The Times finds its voice on marriage in Maryland

The political battle over same-sex marriage continues in my home state of Maryland and the New York Times recently published an appropriately blunt story looking at the biggest hurdle faced by gay-rights activists -- the opposition of African-American churchgoers. Please read the story for yourself.

As you read it, it will probably be hard not to notice that only one person is quoting in defense of the conservative stance on this hot-button issue and that quote, it seems, comes from a radio interview. Another conservative is briefly quoted, but only to offer information about the political controversy itself, not about his beliefs on the issue at hand.

Did anyone from the Times interview ANY African-American Christians who oppose same-sex marriage? It's hard to tell.

Is this bad, from a journalistic point of view? One could say that the story is flawed, if the goal is to present a fair, balanced and accurate story that represents the beliefs and arguments of people on both sides of these arguments. If the goal is advocacy journalism in favor of same-sex marriage, then the story is fine.

It seems to me that this is a perfect example of the new Bill Keller gospel of journalism. As he recently stated -- click here for details -- professionals at the Times no longer need to pretend to be neutral on issues related to morality, culture and, by implication, religion. The paper has grown beyond those old-fashioned standards.

Nevertheless, one passage in the story does deserve some attention:

Much of the hesitation, black advocates of the bill say, has its roots in the churches, whose influence is strong among many African-Americans. And while the overwhelming majority of black clergy in the state still strongly oppose same-sex marriage -- they held a rally here in the state capital last month to make that point -- a few young pastors have come out in support.

“This was an issue I knew I could not avoid,” said the Rev. Delman Coates, 39, one of two Baptist preachers who testified in support of the bill in a hearing last week. “Clergy leaders have been organizing against this, and I didn’t want my silence to sound like consent.”

According to the Times, the key issue here is young clergy vs. old clergy. The person held up in support of this argument is Coates -- who is a crucial voice in this debate. I would argue that his presence in the story is not only appropriate, but essential.

The issue is whether his stance, on this issue of Christian theology, is truly rooted in his age or in his approach to issues of church history and biblical authority. He is a Baptist, of course, but that's also the case with Bill Clinton, the Rev. Bill Moyers, Al Gore, the Rev. Al Sharpton and a host of others on the doctrinal left. The word "Baptist," essentially, contains no doctrinal content -- other than a commitment to congregational and personal autonomy on matters of doctrine.

However, with a few clicks of a mouse, a journalist can find his biography on the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church website:

Rev. Delman Coates is a graduate of Morehouse College (B.A. in Religion, 1995), Harvard Divinity School (Master of Divinity, 1998), Columbia University (Master of Philosophy in Religion, 2002), and Columbia University (Ph.D. in New Testament & Early Christianity, 2006). ... Dr. Coates' dissertation entitled, "Resistance Reading: Reconsidering the Functions of Early Christian Allegory," examines the cultural-critical function of early Christian allegorical interpretation, and proposes an alternative comparative methodology for the study of early Christianity.

Dr. Coates' published articles entitled, "And the Bible Says: Methodological Tyranny of Biblical Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism" in Blow The Trumpet In Zion (2004). ...

So, is the crucial factor here this pastor's age or is it that much of his theological training was found, well, on the left side of academic life in New York City?

Once again, this preacher's voice is essential to the story. The key is whether his voice is typical and whether, if the goal is understanding the events unfolding in Maryland, readers needed to hear other voices, from other pews, with other perspectives. Obviously, this depends on the goal of the editors who approved its publication.

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