Washington Post tries to define ‘liberal’ in Maryland

There is much to applaud in today’s Washington Post story that ran under the headline, “Maryland’s leftward swing.”

If I could listen in on the inner thoughts of the newspaper’s editors, I would imagine that one element in this story that they considered a bit edgy, in terms of journalistic norms, as its open use of the word “liberal” to describe the victories of liberal politicians in the state of Maryland. Yes, the increasingly popular word “progressive” — the preferred label among political liberals these days — used used high up in this report. But the other “L” word is used without shame.

This is appropriate, since the Maryland left is on a roll.

Now, I live and vote in Maryland and I get that this is a pretty liberal state. Trust me on that.

The problem with this story is that the Washington Post team seems to be viewing events in Maryland through its usual lens, which is the point of view of the Washington establishment. The Post, of course, takes very seriously its role as the voice of the new and evolving normal in the nation’s capital.

The problem is that the view of the Washington establishment is not the same as that in Maryland. The essence of the Post worldview is a kind of white, professional, moral Libertarianism. I would imagine there are debates in the newsroom about, oh, how to handle Iraq and Medicare, but very few debates about issues linked to abortion and the Sexual Revolution.

So what does this have to do with Maryland?

Maryland is a liberal state, yes. But two of its most powerful forms of political liberalism are touched by streams of religious thought that appear to be hard to see through the lens of the Washington establishment. First, there is the crucial role that the African-American church plays in Baltimore and in the older suburbs, especially in Price George’s County. The second is the complex role that Catholicism plays in the state.

Let’s look at the top of the story, a story that has next to nothing to say about either race or religion:

Benefits for illegal immigrants. Same-sex marriage. Strict regulations on gun purchases.

Over the past two years, Maryland has enacted laws that represent a dramatic liberal shift, even for a state long dominated by Democrats.

Driving the progressive swing is Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the Maryland General Assembly, which now embraces legislation that it previously rejected. Emboldened by victories in statewide referendums, the governor and his allies have imposed tax increases, repealed the death penalty and approved a system to provide more than $1 billion in subsidies to a potential offshore wind farm.

Now, look at that lede. Where, for example, would establishment Catholics be on the issue of benefits for illegal immigrants? The church hierarchy would favor that. How about the African-American church? More complex, but I would predict that most lean “left” on that issue, if the word “left” applies.

Jumping to the third issue, where would the Catholic establishment be on gun control? Once again, that’s a “life” issue on which most Catholics — even the weekly and daily Mass crowd — would tend to back the “liberal” option. How about the African-American church? Once again, most would lean “left.”

How about the death penalty? Ditto.

How about tax increases, especially those intended to help programs for the poor and unemployed? Ditto.

A measure pitched as pro-environment? Ditto.

Now, what about same-sex marriage? All of a sudden, things change and grow much more complex. The same is true for issues linked to abortion and sexuality in general. There are fault lines and divisions among church-going Catholics and those active in the African-American churches, yet it is safe to say that they remain more conservative than the Maryland norm on moral and cultural issues.

What’s my point?

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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.