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About that Times column on 'Open Embrace'

For almost a quarter of a century, I have written the weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Please note my intentional use of the word "column." As a columnist, I write about subjects that are interesting to me and that I think are newsworthy. I strive to quote both sides in heated debates and I always strive for accuracy, of course. That's simply journalism DNA.

However, I am a columnist, not a news-beat reporter. This confuses many readers, in large part because many newspapers across North America run my column with a regular byline, as opposed to using a logo that includes my photograph -- a visual clue that this is a column with a personal angle to it. Also, I have never felt the need to write in first-person voice all the time (although I do so when needed, if I have a personal connection to a specific story or event), which means that my work tends to be rather newsy, rather than openly opinionated.

I bring this up because I have received several emails asking for my response to Mark Oppenheimer's latest "Beliefs" column in the New York Times, the one that ran under the headline, "An Evolving View of Natural Family Planning." That's the one that opens like this:

In August 1999, Bethany Patchin, an 18-year-old college sophomore from Wisconsin, wrote in an article for Boundless, an evangelical Web magazine, that Christians should not kiss before marriage. Sam Torode, a 23-year-old Chicagoan, replied in a letter to the editor that Ms. Patchin’s piece could not help but “drive young Christian men mad with desire.”

The two began corresponding by e-mail, met in January 2000 and were married that November. Nine months later, Ms. Torode (she took her husband’s name) gave birth to a son, Gideon. Over the next six years, the Torodes had four more progeny: another son, two daughters and a book, “Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.”

In “Open Embrace,” the Torodes endorsed natural family planning -- tracking a woman’s ovulation and limiting intercourse to days when she is not fertile -- but rejected all forms of artificial contraception, including the pill and condoms. The book sold 7,000 copies after its publication in 2002 and was celebrated in the anticontraception movement, which remains largely Roman Catholic but has a growing conservative Protestant wing. As young Protestants who conceived their first child on their honeymoon, the Torodes made perfect evangelists.

That was then, this is now.

So what is the big twist, the news hook that struck many readers are the "good news" celebrated in this Times column about the "evolving" views of this celebrated couple?

In 2006, the Torodes wrote on the Web that they no longer believed natural family planning was the best method of birth control. They divorced in 2009. Both now attend liberal churches. Ms. Patchin -- that is her name once again -- now says she uses birth control, and she even voted for Barack Obama for president.

In other words, saith these readers, reason has triumphed over stupidity and all is right with the real world. The question people have been asking is whether this "story" is, well, good journalism.

The problem, of course, is that this is not a "news story" -- it's a column. It's a column, even though it is basically written in news style and it focuses on half of a subject that could have been covered as hard news. It focuses on the half that is intriguing to the columnist and, one would assume, the kinds of people who read the New York Times.

As a column, it is not balanced. It does not quote people, especially women, who testify about the positive role that NFP has played in their relationships with their husbands. It does not even need to probe the deeper and unexplored questions raised in the piece, such as whether the marriage was in fact shattered by the practice of NFP or disagreements that grew out of it.

Where is the rest of the story? I understand that people want to ask that question, but it's not a question that Times editors have to answer in this case.

Oppenheimer is a columnist. He gets to craft this sad parable the way that he wants to craft it. He gets to frame the debate to favor the views of the people that he views as intelligent and acceptable. And the Times gets to select who it wants as columnists (so does Scripps Howard).

The most frustrating moment for me is found right here:

“Open Embrace” also embraced the view that children stabilize marriage, for “with each child a couple has, their chances of divorce are significantly reduced.” So what went wrong for the Torodes, whose children now range in age from 4 to 9?

That's a good question, one the column does not attempt to answer. Also, it's fair game, I think, to note that the column does not offer a quote or two from any evidence that exists to prove that point -- that children stabilize marriages, not destroy them. For a moment, a reader can glimpse a door into a larger subject. Then the door vanishes.

There are other moments that will grate at readers on the other side of this debate. This one hooked me.

Today, neither Ms. Patchin nor Mr. Torode is part of the anticontraception community, nor conservative Christianity. In Nashville, Ms. Patchin, who does accounting work from home, attends a church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the most liberal of the Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Mr. Torode attends an Episcopal church with a female priest.

Once again, note that traditional believers are always "anti" something, not "pro" something else. It's a frame that helps shape the picture.

Also, as a person who hangs out in Nashville quite a bit, I would note that a PCUSA congregation in that part of the world is not automatically "liberal" and, for all we know, the female priest at that Bible Belt parish may in fact be a charismatic. We don't know, unless Patchin and Torode gave the columnist specific information that is not included in the piece.

The bottom line: This is a column, not a news piece. Readers have to deal with that.

The larger question for me -- in a news business in which opinion is much, much, much cheaper than real news -- is whether more editors are simply saying that religion is, as a subject in daily life in the real world, a matter of mere opinion and not news. In other words, why try to report facts when you are dealing with a subject that is built on, well, "Beliefs" and beliefs alone?

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