'Sordid' quotes by Charles Stanley? RNS doesn't get it sordid out

No award for Charles Stanley from the Jewish National Fund tomorrow. Not because he doesn't want it, or because they changed their minds. But because a gay Jewish group pressured them to rescind it.

That's one thing. It's another when a news outfit favors the accuser.

At issue is the Jewish National Fund's Atlanta chapter, which had announced that it would present Baptist pastor Stanley with its Tree of Life Award for his longtime support for Israel. Says the Religion News Service this week:

Amid a heated debate over his vocal opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley will decline an award he planned to accept from the Jewish National Fund in Atlanta on Thursday (April 23.)
News that the longtime pastor of First Baptist Atlanta and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention would be honored by the JNF angered many Jews who pointed to his history of vitriolic anti-gay comments.
Stanley said the award was causing too much strife within the Jewish community, and for the sake of his love for Israel, he would not accept it, according to the JNF, a nonprofit that sponsors environmental and educational programs in the Jewish state.

About a third of the story is copied fairly closely from the breaking story on April 7. In that one RNS reported that another Atlanta-based group -- the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN) -- had drawn up a letter condemning Stanley for opposing same-sex marriage and such.

Between the articles, RNS allows the group to let fly with punch after punch. SOJOURN's letter says Stanley “has publicly called AIDS God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and called homosexuality ‘destructive behavior.’ ” It also cites Stanley "saying that 'God does not agree with the lifestyle of the homosexual' and that accepting gay people is 'an act of disobedience to God.' " Oh, and let's not forget Stanley’s "sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions."  

Reading the articles, you keep waiting for the sordid and virulent parts. You can read worse stuff on Facebook and Twitter every day. And neither the article nor the SOJOURN letter reference books or sermons where Stanley said such things. Evidently, accused = convicted.

Admittedly, the Baptists did themselves no favor with silence. "Stanley’s ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment," the first article reports. When you say nothing, you look like you have nothing to say.

But RNS doesn't say if it tried again before the second story came out this past Tuesday. And it could have asked reaction from his friends and allies. The Atlanta Metro Baptist Association would have been a good start; it even has a Facebook page.

Or RNS could have checked Stanley's writings, as did Christianity Today. The flagship evangelical magazine reports that Stanley "teaches traditional Christian sexual ethics":

“Some proclaim they are living a gay lifestyle, but nothing is happy or gay about the destructive behavior of homosexuality,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Landmines in the Path of a Believer. “Anything that opposes the principles written in God’s Word leads to one ending—the end Solomon mentioned, a place of extreme emptiness where wind and sorrow breach the soul. Ultimately it ends in a place of extreme emotional sorrow and separation from God.”

RNS does get it right in saying, "The controversy over Stanley’s award reflects the sometimes awkward embrace between American Jews and evangelicals — fervent partners in support of Israel but also outspoken opponents on many domestic social issues, including homosexuality and abortion rights."

But the controversy reflects much more. It also indicates a division between American Jews who welcome evangelical support on Israel and American Jews who regard social issues at least as important. As Christianity Today says, dipping into a Pew Research study from 2013, 82 percent of evangelicals believe "God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people" — a view shared by only 40 percent of American Jews.

CT backs up the RNS story in saying that Pew found most Jews favor acceptance of homosexuality -- except for the Orthodox, who hold "a level of disapproval [toward homosexuality] similar to that expressed by white evangelical Protestants." That's another division in Jewry.

Still another point of tension here, as my GR colleague Ira Rifkin tells me, is that evangelicals connect better with Israeli Jews than with Palestinian Christians. The latter get more attention from mainline Protestants like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Support for Israel thus becomes another front in the worldwide face-off between conservative Christians and mainliners.

All this may be too much for spot or even follow-up coverage, maybe better for long-form weekend analysis. But every conflict story needs the basics: Prove your points, answer the questions you raise, represent all sides fairly.

RNS does quote Stanley directly at one point, at least through an amicus brief he filed at the Supreme Court. Stanley warned that if gay marriage becomes national law, the government will then "silence religious dissenters who continue to hold to their millennia-old definition of marriage."

Whether that's true or not, pressure groups like SOJOURN are already doing something analogous: demonizing, marginalizing and shouting down those who differ with them. News media like the Religion News Service should cover the controversies, not take part in them.

Addendum: Bob Smietana said on my Facebook page that "Stanley stepped down because a number of Jewish leaders, including local rabbis, objected to the award, not just SOJOURN." True enough. I should have noted that RNS reported the protest letter bore 240 signatures. It's clear, though, who instigated the protest, when it was SOJOURN that wrote and circulated the letter for signatures.

Photo: Pastor Charles Stanley speaks at the All American Chapel of Fort Bragg, N.C., Nov. 6, 2013. Public domain photograph from defenseimagery.mil, via Wikimedia Commons.

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