Trans

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

A bit of U.S. “mainline” Protestant history was made May 11. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches announced that its 70-year-old executive minister, American Baptist Donald Anderson, will take three months off for an unspecified “process of transitioning” to female identity.

The council’s board is “totally supportive,” stated its  president, a United Church of Christ pastor, and anticipates Anderson’s September return under the new name of Donnie. The council sponsored an April 24 “merciful conversation on gender identity and expression” at an Episcopal church.

By coincidence, the April 25 edition of The Christian Century, a prototypical “mainline” voice, published a noteworthy article on “nonbinary gender” as part of God’s good creation.

The piece was an excerpt from a new release by the Presbyterian Church (USA) book house, “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.” Author Austen Hartke, creator of the youtube series “Transgender and Christian,” is a recent graduate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won an Old Testament prize.

This frontier in modern moral theology confronts many U.S. religious groups head-on, and just after legalized same-sex marriage, causing religious-freedom disputes the news media will be covering for the foreseeable future. 

The transgender cause contrasts with the heavily “binary” and “cisgender” culture throughout the Bible and the Quran that shapes the beliefs of traditional Christians, Jew and Muslims.

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Transgender Filipinos and playing journalism's conflict card when the conflict's largely settled

Transgender Filipinos and playing journalism's conflict card when the conflict's largely settled

A tried, true and irrepressible journalistic contrivance to pull media consumers into a story is the widely played conflict card. And by conflict I mean of any kind — two nations in opposition, or two politicians, two ideas, two religions, two siblings; two of anything with strongly differing goals.

Theater, films, novels, opera and other story-telling forms have their own conflict cards, of course. It's the stuff of drama. But since this is a journalism blog we’ll put those others aside for now.

Conflict grabs attention, enabling us to relate to news stories. Pick a side and you’re emotionally engaged and providing your own backstory, beyond what’s been reported. We all succumb.

The problem is that journalists -- brace yourself because the following words will likely rock your understanding of how journalism is practiced -- often overplay the conflict card,  molding mountains from molehills, trying to breathe life into a conflict that’s already been largely settled.

Shocking, isn't it? Why would journalists do that?

Well, how about because we need a hook and we’ve got nothing better? Or because we believe its what an editor and the news consuming public expects? It's our programmed default.

Sometimes it’s done because a reporter is working off assumptions that no longer apply, confusing past with present.

Take the following New York Times story from the Philippines that strives in its lede to portray a hot conflict between the Roman Catholic Church’s historic teachings and influence, and the nation’s widespread contemporary acceptance of homosexuality and alternative gender identities.

It's not a badly constructed story, in my opinion. Opponents and proponents get their say. However, the story is undercut by it's attempt to give oxygen to a conflict that seems largely settled.

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NPR on evangelical culture wars: Open fights over sex and doctrine kick into high gear

NPR on evangelical culture wars: Open fights over sex and doctrine kick into high gear

For a decade or more, your GetReligionistas have been urging journalists to (a) check and see if there are faith-based colleges (left or right) nearby and then (b) check and see if the leaders of these schools (think trustees or religious denominations) require students, faculty and staff to SIGN a doctrinal statement that frames all campus life.

In many cases, religious schools -- especially Baptist and nondenominational evangelical schools -- have long assumed that everyone can affirm "biblical authority" and/or "traditional Christian values" and that's that. There are lots of Protestants who, claiming a specific approach to the priesthood of every believer, simply do not like to write doctrines down. That would be a creed, you see. Think #Romeaphobia.

The problem is that we live in a legalistic age that demands precision and candor, especially about sex. And never forget that 1983 Bob Jones v. United States decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, when conditions are right, it's fine for the government to get entangled in fights over what is good doctrine and what is bad doctrine.

The First Amendment ground started moving. This brings us to this solid National Public Radio report: "Christian Colleges Are Tangled In Their Own LGBT Policies."

The key to this piece is that it covers both the broad legal questions involved in these disputes and the growing doctrinal warfare inside the often vague world of evangelical culture. That second angle is one that GetReligionistas have long argued is worthy of mainstream-media attention, linked to the rise of a true evangelical left, defined in terms of doctrine, not politics. You can see these disputes breaking out all over the place, like Taylor University in Indiana and Abilene Christian University in West Texas.

Here's the NPR overture, which is long and solid:

Conservative Christian colleges, once relatively insulated from the culture war, are increasingly entangled in the same battles over LGBT rights and related social issues that have divided other institutions in America.

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Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Hey, news consumers: Does anyone remember that "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Research Center?

Of course you do. It was in all the newspapers, over and over. It even soaked into network and cable television news -- where stories about religion is rare.

The big news, of course, was the rapid rise in "Nones" -- the "religiously unaffiliated" -- in the American population, especially among the young. Does this sound familiar? One-fifth of all Americans -- a third of those under 30 -- are "Nones," to one degree or another.

Traditional forms of religious faith were holding their own, while lots of vaguely religious people in the mushy middle were being more candid about their lack of ties to organized religion. More than 70 percent of "Nones" called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

When the study came out, a key researcher -- John C. Green of the University of Akron -- said it was crucial to note the issues that united these semi-believers, as well as atheists, agnostics and faithful religious liberals, into a growing voter block on the cultural left. My "On Religion" column ended with this:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

These sharp divisions are also being seen INSIDE the major political parties. If you want to see that process at work, check out the fascinating New York Times report that ran the other day under this headline: "As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat." It isn't hard to spot the religion "ghost" in this blunt overture:

PALOS HILLS, Ill. -- When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up.

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Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Old people on the religion beat (my hand is raised) will remember the 1980s, back when the mainline Protestant doctrinal wars over sexuality started breaking into elite headlines -- big time.

Year after year, some kind of mainline fight over gender and sexuality would score high in the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the Top 10 stories. More often than not, the Episcopal Church led the way in the fight for feminism and eventually gay rights.

These national headlines would, of course, inspire news coverage at the regional and local levels. Some Episcopal shepherds went along and some didn't. All of that produced lots of news copy, no matter what Episcopalians ended up doing.

At one point, while at the Rocky Mountain News, I told Colorado's Episcopal leader -- the always quotable former radio pro Bishop William C. Frey -- that a few local religious leaders were asking me why the Episcopal Church kept getting so much media attention.

Frey laughed, with a grimace, and said that was a strange thought, something like "envying another man's root canal."

Eventually, however, the progressive wins in Episcopal sanctuaries stopped being news, at least in mainstream news outlets.

Take, for example, that recent leap into gender-neutral theology in the District of Columbia, an interesting story that drew little or no attention in the mainstream press. Thus, here is the top of the main story from the Episcopal News Service:

The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.
He? She?

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Playing 'Think like a Godbeat pro': Let's look for religion hooks in big Amazon.com search

Playing 'Think like a Godbeat pro': Let's look for religion hooks in big Amazon.com search

One of the big themes through our years of work here at GetReligion is that reporters with experience and training on the religion beat do a better job of handling stories with strong religious themes than reporters with zero experience on this complicated beat.

I know, I know. #DUH

So why, I am asked all the time, do the editors that staff major newsrooms (a) fail to see the big religion hooks (we call them "ghosts" here at GetReligion) in so many stories and (b) fail to include religion-beat professionals in the teams covering these stories? Obviously, those two questions are connected. It's a big journalism mystery.

With all of that in mind, let's look at a major national story and then play a little news-coverage game. Let's call it, "Think like a Godbeat pro." In this case, we are talking about the much-ballyhooed process to select a home for a massive new Amazon.com headquarters, with thousands of jobs attached.

This story is everywhere, as you would expect, since the 20 "finalist" cities are spread across much of the map of North America. To save time and space, let's look at a new report on this topic by the team at Axios, with this punchy headline, "Jeff Bezos’s brilliant PR stunt." Here is the overture:

Elected officials across the country have spent the past three months falling all over themselves to show Amazon just how much their cities love the e-commerce giant and would do just about anything to house its new headquarters.

Bottom line: The real winner is Amazon, which has created a feedback loop of positive press and fawning politicians just as the company increasingly needs both.

Big picture: Amazon, the world’s largest Internet company by revenue and the fourth-largest company by market cap, is reshaping everything from industries to main streets to homes. But this omnipotence also has put Amazon in the bullseye of a burgeoning "tech-lash," alongside gilded peers like Facebook, Google and Apple.

Now, that "tech-lash" angle is interesting and it involves all kinds of issues, from the brutal side effects of economic libertarianism (must-read book here) to religious, moral and cultural battles linked to gender and sexuality.

Now, let's keep reading. This brings us to the religion hook for this little journalism game.

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First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

It's one of the most famous phrases in the world of medical ethics: "primum non nocere." That's Latin, of course. It means, "First do no harm."

Ah, but who gets to make the ultimate decision about whether a particular medical procedure or strategy for care will do harm to a patient? Is that ethical/moral call up to the patient, the doctor, the doctor's boss, an insurance company or even lawyers representing the U.S. government?

Now flip that question around. What if doctors pledged something like this: "First, do good." Who gets to decide what is good? Clearly, there are legal, ethical and, yes, religious questions linked to these decisions and that has been the case for centuries.

So let's pull these ancient questions and values into our litigious age.

A patient requests an abortion, perhaps even in the second or third trimester. The doctor (or perhaps a nurse) is an orthodox Catholic, a Mormon, a traditional Muslim, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox Jew or someone else with a deep and consistent belief that it would be wrong, a mortal sin even, to take part in this procedure. Some questions linked to medical care for trans patients, especially children, would create a similar ethical/theological crisis. Doctors do not agree on what causes "harm." Many disagree on what is "good."

How do reporters cover stories linked to these debates? First, do no journalistic harm?

Hold that thought. Here is the top of a Washington Post feature -- from the national desk, not the religion team -- on this semi-new front in America's culture wars.

The Trump administration will create a new conscience and religious freedom division within the Health and Human Services Department to ease the way for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to opt out of providing services that violate their moral or religious beliefs.

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Media watchdog catches a whopper in New York Times feature on gay life in Lebanon

Media watchdog catches a whopper in New York Times feature on gay life in Lebanon

Sometimes you just have to wonder whether someone’s simply asleep at the wheel.

Yes, even at The New York Times, which I consider journalism's preeminent global-news operation.

I say that, despite the Times many imperfections. To which I'd add this ambitious but seriously flawed story about gays, lesbians and transsexuals trying to survive in Lebanon. Here’s its opening paragraphs.

Throughout the Middle East, gay, lesbian and transgender people face formidable obstacles to living a life of openness and acceptance in conservative societies.
Although Jordan decriminalized same-sex behavior in 1951, the gay community remains marginalized. Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all outlaw same-sex relations. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can be punished by flogging or death.
In Egypt, at least 76 people have been arrested in a crackdown since September, when a fan waved a rainbow flag during a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay singer.
If there is one exception, it has been Lebanon. While the law can still penalize homosexual acts, Lebanese society has slowly grown more tolerant as activists have worked for more rights and visibility.

What’s that, you say? You clicked on the link to the story provided above and that’s not how the lede actually reads? Instead of “Middle East,” the story now refers to the “Arab world”?

Well, you're correct. Let me explain.

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Evangelical voices persist: What about traditional believers who didn’t choose to be gay?

Evangelical voices persist: What about traditional believers who didn’t choose to be gay?

Here’s a remarkable book with news potential that no reputable evangelical publisher would have issued, say, five or 10 years ago: “Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity” by Gregory Coles.

Significantly, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, a staunch conservative, blurbs that the work “needs to be thoughtfully read by straight people, and by gay people, by unbelievers and by Christians” -- and read “with humility.”

The publisher is the book division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, long hassled by many colleges because its student officers are expected to uphold Christian tradition, including the limitation of sex to one-man- one-woman marriage. Last year, IVCF reaffirmed that policy for employees, sparking media coverage. (InterVarsity hires those of  “LGBTQI identity” if they support its orthodox stance on sexual morals.)

Coles is a church musician and active member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in State College, Pa. He’s solidly evangelical, thus takes seriously what the Bible teaches, carefully examined the arguments from liberal revisionists but concluded that scripture opposes same-sex marriages and sexual relationships.

What then? Though he has no idea why, since youth he’s been “unable to conjure even the slightest heterosexual desire,” and this is no “choice.” He prayed earnestly. He cried. He “felt dirty, worthless, irredeemable.” After long struggles he “stopped praying to be straight” and doesn’t see how that could ever occur. Thus, he’s concluded that he is “a thing that wasn’t supposed to exist: a single gay Christian.”    

The book is a heartfelt plea to fellow evangelicals to rethink their approach to this, the most divisive issue to face U.S. Protestantism since slavery.

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