Separation of church and real debates

I know that there are plenty of GetReligion readers who do not believe me when I say this, but I will say it again: The New York Times remains a great newspaper. The problem, of course, is that the Times has become a very complicated newspaper.

It's easy to find stories in the Times that are solid, accurate, balanced examples of old-fashioned American journalism. You know, the kind of journalism in which partisans and stakeholders on both sides of divisive issues can read a story and say, "That was tough and fair, but my side's views were accurately and fairly reported."

Then again, it's also easy to find examples of Times stories that would fit neatly into the pages of any good European or advocacy-model publication. This is the kind of reporting that it perfectly shaped to fit the newsroom's point of view and preferred audience. It's like the newspaper's public editor -- Daniel Okrent, at the time -- wrote back in 2004, in his famous essay, "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"

His answer was in the lede: "Of course it is."

On the critical issue of his newspaper's approach to balance and fairness, he wrote:

... (My) concern is the flammable stuff. ... These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

But if you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

The problem, of course, is that many readers have become so jaded that they scream "Bias!" every time that they see something in the Times that upsets them. It's easy for this to turn into the "Times basher who cried wolf" syndrome, or something like that. It's important to think about that whenever the world's most powerful newspaper veers into full-tilt advocacy mode (which, alas, happens a great deal on topics linked to religion, as former editor Bill Keller has admitted in print).

So how do you know when the Times is producing advocacy journalism and when it is simply making a mistake? We live in an age in which the former is, after all, more common than the later.

What we have here before us is a crucial test case. Here's the top of the story:

This weekend, hundreds of pastors, including some of the nation’s evangelical leaders, will climb into their pulpits to preach about American politics, flouting a decades-old law that prohibits tax-exempt churches and other charities from campaigning on election issues.

The sermons, on what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics.

A few lines later, readers learn:

“There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., who led preachers in the battle to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Mr. Garlow said he planned to inveigh against same-sex marriage, abortion and other touchstone issues that social conservatives oppose, and some ministers may be ready to encourage parishioners to vote only for those candidates who adhere to the same views or values.

Wait, there's more:

Participating ministers plan to send tapes of their sermons to the I.R.S., effectively providing the agency with evidence it could use to take them to court. But if history is any indication, the I.R.S. may continue to steer clear of the taunts.

The problem? This team behind this story has botched its most crucial element. Clearly, the law does not forbid ministers from advocating the teachings of their traditions from the pulpit, even when these teachings directly relate to political issues.

If the Times story is accurate, then Respect Life Sunday in thousands of Catholic parishes is illegal.

If the Times story is accurate, liberal pastors could not have preached sermons against wars in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere and the politicians who advocated those wars.

If the Times story is accurate, then President Barack Obama was clearly out of line in 2009 when he asked a flock of rabbis to prepare sermons on the moral and theological necessity of his health-care reform efforts.

Yes, there is a thin line between pastors -- left and right -- advocating specific religious doctrines and, thus, opposing the religious and political efforts of those on the other side. This can come frightfully close to the endorsement of specific candidates. Just ask any candidate who had to run against Mike Huckabee in, oh, South Carolina or against Obama on the south side of Chicago.

What is clearly illegal is the open endorsement of candidates, by name, by religious groups and other nonpartisan non-profit organizations. This story in the Times claims that the law goes way, way beyond that.

But what, you say, about these sneaky, wink wink, de facto endorsements, when religious leaders say it is wrong to support those who oppose God's will on issues ranging from war to abortion, from the environment to marriage, from health care to (insert your religious tradition's key public-square issue here)?

That's the big question, the one that politicians on the left and right are scared to see carved into legal stone.

The Times story aimed at that target and missed -- by a mile. It's time for a correction.

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