Via AP, a tasty piece on a same-sex wedding cake

Sometimes, the best journalism relies on a really simple recipe.

That’s the case with a recent Associated Press news-feature headlined “How a wedding cake became a cause.”

Here at GetReligion, we have critiqued numerous mainstream media reports — here, here, here, here and here, for example — on the battle over religious freedom for bakers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

But few, if any, of those stories on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights have matched the quality of this AP story out of Colorado:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The encounter at Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop lasted less than a minute.

Phillips stepped out from behind the counter in his small, pastry-crammed shop to meet customers Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins. They told him they wanted a cake to celebrate their own marriage.

Phillips replied he couldn’t, but that he’d be glad to make one for other occasions, such as birthdays. Left unsaid was how making a gay wedding cake would violate his Christian faith, how he does not make ones for Halloween or bachelor parties, either.

Craig and Mullins left the shop, stunned. Left unsaid was how they viewed themselves as a regular couple, their wedding a private celebration, not a political statement. They simply wanted a no-frills cake.

Crushed, they posted a note about the encounter on Facebook and soon the cake had become a cause, with the sides becoming stand-ins for the culture wars: Phillips was portrayed as the intolerant business owner. The couple became the gay rights activists pushing their agenda, some claimed.

As Religion News Service’s Cathy Grossman did with her recent profile on Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green, AP’s Nicholas Riccardi puts a fresh face — make that faces — on this story.

Riccardi does so by focusing on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — and avoiding the kind of legalese and screaming talking heads that characterize much media coverage.

After a vague mention of Phillips growing up in a “religious household,” the AP story describes the baker’s conversion experience and provides insight into how his faith plays into his profession:

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Missing half of America’s changing ecumenical landscape

A long, long, long time ago I covered a press conference featuring leaders of the various bodies linked to the Colorado Council of Churches. The key was that the organization — in support of an essentially liberal political cause of some kind — was claiming that it spoke for the vast majority of the state’s churches.

The problem was that, by the 1980s, the conversion of the Colorado Front Range into an evangelical hotbed (including evangelicals in many oldline Protestant bodies) was well on its way. Also, a more doctrinally conservative Catholic archbishop had arrived in town, one anxious to advocate for Catholic teachings on public issues on both sides of the political spectrum (think opposition to death penalty and to abortion).

Still, it was an important press conference that helped document one side of a religious debate in the state.

Near the end of the session, I asked what I thought was a logical question: Other than the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, did any of the CCC leaders present represent a church that had more members at that moment than during any of the previous two or three decades?

The church leaders in attendance were not amused.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state, there were budding signs of increased talks between Southern Baptists, Catholics, charismatic Episcopalians, African-American Pentecostals, Latino evangelicals and, from time to time, Orthodox Jews and Mormons.

I kept telling my editors that this was a new development in ecumenical and interfaith work. This was news — the other half of an important state story. One key editor kept saying, “But this is not part of the Colorado Council of Churches, right?”

Now, if you look at the membership of the CCC these days you will see many of those old familiar church names, a pretty solid vision of the progressive Protestant left. What you will not see — no surprise — is the name of the Catholic archdiocese.

I described both sides of that journalism parable to say that — decades later — this same story continues to unfold across the nation. Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran under the headline, “Interfaith movement struggles to adapt to changing religious landscape.” The lede will surprise few readers who have been watching demographic trends in American religion.

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Weed is a beautiful gift from God

There is something about writing about marijuana that gets reporters a bit, well, dopey.

You see, they think that marijuana, and its legalization, are just fodder for jokes. Perhaps it’s because I’m a libertarian who believes in a very limited government, but I take discussions about what the government should concern itself with quite seriously. I’m sure marijuana prohibitionists do as well. Editorial pages have not shown a lot of wisdom in how they weigh in on this topic, as Reason magazine has chronicled over the years.

I’ve asked various pastors for their thoughts on weed and will never forget the one guy who told me, “Weed? Weed? Weed is a beautiful gift from God.” He added, immediately, “Of course there are First Article issues for us.” That referred to the First Article of the creed and our obedience and love for all of God’s Law — about which a whole book could be written.

Anyway, I had hoped for a bit more from this Associated Press article headlined “Holy Schism Emerges Over Pot Legalization In Colorado.” It begins:

The stakes in Colorado’s marijuana debate are getting much higher – as in, all the way to heaven.

A vigorous back-and-forth between pot legalization supporters and foes entered the religious arena Wednesday. A slate of pastors called on Coloradans to reject making pot legal without a doctor’s recommendation.

“It’s heading to a path of total destruction,” warned Bishop Acen Phillips, who leads New Birth Temple of Praise Community Baptist Church in Denver.

About 10 pastors spoke at the event organized by the campaign to defeat the Colorado ballot proposal. If approved, the measure would allow adults over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Oregon and Washington have similar proposals before voters next month.

Colorado’s legalization supporters responded quickly to the holy war on pot, releasing a list of clergy members who support legalizing the drug and ending criminal penalties for its use. Those ministers argued that religious leaders and parents should guide decisions about marijuana, not the law.

“I do not support smoking pot. I do not like the stuff,” said the Rev. Bill Kirton, a retired Methodist minister in Denver. “But the harm it does is much less than sending more and more people to prison. And I think it’s time to legalize marijuana.”

What you’ll notice is that there’s very little “religion” in this “religious arena.” These people could just as easily be random community leaders as leaders of religious communities. We learn that Kirton chuckled about “supporting an illegal drug as a man of the cloth” — ha ha! — and that he believes most clergy are with him. Then we hear from others who say they’re worried about the problems caused by drug use and that attracting drug dealers is bad for a community.

It almost seems to me that we’re dealing with an economic or cultural divide that may not have as much to do with religion as the headline and copy suggest. A sample of the depth to the piece:

The religious divide over marijuana is the latest arena in which folks are taking sides on Colorado’s pot measure. The pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana groups have in recent weeks gone back and forth over who sides with them.

There’s just not a lot of there there.

It’s also worth noting how this story exemplifies the way that some religious groups are marginalized from news stories. Basically there are the types of churches that believe their doctrine indicates a particular legislative or policy approach. And there are churches that don’t believe that policy prescriptions are within their wheelhouse. We tend to hear far less from the latter because the media love political stories.

I’m pretty sure that my church body would simply say Lutherans have the freedom to use their own reason to vote on this topic. That’s an important viewpoint, too, and one shared by more than just Lutherans. Yet it never appears in these stories about the various political factions in the religious community. And in a state such as Colorado, it might be nice to find out what some less-mainstream religious communities think on this topic. Any Native religious groups weighing in? Any of the Eastern religious communities that have thrived there?

Anyway, I’m still interested in whether there is anything in Scripture — or some other religious norm or framework — that could inform how we vote on these matters. When saying that there is a “holy schism” and that the stakes go so high that it’s all the way “to heaven” — what an overstatement — on this matter, it would be nice to have some actual religious content other than “bishop” or “the Rev.” in the story.

Cannabis image via Shutterstock.