NYTimes glimpses the doctrinal lines

In journalism, it's important not to bury the lede. So here goes: Two cheers for the New York Times.

Not three, but two solid cheers for the "On Religion" feature the other day by Samuel G. Freeman that ran under the headline, "Faith-Based Views Veer Off a Straight Political Line." By the way, "On Religion" has been the name of my Scripps Howard News Service column for 20 years. Welcome to the territory, Times!

The big news in this story is actually very, very old news -- which is the realization that when individuals attempt to live their lives according to ancient religious doctrines that transcend any one time or place, it becomes harder and harder to pin simplistic, contemporary political labels on their actions in the public square.

Well, duh. That pope guy -- liberal or conservative? Populist, Bible Belt evangelicals of various races -- even someone like Mike Huckabee -- liberal or conservative? Orthodox Jews in New York City -- liberal or conservative?

I assume that the wake-up call on all of this was the Prop 8 reality that African-Americans -- just as they did a decade or so in Colorado -- voted overwhelmingly for a traditional definition of marriage. That and the resignation of Richard Cizik over at the National Association of Evangelicals (more on that later).

Anyway, the story opens in magazine style with a dead-on anecdotal lede from the distant past, in political terms:

Cheri Andes awoke one morning in March 2004 to disconcerting news. An article in The Boston Globe described the growing debate on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, where the legislature was about to take up the issue for the second time. And in the article, Ms. Andes found two familiar names on irreconcilable sides of the issue.

The Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, assistant minister of Old South Church in Boston, endorsed such marriages with the words, "This is a civil rights issue." The Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, told The Globe that same-sex marriage was not "a solution."

What the article did not explain, but what Ms. Andes knew all too well, was that the two ministers also happened to be co-chairwoman and co-chairman of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a coalition of congregations for which Ms. Andes was the lead organizer.

And thus, the lesson for anyone who wants to make sense out of this Culture Wars era -- hello, Dr. James Davison Hunter -- is this:

The moral of this particular story, one worth repeating in the aftermath of California voters' rejection of same-sex marriage last month, is that faith cuts a jagged line as a factor in public policy. Or, to put it differently, faith's straight line defies the secular grid that so many politicians and journalists try to impose upon religious communities: that they be unswervingly Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, left or right. ...

The only surprise, in truth, is that anybody should be surprised that theology refuses to adhere to a partisan platform.

Amen. The story then goes on to cite a number of perfectly obvious examples or -- cough, cough -- they will be perfectly obvious to any experienced religion writer or, for that matter, GetReligion.org reader. Here is one of the better ones:

The Democratic convention in August offered another example of the ways religious belief confounds political loyalty oaths. At a "faith caucus" organized by the Obama campaign, the speakers included the Rev. Charles Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination. Within the same sermon, Mr. Blake denounced the Democrats for supporting abortion rights, calling for outright resistance, and then turned his wrath against Republicans for being "silent if not indifferent" to social injustice. And both parts of the preaching were avidly received by the audience.

Had commentators been paying attention, Mr. Blake's exhortation could have practically served as a prelude to the way many of his followers in California, where the Church of God in Christ is especially strong, split their tickets on Election Day between Mr. Obama and "Yes" on Proposition 8. But if the standard view of the black church is that it is always liberal, based on its civil rights activism and Democratic voting habits, then this wellspring of social conservatism seemed to be some kind of shock.

So two cheers for this good, if slightly flawed, wake-up call for people whose world is defined by the religious Gospel According to the New York Times. Dig deep down into this link, if you dare.

Meanwhile, the story did seem to miss the complexity of what happened with the Cizik resignation. As one of the nation's most vocal progressive evangelicals, Cizik had been pushing buttons for some time now -- especially with his wink, wink public support for Barack Obama's candidacy. The NPR interview was the final straw.

But here is the key, as covered in an excellent Christianity Today mini-interview with NAE president Leith Anderson.

Cizik said in the interview, "I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think." Is that the part that caused concern?

What you're asking for is specifics, and I don't think that our discussion was primarily parsing words. It was whether or not he in this interview adequately was a representative for NAE and our constituency, and the conclusion was that he was not. The NAE's position on gay marriage is not shifting. And we are not advocates for civil unions, although many evangelicals recognize the reality that civil unions have become law in many states. But we're not advocating for them.

At this point, the issue of civil unions is something that clearly would divide most evangelicals. Some believe that is a compromise stance that might prevent a standoff between secular gay rights and existing decisions that defend religious liberty. Some cultural conservatives disagree. There's fierce debate there.

But is that the defining issue in the Cizik war? Note to the Times and others: If you define this in terms of doctrine, the key statement in that NPR interview was when he said, "I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think."

I. Don't. Think.

It's about the doctrine, folks. Welcome to "tmatt trio" territory.

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