One of the big ideas here at GetReligion is that we live in an age in which many of our comfortable journalistic labels are becoming more and more irrelevant. They simply don't tell readers anything.
For example, there is this puzzle that I have mentioned before. What do you call people who are weak in their defense of free speech, weak in their defense of freedom of association and weak in their defense of religious liberty (in other words, basic First Amendment rights)? The answer: I don't know, but it would be totally inaccurate -- considering the history of American political thought -- to call these people "liberals."
There are other religious and moral puzzles out there on the religion beat, these days. What to do? When in doubt, don't label people. You ask them very specific questions, especially when dealing with religious issues, and you quote what they say.
With this in mind, consider the following slice or two of a short think piece. My question, for journalists who read this: What is the proper cultural label for the speaker? I will ID the speaker at the end.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at college campuses across the country. ... A few weeks ago, I was one of five people honored with honorary doctorates by The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. For those of you unfamiliar with the school, it’s affiliated with the Episcopal Church and it’s one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
Outwardly, everything about Sewanee cries “tradition” -- the buildings, the beautiful 13,000-acre setting in the Cumberland Mountains and the convocation at which I addressed the student body. But politically and theologically, it’s fair to say that Sewanee is better described as “progressive.” ...
In my convocation address I said that there is a move afoot on campuses “to marginalize and even to demonize voices of traditional and historic Christian faith ... and that this is troubling ... because to think we can have real and enduring freedom and real liberal education without robust voices of faith ignores history.” What’s more, these expressions of faith cannot be limited to the private sphere -- they must circulate in the free marketplace of ideas. ...
I urged students to “listen respectfully” to those with whom they disagree, because “This is at the heart of liberal education and it's at the heart of democracy and freedom.”
At the time I thought it went rather well. But then I read an opinion piece published in the student newspaper. It called my speech “one of the most offensive and disgusting” the writer had ever witnessed.
So, journalists, what happened? He spoke in favor of religious liberty (no scare quotes), of the free exercise of religious faith in the public square.
The student op-ed continued:
It said that, “Beneath a thin veneer of reason and civil discourse,” I “continued to push [my] evangelical agenda.”
According to the writer, the response to my address in the audience was “shock” and “dismay.” Now the newspaper printed this without linking to my actual speech or even writing an article about the speech.
But it wasn’t only that writer. One of the clergymen on campus wrote me and told me while he was in “complete agreement” with what I said, some of his parishioners were “incensed,” even though they could not tell him why they felt that way.
Trying to get to the bottom of it, the clergyman checked with one of the other people honored, the great N.T. Wright, who told him that he found my remarks “quite unobjectionable.” ...
It would be disingenuous for me to claim that I was completely surprised by the negative reaction. Not because I set out to offend anyone, but because small “o” orthodoxy itself is increasingly offensive in some religious circles. But no one seemed to be able to say what in the speech bothered them. They just flat out were offended.
However, if you had to label the content of his remarks, what label would fit? Historically? How about in these troubled "culture war" times?