Bill Moyers asks the tough questions

bill moyersBill Moyers interviewed The Episcopal Church's Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori the other day for his show on the Public Broadcasting Service. I don't watch Moyers because, frankly, I am not much for his style of one-sided journalism. Then again, I don't really watch much broadcast journalism period. But enough readers pointed to this transcript of the interview that I gave it a read. We have been able to read so many transcripts of interviews with Jefferts Schori. I love that. I wish other church leaders commanded the same amount of ink, pixels and television time. This interview is much less compelling than her previous ones, but it's still so nice to read full answers to Moyers' questions.

And about those questions . . . If you were able to secure an interview with the woman at the center of a major worldwide drama, wouldn't you want to ask some questions that elicited some actual answers? Moyers' questions are boring and friendly and as such they never help shed any light on any of the issues facing the Anglican Communion. Not that I'm surprised, but it's still worth pointing out.

The interview focuses on three things: science vs. religion, homosexuality and women in leadership positions. I understand that these things are newsworthy and definitely need to be highlighed in an interview, but because of the narrow focus on those questions, he misses the infinitely more important things in religious life. Only an amateur would think that the divide in the Anglican Communion is over issues that only arose in the last few years. Yet the media insist on covering that way.

In general, Moyers' questions persist in framing all the issues as the big bad meanies of traditional Christianity vs. the good and kindhearted noble people of Moyers' liberalism. This is mostly a disservice to Jefferts Schori herself, since she keeps advocating a coexistence with those who do not share her theological views. Such a coexistence is not an acceptable theological position for those with a traditional Christian understanding, which is why her approach should be analyzed in more detail. Instead, Moyers just rams through his Us vs. Them agenda without really letting her explain or sell her plan. Even with some of his most leading and puffy questions, though, she retains her position.

One of the things I find interesting about media treatment of the religious divide over homosexuality is how it's assumed that the defensive position must be taken by those who retain the Christian teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture. I certainly have no problem with such a media approach -- so long as those who are pushing a different understanding of homosexuality are also put on the defensive. If anything, it makes more sense to pose tough questions of those advocating radical change than those who are keeping with a thousands-years-long teaching. This interview is a good example of the difficulty media types have with putting those who advocate radical change on the defensive.

Rather than focus on Jefferts Schori's answers, take a look at Moyers' questions and see if you think they do a good job of getting meaningful responses or uncovering any of the deeper conflict going on in the Anglican Communion right now:

BILL MOYERS: As I read about the conflict in your church, what I find is that both sides treat the Bible as their source, but they come to totally opposite conclusions as to what the Bible says. What do you make of that? As a scientist and a believer.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Our ways of reading Scripture shape the conclusions we come to. And often what we go looking for shapes the conclusions about what we read. I'll give you a -- you know, a loaded example. The story of David and Jonathan.

You know, Canonically, the traditional way of reading that has been about the friendship between two men. It says in the Scripture that David loved Jonathan with a love surpassing women. Many gay and lesbian people in our church today say, "This is a text -- that says something constructive about the love between people of the same gender." Yet our tradition has rarely been able to look at it with those eyes. I think that's a fertile ground for some serious Biblical scholarship and some encounter from people who come to different conclusions.

BILL MOYERS: If biology, as I understand it does, tells us that homosexuality is -- is a genetic given. And religion says homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, can those two perceptions ever be reconciled?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: How do we come to a conclusion that it's a sin in the eyes of God?

BILL MOYERS: Well, you're the --

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: What texts do we read that --

BILL MOYERS: But you know, all of your adversaries say that it is.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Well, I would have them go back to the very sources they find so black and white about that, and ask what's the context of this passage? What was it written to address? What was going on underneath it that this appears to speak to? And I think we find when we do some very serious scholarship, that in almost every case, it's speaking about a cultural context that looks nothing like the one in which we're wrestling with homosexuality today.

BILL MOYERS: So how do you read -- Jonathan and David, that story?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I think it's got some-- challenging things to say to us who have said for hundreds of years, thousands of years that it's inappropriate for two men to love each other in that way.

Now Bill Moyers went to seminary and was ordained a minister. He's not your average religiously ignorant television reporter. And while his views in support of the liberal agenda are well-known, why not ask less puffy questions? For instance, why not ask about David's love affair with Bathsheba? The one where she got pregnant and he ended up killing her husband Uriah so he could cover up his sin. Ask how that fits into her theory that he's gay. Ask whether the mention of something in Scripture equates to approval for same. In other words, even if you were to accept this view that Jonathan and David were lovers, does that mean that God approved? How does that fit in with other mentions in Scripture?

His question about biology is trendy but questionable science, but what I really found interesting was his belief that "religion" says homosexuality is a sin. What is religion? And why ask Jefferts Schori about "religion"? She's not a representative of religion -- she's the leader of the Episcopal Church. Not all "religion" has the same approach to homosexuality. It's like asking John Edwards why "politics" believes in socialized medicine, as if there is no difference among those who practice politics.

softball2More than anything, though, there are many verses in the Old and New Testaments of Scripture that condemn homosexual behavior. Some Christians -- such as Jefferts Schori -- interpret those to mean something less or different than the way they've been read for thousands of years. Why not ask her, specifically, about some of the verses? I might not recommend this for a lay reporter, but again, Moyers went to seminary.

BILL MOYERS: Well, many conservative, traditional Christians say that the homosexual life is not a holy life.

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: They would say that it's only holy if it's celibate. And I think we've got more examples out of Scripture even to offer in challenge to that.

BILL MOYERS: But if it is a moral issue, is there a way somewhere between the positions on this? Or is it impossible for a church divided to agree on that way somewhere between the moral judgments?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I do believe it's a moral issue because it's about how we love our neighbor. It's about how we live in relationship to God and our neighbors. When I look at other instances in church history, when we've been faced with something similar -- the history in this country over the -- over slavery. The church in the north. Much of it came to a different conclusion than the church in the south -- about the morality of slavery.

What examples from Scripture does Jefferts Schori have to challenge the notion that homosexual behavior is holy? I'm sure she has them -- it would be interesting to know a little bit about them and get some good follow-ups. In order to get good follow-ups, of course, Moyers would have to understand the position of Jefferts Schori's theological opponents -- something he clearly didn't do his homework on.

And that Jefferts Schori is subtly comparing those who oppose church approval of homosexuality with those who supported slavery is profoundly interesting. A good journalist might ask some more incisive questions at just this point. We're talking about a massive divide in the Anglican Communion. I sense that this point in the interview might be the best place to follow up and get a better understanding of where she sees her opponents. Later in the interview she compares those who support the traditional Christian view of homosexuality to those who fought Galileo. That might also have been a good place to dig deeper. Or maybe take a totally different approach here. Perhaps he could mention that while the Bible repeatedly condemns homosexual behavior, it never commands slavery. He could ask her how that fits into her understanding of which side is which in her slavery analogy. Instead, here's how he lets the moment pass:

BILL MOYERS: It's not my intention to hold Episcopalians up as the only arbiter of this issue because the Catholics are facing it, the Mormons are facing it, the Southern Baptist Convention is facing it. Orthodox Jews are facing it. And Islam, of course. Why are so many religious people uptight about sex?

Uptight? Uptight? So it's not a legitimate view to oppose sex outside of marriage -- it's a hangup. Thank you, Bill Moyers, for that insightful follow-up question. This must be why you get paid the big bucks.

This puff question, part of his Us vs. Them series, isn't designed for anything other than positioning Jefferts Schori as kind and goodhearted and the Archbishop of Uganda as evil:

BILL MOYERS: But isn't this what liberals say? We would like to talk and have a dialogue and listen. But do you get that coming back from this? I mean, the [Archbishop] of Uganda would not meet with you. Now, you would be willing to meet and listen, but he won't. How can there then be any kind of reconciliation?

Jefferts Schori responds by saying that the Archbishop of Uganda did meet with her and that they had a couple of conversations and agree about some things. A better reporter might -- while still being friendly -- ask about all the damage she is causing the church in Africa. Or somehow get both perspectives in there so she can answer from both sides.

Look at this exchange. Is this an interview? Does this illuminate anything? Does this put the subject on the spot? Is this a fair characterization of the Anglican Church in Nigeria?

BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: Absolutely. Right, and the Anglican Archbishop has been working for a similar kind of law to outlaw all kinds of -- not just homosexual activity, but even having conversations about it in public.

BILL MOYERS: Your colleague?


BILL MOYERS: Peter -- Peter Akinola?


BILL MOYERS: How can you ever make peace with that kind of people? Or he with you?

I really am curious how she can make peace with that kind of people. Akinola has already stated his view that peace can only come through shared doctrinal understanding. He's a huge influence in the worldwide Anglican Communion and he's a force to be reckoned with. Asking puff questions in a comfy American studio doesn't do much to illuminate whether this marriage can be saved. Moyers' questions reinforced stereotypes about Africans -- and Americans.

What questions would you have liked to see Moyers or other reporters ask Jefferts Schori, specifically pertaining to the African church? Or any other questions, for that matter? And what questions might you like to see asked of Archbishop Peter Akinola and his supporters in Africa and here in the United States?

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