The Sun talks (just talk, no facts) about an Episcopal hero

I didn’t know much about the Rt. Rev. David Leighton — the 11th diocese of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — before reading the recent Baltimore Sun news article about the funeral rites held in his honor.

In fact, while this may be hard to believe, I think it would be accurate to say that I knew less about this man after reading the Sun article than I knew before reading it. I certainly had more questions afterwards.

How is that possible? Well, the article contained very few facts of any kind, which means that it didn’t even achieve the proper mix of journalistic materials that would allow it to serve as a public-relations piece for the diocese and its causes. Instead, the article repeatedly allows people to make statements that describe the bishop — often words from the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the current bishop — while failing to provide any factual material to back those assertions.

But for me, the crucial fact was that Leighton served as bishop in this progressive city and urban region during the years between 1972 and 1985 — a period of time in which the national Episcopal Church was moving from quiet, cultured liberalism (at least up north) into the Woodstock-at-prayer cultural activism of the current era.

Where did Leighton fit into all of that? Let’s look at one or two questions that this article leaves hanging in the air.

Before the ceremony began, clergy from across Maryland flocked into the cathedral dressed in flowing white albs; among them were many women, including the Rev. Phebe C. McPherson. Leighton ordained her as the first female priest in Maryland in 1977 — a move described as his most controversial in office.

Through a biblical reading and Sutton’s sermon, the service reflected on Leighton’s role as the “good shepherd” of his community.

Sutton said that in Jesus’ lifetime shepherds were widely despised — he compared their status in society to that of “hustlers” on the streets of Park Heights. Sutton said Leighton embodied that tradition in his willingness to expand the embrace of the church and to confront those who criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and his welcoming of women into the ministry.

“He knew that if he were to be the bishop of all the people, then he would have to make a special effort to become the shepherd of the least, the lost, the forgotten of his fold,” Sutton said. “In his ministry he would make no peace with oppression, and that sometimes cost him dearly in friends and in money, for himself and for the diocese.

“But he was the good shepherd. Like his Lord, Bishop Leighton was willing to lay down his life for the sheep.”

Now, this sounds like Leighton paid a price for his activism on behalf of liberal causes. Is this true?

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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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Symbolic defeat for a Christian business in Maryland

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After spending more than a week on the road, I returned home — as always — to find a large stack of ink-stained dead tree pulp that needed to be sorted a read. I refer, of course, to all the back issues of the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

As you would expect, The Baltimore Sun folks are in full-tilt party mode with the advent of same-sex marriage in this very blue, very liberal Catholic state. Each and every one of these one-sided stories was precisely what one would expect, in this age of social-issues advocacy journalism in the mainstream press.

There was, however, one interesting page-one piece that sounded a slightly somber note. More on that in a minute.

Throughout the election season, leaders of the gay-rights movement argued, and thus The Sun religiously emphasized, that the legislation legalizing same-sex marriage would not require clergy and religious organizations to perform these rites. Of course, no one ever suggested that this was the issue in the first place. Opponents of the bill tried to debate its impact on the work of religious non-profit groups, such as schools and social-welfare ministries, as well as ordinary religious believers, of a traditional-doctrine bent, whose careers are linked to the marriage industry.

It was almost impossible to find local coverage that took any of those issues seriously — DUH! — what really mattered was that clergy and their religious flocks would not be forced to perform these rites. Nothing to see here in conscience-clause land, so move along.

This division between religious liberty in sanctuaries and religious liberty in public life is, meanwhile, the key to our nation’s debates about the Health and Human Services mandate, the rights of military clergy, etc., etc. The high court has not addressed any of the big issues linked to this, but could soon — including the undecided question of whether homosexuality is a condition that leads to special-protection status under civil rights laws.

Anyway, about that sobering A1 story about a highly symbolic local business, which is led by a traditional Christian:

An Annapolis company whose old-fashioned trolleys are iconic in the city’s wedding scene has abandoned the nuptial industry rather than serve same-sex couples.

The owner of Discover Annapolis Tours said he decided to walk away from $50,000 in annual revenue instead of compromising his Christian convictions when same-sex marriages become legal in Maryland in less than a week. And he has urged prospective clients to lobby state lawmakers for a religious exemption for wedding vendors. While most wedding businesses across the country embraced the chance to serve same-sex couples, a small minority has struggled to balance religious beliefs against business interests.

Wedding vendors elsewhere who refused to accommodate same-sex couples have faced discrimination lawsuits — and lost. Legal experts said Discover Annapolis Tours sidesteps legal trouble by avoiding all weddings.

“If they’re providing services to the public, they can’t discriminate who they provide their services to,” said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The commission enforces public accommodation laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

And where, precisely, were those public-accommodation laws passed? Is that local, state or national law? This is crucial information that readers need to understand the legal debate that is raging around that issue. Plenty of cities, and some states, have added sexual orientation to these laws, but others have not.

Late in the story, The Sun team did offer some information about that crucial side of the issue, after talking to Frank Schubert, an opponent of laws that redefine marriage. A direct explanation of the state law shows up at the very end of this long report.

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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.

WPost further expands borders of postmodern Catholicism

For several decades now, people linked to Jewish institutions have debated whether it is possible to be a Jew and, let’s say, a Southern Baptist, or a Buddhist, at the same time. This is even the kind of question that has made it to high courts in Israel.

Not that long ago, journalists in the Pacific Northwest were faced with this question: Can one be an Episcopal priest and a Muslim at the same time? It’s hard to say whether that issue has been settled or not, since Episcopalians in different zip codes often do not agree with one another.

It’s obvious that Catholics, especially here in America, have been arguing about some similar subjects in recent years. For example, does someone need to be a Catholic in good standing — in terms of basic beliefs and sacramental practices, such as Confession — in order to take Communion during an actual Catholic Mass? Under Catholic doctrine, it’s clear that this is the kind of issue that is settled at some level of the official hierarchy, meaning Rome, bishops, confessors, etc. However, some Catholic insist that (here comes the spirit, or Spirit, of Vatican II) that individual Catholics should now decide that kind of issue for themselves.

Now, The Washington Post has printed a story that raises another issue of this kind, one that, frankly, stuns me, taking the whole Catholicism-as-democracy concept to a new level.

I am not surprised, of course, that this story is about same-sex marriage, but let’s set that aside for a moment.

The story focuses on Chip DiPaula Jr., a somewhat symbolic figure in Maryland and national politics for reasons explained at the top of the story:

A decade ago, Chip DiPaula Jr. was the architect of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s unexpected victory as Maryland’s first Republican governor in a generation.

Today, he is part of something that might seem just as unlikely: a political alliance with the Democratic governor who ended Ehrlich’s tenure. DiPaula has been working alongside Gov. Martin O’Malley since this summer on the campaign to uphold Maryland’s same-sex marriage law.

It is a cause, DiPaula says, that transcends partisan politics — and for him is personal.

“The current governor and I don’t agree on a whole lot of other issues, but you know what? That’s beside the point for me,” said DiPaula, who talked openly for the first time in a media interview about being gay. “I’m involved to make our lives better.”

Like I said, I am not concerned about the fact that there are liberal Republicans who back gay marriage or even that they back it for person reasons. However, there is one key word in the very next sentence that interests me, to say the least:

DiPaula is not on the cusp of marrying anyone himself but said he greatly respects the institution, and he has officiated at the weddings of a few straight friends and family members.

DePaula has “officiated” at weddings? In what role? Later on in the story readers are told:

DiPaula, a Catholic, came out as gay to his family and friends a few years earlier, while in his mid-30s. His orientation wasn’t exactly a secret in Annapolis — Ehrlich “absolutely” knew, DiPaula said — but it was something he did not talk about publicly. …

Though he cannot legally marry in Maryland himself, DiPaula is an authorized nondenominational Christian minister and has officiated at the weddings of a few family members and friends. In 2010, he officiated at the marriage of two longtime Democratic staffers: Kristin F. Jones, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), and Joseph C. Bryce, chief lobbyist for O’Malley.

So here is the issue for the Post copy desk: DiPaula, we are told, is both a Roman Catholic and an “authorized” — I read that as “ordained” — clergy person in a Protestant denomination or sort-of-denomination. So, not only is he a Catholic and a Protestant at the same time, but he is a Catholic (in some sense of that word, almost certainly including the reception of Communion) and a Protestant minister at the same time.

Is this possible? Is this possible for the simple reason that DiPaula says so? At this point, in other words, in the eyes of Post editors, does the Catholic Church itself have any say in deciding whether a person is or is not a Catholic?

Just asking.