Mainline wars: Do the math

gay-marriage-simpsonsOne of the ongoing temptations here at GetReligion -- for the GetReligionistas as well as the reader/commentators -- is to focus on interesting events and trends in religion news, instead of keeping our unique focus on how the mainstream press attempts to cover those stories in an accurate, balanced, professional manner. The bottom line: This is not a religion-news blog; this is a blog about how the mainstream press wrestles with coverage of religion news. It helps to read that "What we do, why we do it" post every now and then.

Now, we also do our "Got news?" posts about stories that journalists seem to be missing. We also comment on op-eds and essays that are directly focused on religion news or trends that shape mainstream religion news (like the victory of European journalism at nonNewsweek battles). If something is linked to religion news, we have to consider writing about it.

For example, consider Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman's short USA Today report the other day: "Survey: Protestant clergy back gay rights, not marriage."

As the text of her story makes clear, the headline urgently needed another word -- an adjective such as "mainline" or "oldline" -- to modify that broad, broad word "Protestant." Note the crucial word "seven" in the second paragraph, as in "seven sisters." Here's the top of the report:

Most mainline Protestant clergy do not support legalizing gay marriage, even if they're not required to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.

It was the only point on which the majority did not support gay rights, according to a survey of clergy from the seven historic mainline Protestant denominations to which 18% of Americans belong. The Clergy Voices Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research, is based on 2,658 responses from clergy from the United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; Episcopal Church; United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA; American Baptist Church; and the Disciples of Christ.

These are, of course, the major churches of the religious left. Yet on another level, they are not -- for the simple reason that there are giant fissures inside these churches between seminaries and local churches, between local pastors and bureaucratic leaders, between pews in red zip codes and those in blue. Consider the Anglican-Episcopal wars, for starters. It is way too simplistic to say that the "seven sisters" are totally on one side or the other, in the battles over basic doctrines in Christianity.

That's why Grossman's little poll story is important. In a few lines, it explains why these horrific wars roll on and on over on the Protestant left and in churches to the left of center. When it comes to changing the definition of marriage itself, which essentially means saying that ancient forms of Christianity have been wrong for 2,000 years, then pastors find it hard to shout, "Amen!"

Only 33% say gay couples should be allowed to marry, 32% would allow civil unions, and 35% call for "no legal recognition" for same-sex couples. Support for same-sex marriage grew to 46% if laws specified that clergy would not be required to perform a religious ceremony in contradiction with their denomination's teachings.

"We find that on these issues, the clergy views are fairly in line with the laity views," said Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research.

Thus, the story never seems to go away. That's bad news for people on the left and the right in these oldline conflicts.

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