Politics, sin and serious reporting in La. bayou country

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As I’ve shared before, I spent a few years of my early childhood in West Monroe, La., where my dad attended the White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching.

That now-defunct school was operated by the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, now known nationally as the home congregation of the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty” fame. Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I remain in touch with a number of White’s Ferry Road church leaders and members.

Given my personal connection, national news out of Louisiana bayou country tends to catch my attention. The latest headlines involve Congressman Vance McAllister, who ran on a Christian family values platform but got caught in a compromising video with a woman who is not his wife. (I met McAllister’s predecessor, Rodney Alexander, several years ago when he caught a ride on a private plane that the White’s Ferry Road church’s disaster relief ministry chartered to assess Hurricane Katrina damages.)

The brouhaha over McAllister prompted this Facebook post by my good friend John Dobbs, who preaches for the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., across the Ouachita River from West Monroe:

I’m embarrassed for Vance and his family, sorry that he made some choices that have caused a lot of pain. I realize he lives a very public life. But we are all sinners, and I wonder how any of us would feel to have our sin video taped and put up for all the world to see? Vance needs to work that out with God and his family. He is working in a culture of adultery in Washington D.C. (does anyone doubt that?) and I pray that he can restore his family and keep his guard up.

Dobbs’ post generated lively feedback about sin, forgiveness, politics and media coverage, including this response from Keith Roberts, minister and elder of the Calhoun Church of Christ, east of West Monroe:

I’m disappointed. I like Vance and thought he would bring a bit of ‘fresh air’ to the process. Instead — more of the same.

And the aftermath of this incident isn’t about forgiveness (any of us can fall quickly) but about leadership.

A man who’s unwilling to keep the most fundamental promise in his life will have trouble keeping his word in other areas (I’ve always wondered why people didn’t see that in Bill Clinton’s case).

I need to pray for Vance & his family.

Overall, that Facebook discussion was serious and respectful in tone. Differences of opinion were evident. But each side was fairly represented. Believe it or not, I felt the same way about a New York Times story this week on how McAllister’s northeast Louisiana district is reacting to the scandal.

From the top of the NYTimes report:

WEST MONROE, La. — As she handed out garbage bags on Saturday as part of an anti-litter drive, Patsy Edmondson drew a parallel to Louisiana’s history of tawdry politics.

“If we grow up in litter, we accept it,” she said. “If we grow up with this kind of politician, we accept it.” Rolling her eyes, she said both were learned behaviors. “We’re trying to teach our children it costs us money to be dirty.”

Ms. Edmondson’s congressman, Representative Vance McAllister, is the latest Louisiana official facing demands for his resignation, after a leaked video last week showed him passionately kissing a woman who was not his wife.

After winning an election pledging to “defend our Christian way of life,” Mr. McAllister now faces accusations of hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, has called on him to step down, and the state Republican chairman labeled him “an example of why ordinary people are fed up with politics.”

A quick aside: What do you think of “hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou?” Clever or cliche?

Keep reading, and the NYTimes provides this background:

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Does adultery = prostitution for the WPost?

Nothing optional—from homosexuality to adultery—is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.

Christopher Hitchens. God is not great: How religions poison everything. (2008) p 40.

A religion ghost rattled its chains in a national security story published by the Washington Post last week entitled: “Navy’s second-ranking civilian resigns amid criminal investigation.” The Post bookends a story about fraud with a sex angle — that equates adultery with prostitution.

It reports a senior Pentagon official has resigned following a probe into a questionable procurement deal. However, the Undersecretary of the Navy was not fired for fraud, but for adultery.

An intensifying criminal investigation of an alleged contracting scheme involving a top-secret Navy project has resulted in the forced resignation of the service’s second-ranking civilian leader, according to officials and court documents. Robert C. Martinage, the acting undersecretary of the Navy, stepped down after his boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, asked for his resignation “following a loss of confidence in [his] abilities to effectively perform his duties,” according to a statement the Navy released Wednesday.

Navy officials said Martinage was pressured to quit after investigators looking into his role in the top-secret program discovered that he was having an affair.

The article then relates details of a criminal probe into contracting abuses and we hear no more about adultery, though the Post attempts to pull sex back into the story frame in the closing paragraphs.

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When a pastor has an affair and nobody’s talking

A megachurch pastor resigns after admitting an affair.

That sounds like a news story, right?

Only problem: Outside of an official church statement, nobody seems to be talking. Not the pastor. Not the congregation’s leaders. Not anybody close to the situation, really.

What’s a reporter to do?

Well, a creative journalist could do worse than to follow the lead of Orlando Sentinel writer Jeff Kunerth, who recently turned the above lemon of a scenario into not one but two pitchers of enterprising newspaper lemonade.

A GetReligion colleague shared this headline with our team this week, although the story is a couple weeks old:

Disgraced pastors who repent face long road back, experts say

The lede:

In a letter read to the congregation at Discovery Church, Pastor David Loveless admitted adultery, deceit, sinfulness, selfishness, broken trust and a violation of “everything I knew to be true and right.”

“I am broken beyond description,” he wrote.

Loveless resigned last month from the Orlando church he founded 29 years ago and, like many fallen preachers before him, now begins a restoration process. It won’t be easy, say experts.

Do you see what Kunerth did there?

He took the limited public facts available and used them as a peg for a larger story: It won’t be easy, say experts.

Keep reading, and the Sentinel story provides insight from four experts, including this one:

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The theology in all those Father Greeley sex scenes

Much like his friend (historian, not theologian) Martin Marty, the prominent sociologist (not theologian) Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago lived a long and astonishingly productive career in which he had few unpublished thoughts.

This is not a man whose rambunctious life would be easy to cover in a simple newspaper obituary. He was also one of the quickest and wittiest people I have ever interviewed in my life.

I think it’s also crucial to note that, while most articles about his death identified him as a “liberal,” that’s a rather simplistic term to apply to someone as complex as Greeley. It’s important to note that he had friends and associates across the spectrum of American Catholicism and, of course, it was a uniquely American brand of Catholicism that dominated his life.

All of the major newspapers have published obituaries, but — duh — it is really The Chicago Tribune coverage that matters. Here is a chunk of the lengthy obituary that attempts to sum up this loud and proud celibate priest’s work:

A highly-regarded sociologist, preternaturally prolific author and unabashedly liberal Chicago priest, the Rev. Greeley regularly took his church to task in both his fiction and his scholarly work. His non-fiction books covered topics from Catholic education to Irish history to Jesus’ relationships with women.

The Rev. Greeley authored some 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction that were translated into 12 languages. His racy novels and detective stories, which often closely paralleled real events, aired out Catholic controversies and hummed with detailed bedroom romps that kept readers rapt and coming back for more. Best-sellers like The Cardinal Sins in 1981 earned him millions of dollars, much of which he donated to the church and charities.

The Rev. Greeley filled many of his books with the results of work he did at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where he’d done work since his days as a doctoral candidate in the early 1960s. He also taught sociology at the University of Arizona. But, Greeley said his immense body of research and writing was merely a reflection of his calling to be a priest.

Now, there were plenty of critics who claimed the Greeley didn’t really write 50 novels; he wrote the same novel 50 times. I don’t think that’s fair, when considering his detective fiction. I am still waiting for someone to dare to take some of the Father Blackie Ryan novels and turn them into a wild and wooly HBO series.

All of the news coverage has, of course, stressed the “racy” sections of this priest’s novels. Still I have to admit that I have been surprised that no one has focused on the truly controversial theological point that Greeley kept making — over and over — in the plots of his book. Why ignore the priest’s blunt reason for including all of that lively sex?

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God’s role in Mark Sanford’s redemption story

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God — and South Carolina voters — decided Tuesday to give disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford a second chance.

At least that’s the impression left by news coverage of the state’s most famous adulterer, who won back his old seat in Congress with 54 percent of the vote.

The war-size headline on the front page of The State in Columbia, S.C.:

SANFORD WINS REDEMPTION

The Associated Press used a similar headline:

MARK SANFORD REDEEMS CAREER, HEADING TO CONGRESS

God figured heavily in Sanford’s victory speech, with Yahoo News! noting that Sanford said he wanted to “publicly acknowledge God’s role in this.” (God was unavailable for comment, and I can’t say I blame him.)

I am pretty certain Sanford was referring to God’s alleged role in his election victory — as opposed to a role in Sanford carrying on a secret affair with an Argentine mistress, to whom he’s now engaged after his divorce from the mother of his four children.

Here’s how AP quoted Sanford way up high:

“I am one imperfect man saved by God’s grace,” the Republican told about 100 cheering supporters Tuesday after defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch to win back the 1st District seat he held for three terms in the 1990s. “It’s my pledge to all of you going forward I’m going to be one of the best congressmen I could have ever been.”

Later in the story, AP included more religious language from the former governor:

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Pod people: Manhattan media melancholia

The oh-so familiar provincialism of The New York Times was the principal object of my harrumphing in a recent Crossroads podcast, which was recorded back on Nov. 23. I’ve been wrestling with computer gremlins for several days now, so this is a bit late.

Host Todd Wilken and I discussed three of my recent GetReligion posts concerning Media Coverage of Adultery, gays in Pakistan, and same-sex marriage in Spain.

I was not aware that Missouri-Synod Lutherans — Crossroads is a joint project with the Issues, Etc., team at Lutheran Public Radio — had such a keen interest in sex. My stories about Bulgarian bishops behaving badly do not generate the same degree of excitement it seems.

Todd teed one up for me early on, asking why I described a recent item from the Gray Lady as being a “mid-week sermon” rather than a news story. This provided an opportunity for me to be self-righteous, puff out my cheeks and tell “you kids” to “get off my lawn.” I also decried the Times‘ failure of imagination.

The gist of my criticism of the adultery story and Times‘ article detailing the gay sub-culture of Pakistan was that the conceptual universe presented in these stories is circumscribed. A news article on adultery laws is written from the perspective of an anthropologist peeping through the bushes at an exotic tribe. How quaint and colorful these primitive people are.

The same attitude is displayed in the story about Pakistan’s gay subculture. There is only one way to be gay and that is the Times way, we learn. Men and women with same-sex orientations or relationships are not gay until they conform to Western standards (or stereotypes).

And, the Times appeared to have forgotten the role religion plays in shaping Pakistani culture. I argued this was a failure of imagination and reporting — a failure of reporting in that no mention of the role of militant Islam in governing sexual mores was mentioned, nor of the changing nature of Islam in Pakistan. The Sufi-dominated past has been replaced by a Saudi-dominated Wahabbist present — Sharia law and all that.

While were going on about sex, Todd jumped over to an article I wrote on the coverage of the gay marriage decision handed down by Spain’s constitutional court as reported in Madrid’s El Pais. However, the conversation took a different direction as the host asked me why I was tolerant of El Pais‘ bias in reporting on gay marriage, but cut the Times less slack for the same sins.

My response was that El Pais made no secret of its biases — it is an advocacy newspaper. Its news reports are filtered through its editorial voice. The facts are there (hopefully all of them), but the interpretation or framework upon which these facts are laid is that of the Manhattan booboisie. The Times does not acknowledge its biases and believes it engages in classical American journalism.

Many Times stories do meet this criteria and full, fair, thoughtful stories can be found every day in its pages. But over the past generation the European style of advocacy reporting has crept in — and in issues touching upon the “culture wars”, Times stories more often than not are advocacy, not news stories.The result is a suffocating style of reporting that is unable to move beyond prejudices and conventional pieties.

Why does any of this matter? Am I huffing and puffing about the Times’ new journalism because it is not to my ideological tastes? There may be some truth in this rejoinder, and if the substance of my critique remained at this level then I would concede my criticisms are as shallow as the reporting I scorn.

What I hope to convey in my pieces published at GetReligion is my belief that the journalist as an author has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism, and its renunciation by the Times in pursuit of advocacy and expediency is what I find to be so very disheartening.

Well, that is what I hoped I said. Enjoy the podcast.

“Was that wrong?” — New York Times and adultery

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The New Criterion is my favorite journal. I discovered the magazine when I was in college and have been a fan of the monthly ever since, reading the magazine cover to cover when it hits my doorstep. And ArmaVirumque, the New Criterion‘s blog, is a site I visit frequently.

I mention my views on this point, as the New Criterion‘s media critic, James Bowman, has published a post entitled “Medieval Barbarism — It Wasn’t All Bad” that captured much of what I wanted to say about a recent story in the New York Times on the topic of adultery.

The Times article of 15 Nov 2012 entitled “Adultery, an Ancient Crime That Remains on Many Books”  jumped out at me as a strong story for GetReligion. I was mulling over the approach I would take, trying to find the right literary or pop culture angle to open my critique, when I read James Bowman’s piece. And, my work was done, for I doubt anyone could have done a better job that Bowman on this story. I will add in my own GR hook further down in this story (to justify my post to GR’s editor), but lets start with the Times piece in question and Bowman’s response.

The New York Times story is a European-style advocacy piece. Though it appears on page A12 in the news section, it rightly belongs on the opinion pages as it is more of a lecture than reporting. I know what the Times‘ thinks about adultery after reading this article, but I did not learn much about adultery. (Perhaps I should take the Post or Daily News instead.)

It opens with:

When David H. Petraeus resigned as director of the C.I.A.because of adultery he was widely understood to be acknowledging a misdeed, not a crime. Yet in his state of residence, Virginia, as in 22 others, adultery remains a criminal act, a vestige of the way American law has anchored legitimate sexual activity within marriage.

In most of those states, including New York, adultery is a misdemeanor. But in others — Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — it is a felony, though rarely prosecuted. In the armed forces, it can be punished severely although usually in combination with a greater wrongdoing.

This is yet another example of American exceptionalism: in nearly the entire rest of the industrialized world, adultery is not covered by the criminal code.

Like other state laws related to sex — sodomy, fornication, rape — adultery laws extend back to the Old Testament, onetime capital offenses stemming at least partly from a concern about male property. Peter Nicolas of the University of Washington Law School says the term stemmed from the notion of “adulterating” or polluting the bloodline of a family when a married woman had sex with someone other than her husband and ran the risk of having another man’s child.

The article continues in this vein with four more law school professorial voices advancing the same line, speaking in censorious tones of the past and the enlightened future we face once the shackles of our repressed sexuality and repressive society are loosed. And then I read Bowman’s response. After he read this piece he:

immediately thought of the great “Seinfeld” episode of 1991 in which George Costanza is caught engaging in sexual relations with the cleaning woman on his desk. Called on the carpet for it, he says to his boss: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I’ll tell you, I’ve got to plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon — because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.” Jason Alexander, who played George, is supposed to have said that this is his favorite moment from the series and the defining one for his character. Twenty-one years later it’s still funny, too, …

In today’s Times, for example, the editors seemed to think in all seriousness that, in the wake of the Petraeus scandal, their readers are in need of an exploration of what people used to think was wrong with adultery in order to explain why, as “a vestige of the way American law has anchored legitimate sexual activity within marriage,” it is still illegal in 23 states. Basically, we find, this is because the stigma on adultery is a primitive relic of patriarchal societies having to do with the prevention of pollution (i.e. “adulteration”) of male blood lines. Melissa Murray, a professor of law at Berkeley, reports the Times, “said her research had led her to conclude that laws regulating sex emanated from a notion that sex should occur only within marriage.” Well I never. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

Criminal law, she said, was there to reinforce marriage as the legal locus for sex. So any other circumstance — sex in public or with a member of the same sex, or adultery — was a violation of marriage. “Now we live in an age when sex is not limited to marriage and laws are slowly responding to that,” she said. “But we still love marriage. Nobody is going to say adultery is O.K.”

Bowman has it in one. (Do look into the New Criterion if you have not already done so — it is worth your time.)

This article is not a news article. It is the Times‘ midweek sermon — an episode of moral enrichment that will make us (the reader) better people for having read these sonorous solipsisms on sex. The Times writes as if only its voice and the voices of its acolytes are the only voices that speak on this issue. Other voices, other minds, other worlds, do not exist.

Let me step back a bit and ask where were the contrary voices? The way the article was framed it appeared nigh but impossible for any argument to exist other than that espoused by the author. Yet, there are quite a few moral philosophers, law school professors, even (heaven forefend) clergy, who would offer a contrary view about marriage, adultery and the law.

As journalism this article falls short. It is preachy, one-sided and self-righteous. It really isn’t journalism as it is understood in the classical liberal sense. It is an advocacy piece.

As I have said before in the pages of GetReligion there is nothing wrong with advocacy journalism — when a newspaper is honest about what it is doing. The Times, however, believes it is writing balanced, fair and full news stories. This article does not do that.


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