The Newsweek Same Sex Marriage Kerfuffle

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gambled this week, and he gambled big.  In what is, by any measure and extraordinary piece of journalism, Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller wrote a cover story that basically says, the Bible does not define marriage nor does it condemn same sex marriage, and anyone who thinks it does is a closed-minded bigot who twists the Bible beyond recognition.

And by “extraordinary,” I mean not-at-all-ordinary.  Whether or not you agree with the gist and thrust of Miller’s piece, it is stunning to see one of the three major weeklies turn one of their own reporters into an opinion essayist, and to run said essay as the cover story.  It’s one thing when Joe Klein or Charles Krauthammer opinionates in the pages of TIME, but you don’t see David Van Biema, their religion writer, inveighing against the Anglican Church in America or passing judgment on Mormons’ sacred undergarments.

There’s an historic wall between the editorial division and the reporters of a newspaper or newsweekly.  Thus, regardless of all the conservative hand-wringing over the leftward tilt of the media, the media could still maintain the patina of objectivity.

But Meacham is no dummy.  He can look across the media landscape and see that the outlets that wear their politics on their sleeves (think FOX, WSJ, MSNBC, The Atlantic) are succeeding — or at least surviving — while the old guard is having a bad decade, bad year, and really, really bad week.  In fact, just today, the WSJ reported the Newsweek is joining the throng of media to make cuts this week — on top of 111 staffers cut last Spring — and to consequently shrink coverage and page count.

In that same article, Meacham says that he’s shifting the periodical: “We are trying to be more provocative.”  This week’s issue is Exhibit A.

And it’s no surprise, the blogosphere is in an uproar.  Everyone’s started in their respective corners and come out swinging.

On the right, Al Mohler predictably says that Miller’s is an agenda-driven piece and that it avoids the commonsense interpretation of biblical passages.  In a nice literary flourish, he puts the phrase “progressive scholars” in scare quotes, hardly hiding his scorn for such a foul tribe.  He lands the plane where his own tribe often do, blaming the MSM for having a scary-elite-liberal bias:

The national news media are collectively embarrassed by the passage of
Proposition 8 in California.  Gay rights activists are publicly calling
on the mainstream media to offer support for gay marriage, arguing that
the media let them down in November.  It appears that Newsweek
intends to do its part to press for same-sex marriage.  Many observers
believe that the main obstacle to this agenda is a resolute opposition
grounded in Christian conviction.  Newsweek clearly intends to reduce that opposition.

Erin, guest-blogging for Rod, takes particular aim at Meacham, who is known in Washington circles as a faithful, if progressive, Episcopalian.  She lets Larison do her talking for her, and then sums it up with a broadside against our supposedly relativistic age that must make Rod’s vacation even more relaxing:

[This] battle among Christians is a battle over Christian morality, over
the notion that God does indeed expect His faithful followers to
conduct themselves according to moral standards which are expressed in
the Bible and taught faithfully in Christian tradition. Our
relativistic age has had a problem with the whole idea, and is
constantly re-inventing the notion of morality to mean whatever we want
it to mean.

Mollie Ziegler at GetReligion is particularly torqued.  She applies the phrases “unvelievable ignorance,” “grossly unfair” and “junior high” to Miller — and that’s just about the first paragraph of the essay!  In three separate posts, Ziegler accuses Miller of hermeneutical hackery, error-riddled and emotion-driven journalism, and cherrypicking her sources.

Predictably, Christianity Today, NRO, and The American Spectator all come out swinging, too.

In the center, a couple of Bnet bloggers try to stay above the fray. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield finds Miller’s exegesis lacking since she both excoriates conservatives for using singular verses out of context and herself uses singular verses out of context.  “Deep down,” he writes, “neither group really cares as much about the Bible, as they
do about the conclusion which they have reached on gay marriage and
about having God on their side.”

Steve Waldman, a Newsweek alum, and now my boss’s boss here at Bnet, is dumbfounded that Meacham has taken Newsweek, seemingly overnight, from a newsweekly to an “out-and-out opinion-oriented magazine.”  Steve promises a follow-up post on the substance of the article itself, which he thinks, “does raise some very legitimate and provocative points.” 

On the left, Paul Raushebush calls Miller’s piece “excellent and provocative,” but then merely copies and pastes the first several paragraphs from declares,

In less than 3000 words, Ms. Miller produces one of the more reasoned
and calm studies to date on the context and role marriage is given in
religious text. At the same time, sincere respect is demonstrated for
the core messages of the Bible, including the importance of family and
the gift of love.

Susan Smith, on the Meacham-edited On Faith team blog, sings Millers praises,

The sad thing about all this is that we religious types make our
insecurities, issues and fears the issues of God. The Bible does not
support that. The Bible supports a life that mandates that we help all
people feel the love, acceptance and presence of God. That would be
everyone, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor.

The rest of the left, as far as I can tell, is thus far silent.  Nothing at Huffington, the DailyKos, [UPDATE: DailyKos take here] The New Republic, Mother Jones, or the Utne Reader.  The right may be right that the media tilts left, but as one who is progressive and religious, I’m particularly pissed at how little play religion gets in the progressive press.  This dust-up is a case-in-point.

My own take: I appreciate what Meacham is trying to do.  I have a great deal of respect for him, and I think he’s in a very tough spot, what with the media sand shifting beneath his feet.  MSNBC made the shift to being outwardly on the left.  As a result, they are kicking CNN’s subtly leftist butt in primetime, and running neck-and-neck with FOX.  It makes a lot of sense for Newsweek to run more opinion pieces more often.

But the problem, methinks, is that Miller has not established a reputation as a pundit, and Meacham threw her to the lions.  He knew she’d be savaged by the right, as he notes in his column, but I think she was thoroughly unprepared.  As such, she is deservedly being taken to task for cherrypicking her sources and her biblical scholars, and for not conveying the many complexities and nuances of the SSM debate.

On the other hand, there’s only so much you can say in 3,000 words.  That’s why I’m so disappointed that none of the major mags on the left have come to her defense.  But I know why they haven’t: THEY DON’T HAVE ANY WRITERS WHO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT RELIGION!!!  (Yes, I’m shouting.)

Hopefully Rod and I can add more light and less heat to this debate.

[UPDATE: Andrew, back from vacation, weighs in.]

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  • saadaya

    I don’t think it matters so much who’s on the left or who’s on the wrong … the hard facts that she presented on the article are that: FACT. Accept it! Labeling ideas makes them easier to discard when convenient, without considering them and without being challenged by them.
    The first point:
    The Bible does not institute the monogamous marriage institution that fundies would have us believe
    Abraham had two wives.
    He cast Hagar and his own firstborn Ishmael into the desert, under the whispers of his own wife.
    Jacob, in Genesis 30, has sex with four women: two wives and two slaves / concubines. This is in ALL of the translations and interpretations of the Bible, in black and white, you can read it right now in your Bible if you wish.
    Not only that but his last son, Joseph, was sold into slavery by jealous half siblings: whenever this paradigm of polygamy exists there will always be fighting and jealousy within the family.
    In other words, the models that the Bible offers for family values are dysfunctional in the first place. Someone had to say this.
    Today, polygamy is obsolete. We all know this. Why not say it?
    AND, secondly (as the APA pointed out so long ago), monogamy is the best model for gay relationships, and we should be promoting gay marriage, not demoralizing it.
    Promiscuity cannot be healthier than monogamy. Neither is celibacy, which obviously is an unfair choice.
    I think the article was important and necessary, and frankly many people are just PLAIN TIRED of the lack of honesty among Christian conservatives when it comes to this issue. Gay people should not have to live alone and die alone. There is no need for that. Everyone dreams of one day having a family, even if it’s just a little one with a partner and a dog.

  • tripp fuller

    Tony Jones should be a new employee of NewsWeek for future religion articles.

  • Flex

    I agree with the Rabbi when he states that neither side cares much about god on their side when they use “it” to validate their point for, or against gay marriage. It seems like contemporary christianity doesn’t give a damn about god. Christianity has become more like a cult obsessed with gay life. It is very weird, because some gay people don’t have any concern with religion. So, when religious people throw themselves in the way of gay rights, it pisses everybody off who wasn’t asking for the religious opinion.

  • If you want to interact thoughtfully with this debate your might want to consider Dr. Robert Gagnon’s piece in response to Miller. He is probably the foremost scholar in the US on the Bible and homosexuality. You can get his essay here:

  • NS

    Okay here’s the thing: I care about the religious/spiritual/theological conversation around the issue of same sex attraction/relationships/marriage, but it’s not the most important piece of this conversation. Something you said pushes my buttons. Who cares that Miller is not an established pundit. I mean honestly, her job is to write and this is a hot button topic right now, so she wrote about it. While I support your efforts to discuss this topic from a religious framework, which I think is necessary for a certain audience, and I would gladly celebrate your employment as a religious pundit at Newsweek, the focus of this topic is about relationships.
    We can go on and on and on and on (and on) about the social/religious/familial/cultural principles of this issue and argue about who is best qualified to speak on this topic, but the truth is Miller put this in front of millions of readers, who can no longer ignore this issue in their relationships.
    Last night I spent time with people who are working at a grassroots effort to support same sex unions. It was a lovely evening that moved me to tears. Numerous people stood up and told the story of project 515 and confirmed their support for the project ( We were all there to support the efforts of project 515 because we are in relationships with people who feel like outsiders in a system that demands everything from them, but refuses to accept their sexuality. We can discuss this issue until we are bored to death by it, or we can integrate it into our daily lives to redeem the inequality of our systems.
    I guess what I’m saying is the train has left the station. Miller can cherrypick her sources, you can tell us everything we need to know about why SSM should be realized theologically, and the nonprogressive religious folks among us will tell us why theologically speaking it should not become a reality, but the fact of the matter is, this issue asks that straight people spend time in relationships with individuals who identify as attracted to the same sex.
    Miller told a piece of the story, another part of the story is being told here on your blog, I spend my time listening to stories of people who are living with the outdated rules of our systems, and all of us should spend our time being in relationship with people who identify as attracted to the same sex to learn about who they are; they are more than their sexuality, religion or cultural group. It’s all about relationships.

  • Fantastic comment NS.
    I am a Baptist pastor who holds church in a gay bar in Newcastle, Australia. The gay people I talk to aren’t interested in the fundamentalist debate; they are interested in having hope and purpose for their lives and so I deal in relationships as well.
    I have often said, in discussion, that it is easy to throw around scriptures from 1,000 miles away but when you are say with gay people seeking to love them as I love all people I minister to then it is simply not that easy to wade in with dogma.


  • Interesting take. My own reading was a bit more positive, because I didn’t see the piece as making any claims to pure journalistic objectivity. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, the role of the newsweekly has changed significantly. Offering in depth analysis of important events and issues always involves some kind of interpretation, and at least Miller was being upfront about her own particular bias.
    The outcry from the right is predictable and frankly not very interesting, and it just shows how fully they rely on sound-bytes in place of actual dialogue.
    Generally I agree with you, Tony, about mainstream journalists knowing nothing about religion. This particular Newsweek article, however, was a welcome exception. Perhaps Tripp is right and Newsweek should hire you for future pieces.

  • Thanks for the post, Tony. Yeah, it’s certainly interesting to speculate re Meacham’s gamble. On the one hand, I accept Miller’s basic point and–for years–have wondered why it wasn’t mentioned more often. “Traditional marriage” as it is used today in the US, is relatively modern.
    That said, my biggest issue with her piece is her failure to really dig deep into the moderate non-literal readers of the Bible who would push back. It’s easy to cast the literalists as a bit far out (heck, Bush did today and is causing an uproar of his own), but it did seem a bit cherry-picked, a bit too easy. I couldn’t get away with that in a seminary class, for example. But that’s another genre completely.
    My unsubstantial opinion is here:

  • NS, I hate to point out the obvious here, but the title of the piece IS “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage,” so in this instance, the conversation is all about religion. To that end, it would certainly help to have a noted expert in religion and religious thought pen the essay.
    And, ultimately, religion is all about relationships, too. It’s an important piece to the whole relationship puzzle, and if understood in a healthy, life-giving way, can add a lot to building those very relations you are talking about.

  • A Walker

    This article from Newsweek is irrelevant.
    First, journalism today is all about advocacy and lobbying, not objective reporting. Newsweek is simply an advocate of SSM. (Is anyone surprised?) FOX is the only “fair and balanced” media outlet, and this is only because the station hires self-professed advocates on each side of an issue and lets them duke it out over and over again. Fair indeed, but it’s still a world of advocates.
    Next, liberal progressives don’t care what the bible says (and they know it speaks against homosexuality). They’re going full speed ahead with their lust for societal reengineering and experimentation, and they are attempting to stop the dissenting voices who aren’t going along with their mad scientist agenda of human-animal hybrids, killing the aged and infants, socialism, and the elimination of sexual morality and responsibility. It’s all a brave new world for these people, and they won’t be stopped until they have committed a national suicide. Then the sensible and principled among us will step in, pick up the broken pieces, and get to work building a sustainable future based on time-tested principles and ancient wisdom.

  • Kyle

    can flex be your next quote of the day?
    “It seems like contemporary Christianity doesn’t give a damn about god. Christianity has become more like a cult obsessed with gay life.”
    I think that’s pretty money.
    oh, and not to be rude, but when’s the blogalogue actually going to start?

  • Extremely interesting, Tony. Thanks for this.

  • Jeff

    A Walker for President!

  • panthera

    whisp -just a quiet little note – typing in all capitals is considered to be shouting in the blog world.
    you may safely assume that all of us here are capable of reading without your yelling at us.
    Dear A Walker. The nice thing about reading your posts is that they serve as a lesson in humility for me. Every time I am about to add a comment in Latin, German or Greek (which I admit to reading very poorly) to underscore a point I wish to make, I only have to think of you and – whoosh! – (you may visualize me with outstretched pinky and exaggeratedly limp wrist, dramatically holding down the delete key) the non-English commentary is gone Why? Because I struggle to be understood and not to alienate.
    By now, we all know how much you despise us. There is little to be gained from continuing in your haranguing tone. At times, you remind me of me. Hum, hopefully without the chipped colorless fingernail polish.
    End of rant. I read the Newsweek article on line. Certainly it is lacking in sophistication, but what a delight to see that non-hate-filled Christians are beginning to enter the debate.
    I wonder if conservative but non-hate filled Christians are really comfortable with the Christian partners they have aligned themselves with. We are increasingly ever more frequently – not only here- a split on the Christian “right”, with every single person who places love ahead of hate being soundly drummed out of the “right”. At this rate of concentration, it is only a question of time before they will be so focused on their hatred, they will have ceased listening to God’s message completely.

  • eric

    well, here we go again.. Have any of you read Unchristian, the book about how we look to young people? I do believe Christian love trumps all the judgment:: leave that to God. When I read my Bible, I hear a whole lot about money, hypocrisy, greed, lying, oh, and well, maybe a thing or two about sexual topics… I do kind of think the Bible does not condone homosexuality, but oddly enough, it seems to be a fairly tangential issue. Let’s remember to read Isaiah and all that crazy stuff about caring for the poor, and how God will punish the rich for their lack of care, etc.

  • Patton Dodd

    Cody makes a salient point–Newsweek tried to make the religious case for marriage, and, as Tony says, didn’t bother tapping a writer who is very informed about religion. Miller has strong suits, but a subtle comprehension of Christian devotion isn’t one of them (I think often of her take on Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”:
    Call me a biased Beliefnet editor, but I applaud this post. Miller’s article and the responses to it have been swirling about a lot this week, and it was refreshing to arrive at a bird’s eye view that helpfully summarized a lot of commentary and reserved its own (notably muted, even with the shouting) opinion until the end.


    One correction — you say that “the left” has ignored the story or failed to come to Lisa Miller’s support, citing a half-dozen sites including DailyKos where you couldn’t find anything. But there was an almost effusively supportive diary on DailyKos two days before you wrote that, and it can be found here:
    I have yet to check out the others you mention, but if you are upset — I believe “pissed” was your word — at the lack of attention given to religion by the progressive press and DailyKos is your example, you might be relieved to look again, not least at the number of complaints by professed atheists at too much religion on DailyKos.
    As for the commenter who recommended Robert Gagnon’s completely predictable “refutation” of Lisa Miller’s points, calling him “probably the foremost scholar in the US on the Bible and homosexuality,” all I can say to the rest of you is: don’t waste your time, unless you’d like to see an exercise in cherry-picking that eclipses any similar practice of which Lisa Miller might be accused. Unfortunately one dare not begin giving examples for fear of producing something as long and vacuous as almost all of Gagnon’s own works. It is especially offensive that Gagnon puts Lisa Miller’s reference to Walter Brueggemann as a great Bible scholar in scare quotes, but perhaps he is annoyed that Brueggemann gets so much more attention than he does (try a comparative Google, for fun).

  • matt burnett

    In the “more light rather than heat: category, I found it helpful to note that over at Christianity Today, under their CT Classic, they have recently re-posted Dr. Edith Humphrey’s article. Well written, nuanced, compassionate – check out

  • I’m not sure bout this Newsweek article. I liked it, but I think it misunderstands the problem. It makes a bad choice to fight the battle on religious turf. This is not the best way to convince the many Christians who are against gay marriage to change their minds. I think maybe there is a better approach that moves past the divisions over what the bible really says about gay marriage.

  • Cody Stauffer

    A Walker for president? Didn’t we just have him in there?

  • Galileo (science) was right and the Catholic Church was wrong and we finally had to admit it 500 years later.
    Science has some weighty evidence for us and we should listen. We are hurting our own 3% of youth who realize that they are gay and want everything that our society promises them: marriage included.
    The American Psychiatric Ass’n has confirmed that sexual orientation is natural, biologically induced, morally neutral, immutable, neither contagious nor learned, and has no relation to an individuals ability to form deep and lasting relationships, to parent children, to work, or to contribute to society. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Ass’n, and the American Psychiatric Ass’n have all endorsed civil marriage for same sex couples because marriage strengthens the mental and physical health and the longevity of couples, and provides greater legal and financial security for children, parents, and seniors. When Americas premier child and mental health associations and their expert panels endorse marriage equality, there is thus no ethical reason to discriminate against gay people and their children.
    We need to make a place for gays in our faiths just like we have made for women, Blacks, red-headeds and left-handeds. All used to be thought less deserving in history.

  • Kate O’Hanlan, MD

    ALL: please visit the below websites to see that science has heaping evidence that homosexuals really deserve to be incorporated into everyday American life. No one will be converted because orientation is not contagious. These are not lefty organizations.
    American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry
    American Psychiatric Association
    American Psychological Association
    American Academy of Pediatrics
    National Association of Social Workers
    American Anthropological Association
    Child Welfare League of America
    North American Council on Adoptable Children
    American Psychoanalytic Association
    American Medical Association

  • A Walker

    Panthera: By now, we all know how much you despise us.
    A Walker replies: Um, disagreement is not despite. Please learn to make this distinction. I’m for civil unions, as that is a contractual situation that can be applied to the gay coupling scenario without wiping out the contract specifically written for and suited to the heterosexual family scenario (i.e., marriage law). Redefining marriage as a temporal romance contract is economically and socially deadly to heterosexual women and their children.

  • Samantha Trimble

    I agree that this was a largely ignorant piece. I have years of experience and education in religion; not just Christianity but nearly every world religion as well. And this was an ignorant piece. I could take her task for the stupid things she said but then again why point out ignorance? It’s not as if she or any of the media or the center or left of America is going to give a darn to listen and have their views changed. They want to believe what they want to believe no matter what. People don’t want to ascribe to Christian beliefs? Fine. But, don’t try to twist them and warp them and say they mean something wholly else and that they apply differently especially just to further an agenda and/or when you’re ignorant on the subject.
    Funny…..she never mentions the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in her article. Nor any of the dozens of passages in the Bible about marriage being man and wife. Then again….I guess anybody can take a few words or phrases and turn them into anything. Idiots. And America is being led by them.
    As a Christian who nearly wants to give civil, secular rights for gay unions, I now want to so deeply entrench myself on the right simply because I and my beliefs now feel attacked. Watch it! You pick a fight with me and what I believe and I will defend myself and beliefs! There’s no worse way than to halt progress than to pick a fight. Stupid idiots. Just trying to sell magazines and get ratings and dragging down 75% of Americans’ faith beliefs with them.

  • Samantha Trimble

    To Hanlan:
    And if so many “sure” people have been wrong before, especially when its been vogue and in fashion to adhere to this value or that throughout history, then they can be wrong on this. Time will tell, especially if people like you will quit telling us what to believe and trying to manipulate people’s thoughts. We’re not stupid so stop treating us like we are.
    As for all the “evidence” you propose, the APA and many of the other groups you mention have hidden agendas and lobbyists and private investors. To the APA, which goes off of brain based science, sure there is nothing wrong! But, psychology doesn’t explain sociology and most people don’t want this shoved down their necks. A very small percentage of people in this country are gay and I refuse to let such a small minority dominate the country and ruin the very institutions that Christians place their salvation in. This is a democracy and it is rule by the majority. Accept the people’s will and stop throwing your pseudo consensus opinions out at everybody and calling them medical science. Psychology, outside of studying the parts of the brain, is not a hard science. There is no consensus in the psychology field so stop telling everyone there is one.
    The fact is, not all psychologists agree, most Americans are not gay and homosexuality doesn’t agree with their beliefs. So maybe you should find a psychology site somewhere to offer your “evidence”. Stop making it seem so much more INNOCUOUS than what it really is in hopes that America will swallow it and believe it.

  • Jacob

    Fox has two and a half times the viewers that MSNBC does….that’s not exactly “running neck and neck” smart guy.
    The only leftist who can get elected in this country is black…and he didn’t get elected because he’s a leftist.
    Of course you don’t see a problem with secularist leftist “progressive” bias because YOU’RE A PART OF IT! I love how all you lefty lunatics act like “the religious” are pitted against secularists when it’s usually fake Catholics and other Christians ruining our society with their “progressive beliefs” in the first place.