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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which religious group should be blamed for the election results?

Well, everyone, we made it through another presidential campaign year! Congratulations to the winners and condolences to the losers and all that.

With the election over, we’re now in the stage of the airing of grievances and assigning of blame.

It’s usually much easier to do this than this year, where the campaign wasn’t about big issues. Or as it was put in this fantastic Washington Post piece explaining how Obama won:

The campaign bore almost no resemblance to the expansive one Obama waged in 2008 — by strategic choice and by financial necessity. Without the clear financial advantage it had last time, Obama’s campaign relied more on the tools of micro-marketing than on the oratorical gifts of the nation’s first black president.

Gone were the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago. Instead the president focused on Romney. Meanwhile, his campaign spoke early and often with “persuadable” voters, selected for targeted e-mails and doorstep visits through demographic data unavailable last time.

“We turned a national election into a school-board race,” a second senior Obama campaign official said.

Before the effort to define Romney began, before they even knew for certain Romney would be the opponent, the Obama campaign laid the groundwork for victory in a race that would be won in the margins of a polarized electorate.

The lack of big issues led, perhaps, to an obsession with polls. That obsession continues as journalists look to exit polls for meaning. The New York Times has a great interactive page with election information. It begins with the note:

Most of the nation shifted to the right in Tuesday’s vote, but not far enough to secure a win for Mitt Romney.

Weird, right? Most of the nation shifts to the right but the big story is that the right lost. Big time. How to make sense of that? The first thing I might suggest is caution. Whether it’s on election night or the first few heady days after, people are desperate to make sense of things. But sometimes it takes a while for actual vote totals to come in or good local data that explain particular elections.

Just for instance … I really enjoyed this Denver Post/Eric Gorski piece about the Pew data, which mentioned:

The initial speculation and preliminary evidence was white evangelicals and other conservative Christians might not enthusiastically support Romney, either for theological or other reasons, [University of Akron political scientist John] Green noted. Ultimately, though, exit polls showed nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Romney, an improvement over John McCain’s 73 percent in 2008 and on par with George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Romney received less support from his fellow Mormons than allegedly skeptical white evangelicals – although it was just 1 percentage point less.

That’s fascinating, no? The evangelical voters increased their support for the GOP candidate in 2012 over 2008 and 2004? And Mormon support was below that of white evangelicals? Crazy! (The piece also has great discussions on the “nones” and why Obama lost seven points among white Catholics — Green suggests the “religious liberty” issue was a factor.)

But what we also need to know are whether those percentages reflect changes in the actual voters. Meaning, did some evangelicals sit out the election this year? And did Mormons come out to vote more than usual? Both of those things could have happened as well. Or not. We’ll have to wait a bit to find that out. Going back to that New York Times map mentioned above, it shows that the country went more Republican everywhere with a few exceptions. One of those areas was the South. Is that partly a religion story? I don’t know. (There’s some great analysis on these questions here.)

One interesting approach taken by Religion News Service was the piece headlined “What’s next for religious conservatives?” Even though the Romney campaign was laser-focused on the economy at the expense of getting out the vote over social conservatism or other issues Americans care about, the piece suggests that the problem lies with … social conservatives. It includes lines such as:

The electorate today is increasingly Latino, and younger, and both those groups are turned off by anything that smacks of righteous moralizing.

I only wish that young people were turned off by anything that smacked of righteous moralizing. But the ratings success of Glee would suggest otherwise. As for this claim that Latinos are all turned off by, um, “anything that smacks of righteous moralizing” … I’m not quite sure how to respond to it. I mean, maybe it’s true. Maybe Latinos were turned off of Romney (and the GOP) not because of his comments about self-deportation, or his lack of outreach to them, or this (from ABC/Univision):

Nationally, 74 percent of Latino voters said that Romney did not care about Latinos or was outwardly hostile to them, with a whopping 56 percent believing the latter. Compare that to what Latino voters thought of President Obama: 66 percent said he truly cares about Latinos.

But maybe RNS is right and the failure to crack 35 percent of the Latino vote — which one analysis says would have changed the outcome of the entire election — had something to do with social conservatism. Journalistically, though, it would be better to substantiate claims such as this about youth and Latinos rather than just assert it without any evidence.

This was an interesting election and one that, despite how narrowly divided the country is, had some decisive results with serious implications for religious adherents and the issues they care about. But it’s always good to proceed with caution when trying to make sense of why voters made the decisions they did.

Note: Please keep comments focused on media coverage as opposed to personal political preferences, etc.

Recriminations image via Shutterstock.

The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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


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