise — about the hot social and political issues that have divided Baptists and lots of other believers.

So what people keep asking me is: Who do you believe?

I know lots of folks on the Baptist right and they don’t talk about “literalism” when it comes to the Bible. Perhaps that is what people like Clinton think that they say. The term they use, of course, is “biblical inerrancy” and there are about six different definitions of that term in common use. That’s a complex issue. Ask Billy Graham. Ask the pope.

I have no doubts that Clinton and Young talked about abortion and homosexuality and all the other issues that — no surprise — lurked in between the lines of most of the progressive sermons at the New Covenant meeting. It’s the times that we live in.

So the question is: Did Young literally say it? “Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.” And, my fellow journalists, how are we supposed to handle quotes of this kind when the two people in the conversation disagree on what was said?

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What’s in the Westboro name?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt is interesting to watch how journalists cover the ongoing legal saga of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The most recent news has a judge cutting in half the punitive damage award granted by a jury to the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after the group protested at the Marine’s funeral.

If you haven’t heard, this group isn’t you average set of protesters. They show up at soldiers funerals and hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and say they believe soldiers are being killed overseas as part of God’s punishment for “the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.”

Here’s the Associated Press in The Kansas City Star:

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has upheld the October jury verdict in the lawsuit brought against a Kansas-based fundamentalist church group for its anti-gay protest at the 2006 Maryland funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq….

Westboro members believe U.S. deaths in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Needless to say, these protests are especially disgusting, and it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

Since free speech is not really the issue anymore in this case, the big question is whether or not $10.9 million is a proper amount of money to both deter the group and restore the family of Lance Cpl. Snyder.

As the author of The Baltimore Sun version of the story rightly states, the federal judge’s reduction in the punitive damage award to $2.1 million may not ultimately stand. The jury in the trial granted additional compensatory damages totaling $2.9 million.

This Sun story does an especially good job describing the legal posture of the case and accurately explains the issues at stake. But take a look at how the author frames the Westboro group in both the lead and later on in the story because it has some significant implications:

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced Monday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster….

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The story refers to the group as a church several times throughout the story but only refers to its claim to be a Baptist church once, and that is when its technical title is mentioned. Clearly there are plenty of Baptists out there who would not want to associate with the Westboro group. While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

Also note that the AP described the group as fundamentalist. Can journalists really use that word to describe anything these days? There are so many ways to criticize the use of that word that it’s grown rather useless for the purposes of news reporting.

Of course there is the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call this group a church. They claim to follow Calvinist and Baptist principles, but some believe that the group is more accurately described as a cult than a church. Of course, how you define a cult? As Terry pointed out earlier, it’s not easily done.

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We Believe

webelieve2 At its best, Get Religion is akin to what the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times was in the post-war white South: a rare publication that questions the establishment’s assumptions and reveals its sins of omission and commission.

Of course, the Delta-Democrat Times took aim at an entire ruling class, not just its members in the press, and its staff were, suffice to say, under physical danger, as GR staff are not. Yet few publications challenge in a serious way the press’ world view, and GR is one of them.

I hope that some of my stories for GR have been in this emperor-has-no-clothes vein. Four of my favorite stories sought to expose the media’s sins of omission:

New monks are revolutionaries” (Jan. 27, 2008) Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is a fine reporter, but she focused on the lives of budding monastics and likely overlooked the major social critique these people were making.

Are Democrats not religious?” (Jan. 8, 2008) Ever since their nominee lost yet another presidential election, the Democrats were said to have gotten religion. So in the wake of the Iowa caucus, did journalists and pollster examine whether religious voters supported the Democrats? You probably know the answer to that one.

Missing a fact of life” (Dec. 8, 2007): Few reporters mention that on one question, biologists agree: in the overwhelming number of cases, human life begins at conception.

Paging Pat Moynihan” (Nov. 15, 2007) For more than four decades, the black family has been crumbling. So have reporters come up with an adequate explanation for this major trend? No.

A final story argued in essence that the media were engaging in wish fulfillment:

The Great Incremental Evangelical Crackup” (Nov. 17, 2007) Reporters told us repeatedly that evangelical voters were moving away from the Republican Party. Alas, this bit of conventional wisdom had little foundation in reality.

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Five of my favorite GetReligion things

dougleblanc.jpgI’m back in this forum, at the request of tmatt, just long enough to kick off a retrospective celebration of GetReligion’s fourth anniversary. Terry has asked us all to list the five favorite posts we’ve written in this site’s history, so cue John Coltrane.

My favorite posts reflect my hobby horses as a religion writer: countering believer-bashing urban legends, savoring pre-postmodernist irony, stumbling upon empathy, taking the pulse of pop culture, and poking fun at poseurs.

As this is my only post in 2008, my list includes two items from 2004. Happy anniversary, GetReligion, and thanks for the megaphone.

2004: Vanity Fair‘s kitty litter and Jimmy Swaggart and the hairy swamp monkey

2005: Buckets of tears

2006: Hell hath no humor

2007: Let’s split the difference

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