Angry debates about holding debates

42 17950773Pick a survey, any survey, and it's easy to see that the moral status of homosexual behavior remains one of the most divisive issues in American public life. Conservative Christians remain very opposed to government support for homosexual behavior and, for sure, favor government support for free speech on issues related to homosexuality. Mainline Protestant believers and Catholics remain opposed to homosexual behavior, but not as much as believers on the right. And those polls? How people respond to questions on these topics usually tell you more about the people who wrote the questions -- on left or right -- than the people who answered the questions.

So it's critical (especially in an age of rapidly falling newspaper sales and TV-news ratings) for journalists to strive to offer accurate and balanced coverage of these issues, coverage that does not silence people on one side or the other or twist their words to the point that the believers feel slighted or misrepresented.

This is almost impossible, of course. It does not help that there are people involved in these debates who do not believe that the debates should even be taking place. In the past, this was people on the moral and theological right. But that is changing, or so it seems.

Thus, these issues are getting harder and harder to cover. By the way, do not even THINK about clicking "comment" to comment on anything other than the journalistic issues involved in this debate. We do not need yet another theological train wreck in the comments pages.

The anti-debate forces won a major victory recently, which led to a story by veteran Washington Times religion writer Julia Duin. It seems that balanced, fair-minded public debates about homosexuality are now considered "conservative" and, thus, are to be avoided. Here's the top of the story:

The American Psychiatric Association suddenly canceled an upcoming workshop on religion and homosexuality during its annual conference here after gay activists campaigned against the two evangelicals slated to appear on the panel.

Planners of the symposium, "Homosexuality and Therapy: The Religious Dimension," ... at first ignored calls from some gays to cancel the event. But when its star panelist, the openly gay New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, dropped out last week, plans for the symposium collapsed amid an avalanche of criticism from gays.

"It was a way to have a balanced discussion about religion and how it influences therapy," said David Scasta, a former APA president and a gay psychiatrist in charge of assembling the panel. "We wanted to talk rationally, calmly and respectfully to each other, but the external forces made it into a divisive debate it never intended to be."

The problem, of course, was that the event would offer a chance for journalists and others to be exposed to the views of leaders in the so-called ex-gay movement and/or advocates of the "reparative therapy movement." This would serve to promote homophobia, said the critics.

In other words, it was wrong to hold a debate that implied that there was a subject worthy of debate. Holding a debate would also make it easier for journalists to cover both sides, which would also make it appear as if there are two sides to cover. That's bad.

So the bishop -- who is in total book-promotion mode for his "In the Eye of the Storm" memoir -- never called Scasta, according to Scasta.

"I got one e-mail from him saying he thought I was being used by the other side, such as Focus on the Family," Mr. Scasta said, calling the reaction from gay groups over-the-top and self-defeating. "This was supposed to reduce polarization, which has hurt the gay community. They are blocked into this bitchy battle and they are not progressing. They are not willing to do missionary work and talk to the enemy. They have to be willing to listen and change themselves."

Once again, the question is whether it is possible to have open public discourse on these topics and for journalists to cover the ongoing debates in the public square. It's hard to talk about civic toleration, religious liberty and political compromise if it's impossible to hold, and cover, public debates. Should journalists cover this story?

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