Every decade or two, The New York Times hires a conservative columnist.
There are exceptions to the rule, but most of the time these conservative columnists are what critics refer to as "New York Times conservatives." This means that, while they may be Republicans who lean to the right on economics and global issues, they lean left on the cultural issues that really matter -- such as abortion rights and gay rights.
Is there such a thing as a "New York Times conservative" when it comes to religious leaders, and Christian clergy to be specific?
I raise this question because the Times -- in its Sunday magazine -- has produced a long profile of the Rev. A.R. Bernard, a pastor, author and civic leader who has deserved this kind of attention from the Gray Lady for a long, long time. He is an African-American megachurch star whose clout and fame has completely transcended that community label.
The Times even refers to him as smart and stylish. You can clearly sense this respect in the overture.
One Saturday in mid-September, the Rev. A. R. Bernard took to the blue carpeted stage of the Christian Cultural Center, the 96,000-square-foot megachurch he built 16 years ago at the edge of Starrett City, in Brooklyn, with his usual accouterments: a smartphone, a bottle of water and a large glass marker board that he would soon cover in bullet points drawn from the playbooks of marketing specialists. Mr. Bernard, 63, is tall and slender, and on this day he wore a distressed black leather jacket, a white polo shirt, bluejeans and white tennis shoes -- casual Saturday attire. On Sunday, you would find him impeccably tailored in a light wool suit and tortoiseshell glasses, looking more like the banker he once was than the pastor of a congregation of nearly 40,000.
So why do this piece now? Yes, Bernard has a popular self-help book out at the moment -- "Four Things Women Want From a Man." There are even hints that he is pro-monogamy. Oh my. Hold that thought.
The key here is that the African-American church remains hard to label politically and, clearly, politics is what really matters in this piece (since politics are part of the real world, as opposed to religion). What does the press do with people who are morally conservative and then progressive on economic issues?
Before we get to my theory about why this piece has been rolled out at this moment in time, let's look at a few other key chunks of this massive piece. How do we know this man is important and newsworthy?
His church, the largest in New York City, has long been considered a required stop on the way to City Hall and beyond. Having served as an adviser to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for all three terms, Mr. Bernard counts the billionaire among his many powerful friends. (In 2013, he flirted briefly with his own mayoral bid.) Mr. Bernard has met with the last two popes, and when Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, visited New York for the first time last year, he attended service at the church days before he addressed the United Nations. Mr. Bernard is a registered Republican, but he voted twice for Bill Clinton and twice for President Obama. The Clintons are old friends; they made sure to visit the church last spring in the days before the New York primary.
Mr. Bernard may have a reputation as a kingmaker, or “spiritual power broker,” as Bill Cunningham, the political consultant and former communications director for Mr. Bloomberg, described him recently, following a storied tradition of influential black pastors in New York City. But his tweedy intellectualism and distinctive brand of muscular, man-up Christianity also draw stars of pop music, film and sports to East New York.
We are talking major stars, folks. For starters, Pauletta and Denzel Washington have given him credit as a counselor for helping strengthen their marriage.
The Times piece includes many pieces of the Bernard puzzle, such as this reference that points toward a very important name in the world of urban, conservative Christianity.
As a fatherless, brainy teenager, he found a heady, male-centric blend of activism and spirituality in the Nation of Islam. But when he was a young associate at Banker’s Trust, and a colleague brought him and Ms. Bernard to hear Nicky Cruz, once the leader of the Mau Maus gang, speak about his own conversion to Christianity, Mr. Bernard’s world was upended.
Who is Cruz and why is he important? That isn't a detail worth exploring, it would appear.
No, what appears to matter the most is whether Bernard has, you know, evolved when it comes to The. Crucial. Issue. In. American. Life. This is directly related, of course, to the ultimate question at the moment: Is Bernard moving forward with Hillary?
Read this crucial block of material with care:
Mr. Bernard, who is the chief executive of his church, as well as its senior pastor (his six-figure salary is determined by a board), is at heart a practical evangelist. When it was reported in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012 that African-American ministers were encouraging their congregations not to vote because of President Obama’s position on gay marriage, Mr. Bernard bristled at being lumped into that group.
“Let me give you three powerful reasons why I would never tell my congregation not to vote: Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney,” he told a reporter on MSNBC, referring to the young civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. “Don’t let same-sex marriage be the deciding factor.” He went on to give a meticulous, and theologically agile, mini-lecture on the separation of church and state, on why same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue and how his own faith nonetheless requires that he obey its tenets.
Now, that is really complex, tricky territory and note that -- on the crucial doctrinal material -- a key voice is missing, as in the voice of Bernard himself.
It would appear that (1) Bernard is not a single-issue voter and (2) that he remains orthodox when it comes to the Bible and marriage. Did I read that right?
But here is the key question: Has he evolved enough that he is now a "New York Times conservative" who can praised by the nation's most powerful newsroom? Is he now a positive force in the community, after years of, well, being dangerously in doctrinal error?
The story also includes this statement, which -- again -- hints at political flexibility.
Last year, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Mr. Bernard delivered a sermon about how societal norms and laws change over time. “I used the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit as one example,” he said. “That’s the law, but most people are doing 65, so that’s the norm. If they hit 95, which is the extreme, the police will pull them over. Over time, cultural practices can move from extreme to norm to law.”
The point being made by the Times is clearly that -- like Obama and, oh, Bill Clinton -- Bernard has evolved.
But note that the preacher said "societal norms" have changed. What about biblical norms? What about 2,000 years of Christian doctrine? What else did he say in that sermon? Where does he stand on the First Amendment and the free exercise of religious conscience?
The story is silent. However, Bernard has just produced a book on marriage. His own marriage of four decades is at the heart of his work and public image. The suggestion is that Bernard has started changing his BIBLICAL views on marriage and sex. Is that true?
Nothing to see there, when it comes to doctrine, saith the Times. Let's keep it real. Moving on.
I mean, if there is a way to suggest that he is rolling with Hillary Clinton, what else needs to be said, at this moment in time. That is what really matters about this man and his ministry. Right?