NPR road trip to study bizarre citizens of North Dakota feels like a visit to the zoo



Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast the results of their recent road trip through North Dakota, one of a decreasing number of states (currently at 13) with laws opposing same-sex marriage. (Many more states had them, but courts have struck them down). In interviews around the southeastern corner of the state, reporters talked with people who were pro and con on homosexual marriage.

NPR pitched this series as “People thinking out loud about gay rights and same sex marriage.” In other places on their web site, they said it was about “religion and gay rights in North Dakota.”

What could go wrong? Well, listening to this series feels like the NPR pros have decided to visit a zoo.

In their intro, NPR quoted a Gallup poll as saying North Dakota is the ‘least gay’ state in the country at 1.7 percent of the population identifying themselves as homosexual. Washington, DC, by the way, was the ‘most gay’ in terms of people who self-identify as such at 10 percent.

The series explains itself as follows:

Poll numbers will tell us that many North Dakotans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. But having met some of those people, and having listened to their voices, the picture is much more nuanced than any poll could illustrate.
There was the auto body shop owner who told us that homosexuality – like adultery, promiscuity, and pornography – was sexual sin. The farmer who was torn between tradition, and libertarianism. The Lutheran pastor who said he feared that his church might be “capitulating to culture,” as the Lutheran Church did in 1930s Germany. And the young woman who said she loves her gay sister-in-law deeply, but feels strongly that she should stand by the Catholic Church.
Of course, not everyone in North Dakota is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage. For many, it seemed like a non-issue. But it is these voices, of people grappling with how to feel about the sea change around them, that I can’t stop hearing in my head.

The first part, which aired April 13, quotes a woman who disagreed with her Methodist church in the tiny town of Wahpeton, near the Minnesota line, for not allowing the baptism of a child of two lesbians.

The journalists then interview a Catholic farmer “who is uncomfortable with gay and lesbian couples using the term ‘marriage,’ ” the show explains. He seems reluctant to say much and one can hardly blame him. When people are losing their jobs and businesses for simply saying they won’t cater gay weddings, some trepidation is understandable.

The corner of the state where most interviews take place is described as “a community known as North Dakota nice, friendly to a fault often avoiding talking about the hard things.”

Back to that zoo image. Here we’re traveling to a backwards corner of the country where odd people still think in old-fashioned ways. I’m not so much objecting to reporters traversing the Plains States, but I do wonder at the assumptions behind the reporting.

Why is there never a journey to DC residents with pointed questions about forcing their beliefs down the throats of those who disagree with them? (In 2010, the DC Board of Elections and Ethics refused to allow a ballot initiative on same-sex marriage even after a local pastor sued to try to make them do so.) 

Or, why do I never see reports to, say, Delaware, which has the country’s highest rate of abortions per (female) capita? Why is there never a series where a reporter shows up outside Delaware (or New York or New Jersey which are close behind in abortion stats) abortion clinics to ask why so many residents are killing their offspring? The shoe never seems to go on the other foot.

But I digress. The second part, which aired April 14, is a closer look at a United Methodist church whose pastor who refused 16 years ago to baptize the child of lesbian parents on the premise they could not give their child a Christian home. Agree or disagree with that pastor, there are some Christian traditions where the congregation verbally promises to help the parents bring their children up as believers. Perhaps this pastor figured that it was wrong to baptize someone into an atmosphere where that promise could not be kept. 

One might disagree with him today, but this was 1999 when denominations weren't really grappling with these questions.

NPR finds the current pastor, a woman who will not answer their question about whether the church would baptize their son today. Some background: The United Methodist Church is one of the only mainline Protestant denomination left still opposing gay unions in its churches. The Book of Discipline says: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Maybe NPR could mentioned this detail. NPR then interviews an articulate lesbian couple and their son Madison. Later, the journalists ran into the pastor again and she says in a second interview that she would baptize the child. Nice twist at the end, that.

The third part of the series, which aired April 15, mentions that 50 percent of the state’s population oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. The NPR team talks to an auto body shop owner outside of Fargo, a Lutheran who believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God and gives a cogent defense of his beliefs. This is an obvious balance to the fourth part of the series about a lesbian who just got engaged to her lover. She is Melanie Hoffert and she lives in Minneapolis. But she grew up on a farm in North Dakota and wrote a book about her life called “Prairie Silence.”

Melanie had been a born-again Christian, the broadcast says, although it was unclear as to what she is today. The family members who oppose her are folks “who don’t want to embrace who she is.”

With that kind of framing, it's no surprise that one of the family members, called April, refuses to talk on the air. Melanie is heard wishing April would comment. But why should April talk to the radio broadcaster standing in the next room? People are being pilloried all over the country for expressing views against homosexuality. April then walks out of the house, feeling she is being dumped on for not “supporting Melanie.” When one of your relatives gets engaged to someone of the same sex, is it now it’s your fault that you don’t support them? The story continues:

 The impression we left with was this: April loves Melanie, but feels conflicted about her own beliefs — like many people who are coming to terms with a gay relative.
We saw a family, like so many others, struggling with something hard — something that many families avoid altogether.

OK, they are her “own beliefs” but they’re also the beliefs of a Bible believed by 2.1 billion Christians, not just some clueless Neanderthal in North Dakota. Why can’t NPR say she “feels conflicted by the clear teachings of Christianity against homosexual practice.” Can we have something that equalizes the debate just a bit?

NPR's portrayal of a corner of North Dakota is very creative on one end, but discomfiting on the other. Is this the real America we're encountering here? Or the hopelessly behind-the-times America? It's not hard to see which view can be found at NPR.

Please respect our Commenting Policy