Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial November 21, 2013

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:

The case is the first of what could be several trials as Methodist ministers who have been quietly conducting same-gender weddings become more bold, in part because legal same-sex marriage has led more of their gay congregants to want to marry. Experts said that the denomination may be at a tipping point and that the verdict in the Schaefer case would be closely watched. Methodists, like much of American Christianity, are divided over Biblical authority and interpretation.

“We are really standing on a precipice, and [this verdict] will set the tone,” said Scott Campbell, a Harvard University chaplain who is advising several of the five pastors officials are considering disciplining over issues concerning sexuality.

If either wing of the church considers the penalty too extreme — too harsh or too lenient — it could push the denomination further toward a split, Campbell said. “I’m hearing more talk of schism than I’ve heard in 42 years in the church.”

And what do traditional United Methodists have to say about the potential for schism?

Sorry, wrong news story.

As I was reading back through some of the Schaefer case coverage, I was reminded of the classic essay by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen entitled “Journalism is Itself a Religion.” In it, he notes that journalists are often so committed to what he calls “The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy” that they struggle to accurately and fairly cover the views of the orthodox.

In other words, they are so committed to the absolute truth that there is no permanent, transcendent, absolute truth that they are unable to cover some stories in a neutral, journalistic fashion. The result is advocacy journalism rooted in their own belief in absolute truth. Here at GetReligion, we urge journalists to strive to cover believers on both sides of these debates in as accurate and balanced manner as possible (the classically liberal American model of the press).

At one point, Rosen considers material from one of my Scripps Howard columns, back in 2001. The block quotes in his article are printed in italics in this version.

Ninety percent of the commentary on this subject takes in another kind of question entirely: What results from the “relative godlessness of mainstream journalists?” Or, in a more practical vein: How are editors and reporters striving to improve or beef up their religion coverage?

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.

This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.

Yet here is the part that intrigued me:

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”

In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims — specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:

“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”

The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism — how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it — for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.

By “the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism,” is he referring to the orthodoxy that there is no orthodoxy?

Meanwhile, in the Post coverage of the Schaefer trial, it appears that the editors are struggling to provide balanced reporting about a debate between two camps of religious believers — the camp of the progressives and the camp of the orthodox (Hello, Dr. James Davison Hunter).

It’s pretty clear which side the Post team believes is preaching the correct theology, in this story. The Post team seems to have no doubt which side is absolutely right, which side possesses the absolute truth.

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