I think it is time for a moratorium on the use of the word "rail" by mainstream journalists, or at least by those who are not writing editorial columns or essays for advocacy publications.
Maybe it is time to say that we should only rail unto others as we would like them to rail unto us.
Now, I know that the word "rail" is legitimate and can be used accurately. I am simply saying that there is a high test for communications that can be accurately described with this word. Consider the following online dictionary material:
rail ... verb (used without object)
1. to utter bitter complaint or vehement denunciation ... to rail at fate. complain or protest strongly and persistently about. "he railed at human fickleness"
Elsewhere, you can find synonyms such as to "fulminate against, inveigh against, rage against, speak out against, make a stand against" and so forth. Now, some of those references are fairly neutral and others capture the way this term is commonly used in news reporting. I think "rage against" is the hot-button concept we see the most often.
So with that in mind, consider this USA Today report about the current Southern Baptist Convention conference on the dark side of family life in a post-Sexual Revolution world. Right up front, let me note that the report accurately states that the key to this event is its attempt to look at negative behaviors among straights -- those in pews and those on the outside -- as well as trends among, well, you know, the LBGTQ community.
The story -- under the headline "Southern Baptists laud marriage, only not for gays" -- notes that fact, but finds an interesting way to get to that newsworthy point:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Southern Baptists have railed against the idea of same-sex marriage since it entered mainstream American culture, believing it goes against God's will and serves as a sign of the nation's collapsing morality.
Speaker after speaker at an April summit -- the first in modern Southern Baptist history solely devoted to the topic of sex -- repeated the theme of homosexuality's innate wrongness.
This week, straight people are getting just as much attention and maybe more. About 1,300 pastors, Christian educators and other interested Baptists are packing "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage," a conference presented by the denomination's policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Like I suggested earlier, people in public life that journalists embrace tend to "argue" that something is right, or "observe" certain truths to be self evident. Those on the wrong side of issues "rail" against them. They also "believe" that something "goes against God's will" rather than, well, defend 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on a topic.
The key: There isn't a single word in that lede that a journalist would write differently if writing it for The Advocate. I am not, of course, suggesting that a national newspaper, when covering this event, use language that would be used by World magazine or Baptist Press. I am suggesting that there should be some kind of less judgmental, neutral language that would fall in the middle.
As I noted, this short news report did stress that the point of this conference was to look at a wide spectrum of issues in sexual morality. The various sessions on the sins of straights were, however, turned into one-sentence bullet points that flashed by, while the framework for the piece -- truth is (wink, wink), this event was really about gay issues -- remained intact.
Stop and think about that: What would a conservative religious group do if it decided that, rather than continue (if this is the case) to dwell on gay issues, it was time to hold a conference that focused on the sins of the overwhelming majority of people in its own pews and religious culture?
How do you talk about straight sinners and get that very newsworthy topic covered, as news on its own? Is that possible? After all, it would be relevant to far more readers in the context of North America.
That said, let me note the strange headline on this report as it ran in The Nashville Tennessean: "Southern Baptists laud marriage, only not for gays." Is it all that surprising -- newsworthy, in other words -- that a conservative denomination has decided to affirm Christian traditions on this topic?
With that in mind, please consider an essay that ran recently in The Week. The double-decker headline caught the thesis:
Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
A traditional view of marriage is about much more than today's politics. It's deeply woven into the 2,000-year-old ethic at the heart of our faith.
Now, I do not know the work or the worldview of author Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and why the word "our" is used in the headline. I do know that this piece is must reading for journalists who -- for the sake of accurate coverage -- want to understand the doctrinal views of the vast majority of the world's Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians.
If you fall into that journalistic camp, please attend. First the thesis, looking from the view of those who want to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners:
... (It's) important to understand that this movement is based on a premise that is based on a misreading of history. And this misreading could drive the movement to ends it wouldn't desire.
The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions. Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from "the Bible," a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings from the Bible fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but there are also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality, and all will be well.
And what's the problem with that?
Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with.
The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God's children to reflect his loving glory -- and to teach them about God's love. This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God's love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual -- and creates new life. The complementarity of the persons in a marriage reflects the complementarity of the Persons of the Trinity, and the bliss of marital union is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity. The fruitfulness of the marriage act reflects that God is a creator and has charged man to be an agent of his ongoing work of creation. And, finally, if God's love means total self-giving unto death on a Cross, then man and wife must give themselves to each other totally -- no pettiness, no adultery, no polygamy, no divorce, and no nonmarital sexual acts. According to the story that Christianity has been telling for 2,000 years, Christianity's view of sexuality isn't some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for.
Christianity's opposition to homosexuality is not the product of some dusty medieval exegete poring over obscure Old Testament verses. From the beginning, what set apart the new and strange sect called Christians from the rest of their culture was their strange sexual ethic. They refused polygamy. They refused the sexual exploitation of slaves by their owners. They refused prostitution, premarital sex, divorce, abortion, the exposure of infants, contraception -- and homosexual acts.
As the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe noted, in this Christianity was a great equalizing force: Because of the fact of pregnancy, most premodern cultures enforce sexual restraint on women. Where Christianity's bizarreness lay is that it insisted on the same restraint on the part of men -- whether gay or straight. Christians held a bizarrely exalted view of (lifelong, monogamous, fertile, heterosexual) marriage as reflecting the image of God himself, but, even more bizarrely, held up lifelong celibacy as an even more exalted state of life. From the start, alongside the refusal to worship the Roman emperor as a god and Christians' supererogatory care for the poor, this was what set Christians apart, and goes a long way toward explaining why Pagan writers could scorn Christianity as a religion of "slaves and women."
You don't have to agree with this point of view in the current age. But it is crucial for journalists to understand the doctrinal, the theological, point of view that drives the actions of many small-o orthodox believers caught up in these debates. If the goal is to quote them accurately and, who knows, even to anticipate their actions in future news stories, it helps to know these kinds of facts about history.
Please give it some thought, for the sake of accurate journalism.