First things first: The editors of The Los Angeles Times are to be commended for going where relatively few journalists have been willing to go in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 Obergefell ruling approving same-sex marriage. They published a lengthy and, at times, quite solid news feature on how doctrinally conservative African-American church leaders are reacting to the ruling.
The dramatic headline proclaimed: " 'Satan is subtle,' same-sex marriage foes warn as they prepare to fight court ruling."
The problem with this story is that it contains evidence that Times journalists failed to listen carefully to what these religious believers said or, at the very least, failed to accurately report what they said. Perhaps reporters and editors needed to think twice and then, as an act of journalistic humility, ask some follow-up questions?
At the center of many debates in this topic is an effort on the cultural left to make an iron-clad link between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is a link that, when allowed to vote on this matter, African-Americans have, as a rule, rejected. As you would expect, that issue came up in the Times piece, as well as discussions of how black church leaders feel about the actions of President Barack Obama.
Read the following passage carefully, since it yielded the key image in the headline. This chunk of the story was built on interviews during a Bible study at Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. One participant -- Daryl Fisher -- is said to have "clutched a Bible in one hand as he spoke." Now, was he "clutching" it, or merely "holding" it?
They ... were upset by the decision to light the White House rainbow colors after the ruling. That same day, Obama spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, an African American minister gunned down at a church in Charleston, S.C. Surrounded by African American clergy, Obama prayed and burst into song -- all after supporting same-sex marriage.
“Singing ‘Amazing Grace’ after he led the charge — what a shame,” Fisher said. “The church is under siege, it’s just coming from different directions.”
“They have tried to attach this to civil rights,” said the pastor’s wife, Rhonda Miller, 52.
“No connection whatsoever,” Fisher said.
“Because they have a choice,” she said of gays and lesbians, though scientists generally believe that is not the case.
Wait a minute. Do we know, for sure, that the pastor's wife was arguing that all gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people choose their orientation? Clearly that is what the Times assumed that she meant. Note the insertion of the words, "though scientists generally believe that is not the case."
Now, anyone who knows about the famous Kinsey Scale (click here for information on that) knows that, for some, sexual orientation seems to be rather fluid and changing while, for many others, this is not the case.
But can readers be sure that this is what Miller was talking about when she used the crucial word "choice"? She may have been saying that people have choices to make about their sexual behavior, as in choices about the sexual acts themselves. Would scientists deny that choice exists in issues of behavior? Did the reporter ask her to clarify what she meant?
Let's read on in this same passage:
They blamed themselves for not standing up sooner, and more forcefully. The Bible told them to love the sinner, hate the sin, but perhaps they had been lax, loved the sinners too much.
“Satan is subtle,” Rhonda Miller said. “You say, ‘I’ll go along with that,’ and before you know it, it’s an abomination.”
Whoa. The Bible says what? Can someone get me a chapter and verse?
As a long-time reader noted, in an email to your GetReligionistas:
LA Times tries some subtle theological reporting -- and fails. ...
The Bible told them to love the sinner, hate the sin ..." Um, no it didn't, because the Bible doesn't say that. That's a phrase that was made up to distill biblical teaching, much like the creeds.
"...but perhaps they had been lax, loved the sinners too much." Again, trying to be theologically clever isn't working out for the Times here. One cannot love sinners "too much." Laxity does not equal love.
Please read the story. I think most readers will see a sincere effort, for the most part, by the journalists to take seriously what these black church leaders have to say.
At the same time, I also wondered if the motivation to produce this story had more to do with a strong interest -- as is often the case in newsrooms -- in politics, as opposed to doctrine and theology. After all, black voters are a crucial part of a winning coalition for the Democratic Party. Thus, the story goes there, quoting the Rev. Max A. Miller Jr. and church-office administrator Sylvia Sims:
“President Obama was wrong. Those people were wrong. But they were wrong because we let them be. We let a gay mayor in. And God said, ‘I’m going to show you because you let this in,’ ” Sims said. “God is sick and tired of us as Christians not standing up for what’s right.”
Sims has been a straight-ticket Democratic voter, but said no more. Rhonda Miller agreed.
After the high court’s ruling, Fisher said he initially vowed never to vote for a Democrat again. Now he wants to be a more discerning voter. ...
“If we really look at our values, they're more conservative,” the Rev. Miller said. “Democrats treat us like a 2 a.m. phone call: They come by late in the election, they do nothing for the neighborhood, they give speeches and they sell us out.”
Miller noted that during the past year, he formed an alliance with local conservatives, including several white Republican activist ministers, against a Houston equal rights ordinance.
He rejected the notion that “gay is the new black,” comparisons between gay and civil rights, a movement dear to the 57-year-old church, founded by his uncle in a garage.
Miller warned his congregation of 1,230 that the city ordinance, which passed in May 2014, would lead to sanctions against Christians.
This is not, of course, a brand new topic in the news. Anyone who has followed voting patterns in African-American communities over recent decades knows that Republicans have a much better chance to find sympathy in church pews than in the public -- black or white -- at large.
Still, it was important for Times journalists to take this story on, after the Obergefell ruling. Other journalists may want to visit a few black (and Latino) churches in their own zip codes and ask some questions. It also helps to listen carefully to the answers.