RNS calls out United Methodists as same-sex marriage holdouts

"Looking at you, Methodists," says yesterday's "Slingshot," the newsletter of the Religion News Service -- about an event that isn't even about Methodism. It's about Tuesday's action of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships.

"With Presbyterians in the yes column, mainline Protestants solidify gay marriage support," RNS says after PCUSA's Tuesday decision. And right from the lede, the story turns up the heat on United Methodists:

(RNS) With the largest Presbyterian denomination’s official endorsement Tuesday (March 17), American mainline Protestants have solidified their support for gay marriage, leaving the largest mainline denomination — the United Methodist Church — outside the same-sex marriage fold.

The story acknowledges that the Methodists are unlikely to accept gay marriage, especially because their African brethren strongly oppose it. But then RNS tries to show how abnormal that's becoming:

But the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and now the Presbyterian Church (USA)  sanctify the marriage of two men or two women. The 3.8 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gives congregations the autonomy to decide for themselves.

The story piles it on, quoting a researcher for the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) saying that support for same-sex marriage among "white mainline Protestants" has grown drastically over the last decade -- 67 percent among U.S. Methodists, compared with 69 percent of Presbyterians. And it gets even more vehement:

The Rev. Jeremy Smith, minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., said the Presbyterian vote reminds Methodists to ask themselves why their own doctrine is the way it is.
“Why is this still on the books?” he said. “In the Methodist Church we have been behind the culture.”

Sure, I could hear some liberal Methodists saying that. In response, less-liberal Methodists would say ... what? We don't know. RNS doesn't quote any.

Why the multiple attribution "white mainline Protestants," you may ask? Partly because, according to PRRI itself, blacks, Hispanics and white evangelicals don’t fall in line:

Hispanic Protestants are divided; 46 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry and 49 percent oppose. By contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants and nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 35 percent of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

None of this is to say that RNS is lying or hiding facts. After all, it includes a scorecard on which religious bodies support gay marriage and which don’t. The story also concedes that mainline denominations have been shrinking in recent decades.

"The majority of church-affiliated Americans belong to denominations that forbid gay marriage, including Roman Catholics, most Baptists, Pentecostals, evangelicals and Mormons," the article says -- unfortunately, in the trailing half.

But even among mainliners -- say, the 37 members of the National Council of Churches -- you have several groups of Baptists and Eastern Orthodox Christians, most of which wouldn't sanction same-sex marriage. So the assertion of "solidifying support" doesn't look quite so conclusive.

Now, RNS is totally correct that gay marriage is on a roll among some Protestant churches. But to push an image of solid approval -- and even call out a denomination as a holdout -- goes beyond the facts. Not to mention overstepping the line from reporting to campaigning.

Ironically, the "Looking at you, Methodists" mini-editorial didn't even introduce the RNS article. It was linked to a New York Times piece on the breaking news -- a piece that was less strident than RNS.

The Times quotes two sources who favored changing church law and two who opposed it. None of the quotes are obviously slanted to make us accept or reject them.

And the article also doesn't limit its scope to white mainline Protestants. It notes that non-Protestants, like Unitarian Universalists and Reform and Conservative Jews, also accept same-sex marriage. It could have mentioned the opposition by Mormons, Muslims and Orthodox Jews, though.

The main gaming device is the use of "conservative" four times, for those who didn't want same-sex marriage, like the Fellowship Community. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which favored the change, isn't "liberal"; it simply "advocates gay inclusion in the church."

I can overlook that because of the overall attitude in the story: respect and thorough reporting of each side. And although it quotes a "conservative" journalist predicting no further changes among mainliners, the Times doesn't take sides or make some grand prediction. After all, it's an article, not an editorial.

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