Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

Yeah, right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

Things start rather slowly, before candor strikes:

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

But what about the word “culture” as in, well, you know what?

People sometimes ask if everybody is liberal politically, but I’d say that journalists define themselves less by where they are on the political spectrum and more as skeptics providing oversight to whoever is in power.

Classic answer. How many Americans still accept that, when looking Times coverage of, well, you know, certain issues?

I would say, though, that while there is a range of ideology from liberal to conservative on political and fiscal issues, on social issues most journalists (everywhere,not just at The Times) tend to have an urban bias: They are more likely to be for gun control and gay marriage than the general public, and much more likely to believe in evolution. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to have working class backgrounds.

That’s more like it. Now, what is the religious, the doctrinal content (even strictly secular beliefs have doctrinal implications) of an “urban bias”? Is that essentially saying that elite urbanites find it easier to embrace doctrinally liberal forms of religion, as opposed to those who believe in transcendent, eternal doctrines?

What was it that William Proctor — author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times” — said long ago?

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Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

And this just in.

The editorial team of The Washington Post has published a direct quotation from an outside voice, a figure of authority, who supports the doctrines and disciplines of the United Methodist Church, which reflect centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and sex. This is the first time that this old-school journalistic device — a throwback to the days in which balance and fairness were journalistic virtues — has been used in the newspaper’s national-level coverage of this local-news story in rural Pennsylvania.

While the Post has done an admirable job of quoting local voices linked to the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor accused of violating his ordination vows by performing his gay son’s wedding rite, the crucial framing material explaining the national context and meaning of this story has consistently been drawn from supporters of efforts to change and modernize United Methodist doctrines. (For a previous GetReligion post on this story, click here.)

First, here is how this local news story opens:

SPRING CITY, Pa. – A jury of clergy Tuesday night suspended for 30 days a pastor who officiated at the wedding of his gay son, telling him he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

The dozens of gay and lesbian advocates in the audience threw their folding chairs on the floor in protest after the announcement and began singing hymns and performing Communion in the middle of the gym that had been used as a courtroom. …

Gay advocates across the country lit up Twitter with anger at the ruling, which many saw as a “de facto defrocking,” but the Rev. Frank Schaefer and some members of his congregation, a small country church in Lebanon, said the jury could have removed him immediately. The call for him to follow the rules “in their entirety” might give him a chance to argue again that he believes he is, they suggested.

Once again, it is clear that Schaefer has merely violated some church rules. Also note that the Post team claims that the key question is whether he “can” embrace church rules, which avoids the issue at the heart of the trial — which is that, when ordained, Schaefer had already vowed to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his denomination.

This brings us to the shocking quote from a leader in an unnamed conservative United Methodist group:

Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of a traditional group of Methodists who advised the church counsel in this case, said he was pleased with the penalty and did not consider it ambiguous.

“I think it registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place. At the same time gives a time of grace for Reverend Schaefer to reconsider and potentially change his mind,” Lambrecht said.

The key word in that quotation is “covenant,” a reference to the ordination vows in Schaefer’s past.

In your typical online dictionary, “covenant” is defined this way:

1. A binding agreement; a compact. …
2. Law
a. A formal sealed agreement or contract. …
3. In the Bible, God’s promise to the human race.

A covenant has two sides. Schaeffer’s ordination vows where part of a covenant to which he consented.

Once again, the Post team does a fine job of showing that there is little or no unity in the United Methodist Church on issues linked to marriage and sex, although — for several decades — liberals in the church have fallen short in their efforts to change the denomination’s doctrines. You can see the same tensions and divisions in this Religion News Service report on the Schaefer trial.

I have been following the United Methodist wars close since the early 1980s, when I began covering the case of the Rev. Julian Rush in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual conference. With that background, I thought that this passage in the new Post report was especially well done:

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