I came across two stories within moments of each other yesterday. Both, ostensibly, deal with the same Barack Obama town hall event in Ohio. And that's where the similarities end. Here's the first paragraph (of three paragraphs!) from the Associated Press:
Democrat Barack Obama says he's tired of questions about his religion. The Democratic presidential candidate told a town hall meeting Sunday in Nelsonvile, Ohio, in the state's rural southeast, that he is a devout Christian who prays to Jesus every night. He told audience members they would feel right at home at his church in Chicago.
That, plus two additional sentences, was the entire story. The other story is from the Baptist Press, which is one of the more thorough denominational press outlets out there. I'll give you just the first paragraph from the piece, written by Michael Foust:
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama defended his belief in same-sex civil unions March 2 by referencing Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and then implicitly criticizing those who view Romans as a binding teaching on homosexuality.
The Baptist Press story goes on to quote Obama's remarks and analyze them from their particular vantage point. But I couldn't believe that was the first I heard of the remarks. A search shows that there was other coverage of the remarks, disproportionately from the gay and Christian press. But there were a few mainstream attempts.
The thing I found most interesting, however, was that these stories mentioned Obama's remarks about the Sermon on the Mount more than they mentioned Obama's views of Romans. And when they did mention the Sermon on the Mount, they either didn't specify what portion of the sermon Obama thought dealt with same-sex civil unions or they speculated about Obama's interpretation.
Here's how the Baptist Press handled it:
The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7, the passage in Romans is found in chapter 1, verses 26-32.
The Los Angeles Times wrote:
That likely would be "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy" over "Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves due penalty for their perversion."
Obama's mention of the Sermon on the Mount in justifying legal recognition of same-sex unions may have been a reference to the Golden Rule: "Do to others what you would have them do to you." Or it may have been a reference to another famous line: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."
Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic says CNS reporter Terry Jeffrey has it right:
Having heard Obama work the Sermon on the Mount into several riffs before, I think Jeffrey, who is apt to want to misread Obama, gets it pretty much right. Obama has Matthew 7:1-6 in mind -- the discourse on judgementalism --
I have an idea. Rather than speculating, how about one of these fancy reporters ask Obama which specific portion of the Sermon on the Mount he was referencing! I didn't go to journalism school, though, so maybe I'm wrong.
As you might imagine, with so much confusion about the Sermon on the Mount -- much less the portion of Romans dealing with homosexual behavior -- coverage of this story hasn't been too great. Obama called that passage obscure. What did he mean by that? In what way does he see a conflict between the two passages? Obama also talked about abortion and how his support for legal abortion does not make him less of a Christian. Entire stories could be written about just that portion of his remarks.
The media love to write stories about Obama's appeal to evangelicals but reporters didn't bother to ask any substantive questions about how evangelicals feel about Obama's exegesis.
The partisan and religious press did somewhat better.
The Baptist Press story quoted a theologian praising Obama for using Scripture to justify political positions but noted that it is a common evangelical belief that all Scripture is inspired by God and equally authoritative. The story also noted that Jesus does talk about marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Ambinder at The Atlantic noted that Obama was doing something that usually gets people in trouble:
Obama's reference was casual, and in referencing scripture he's committed the same (venial) sin that liberal religionists are always cataloguing as coming from conservatives: that they slip contextless biblical phrases into their political stump speeches and degrade the meaning of both.
If you'd like the full remarks, in context, CNS posted them here.
If Obama is going to use the Bible to justify his policy positions, we're bound to see more coverage. Let's hope future coverage does a better job of explaining things.