Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

I realize this may sound like a rather obvious question. However, after 40 years of religion-beat work (in one form or another) I still think that it's relevant.

The question: To cover religion news events and trends, does it help if journalists know enough about religion to ask detailed questions about, well, "religion"? When I say "religion" I am thinking about details of doctrine, tradition and history.

In other words, when covering Iraq over the past decade or two, would it have helped to know the doctrinal differences between Sunni Muslims and the Shiites? If covering debates between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, would it help to know something about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity? If covering debates about citizenship in Israel, do you need to know something -- doctrinally speaking -- about Reform Judaism and its emergence out of Orthodox Judaism in Europe?

This topic came up in this week's "Crossroads" podcast because of the recent GetReligion post about a nasty split inside a "Lutheran" megachurch in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in the heart of what has long been known as the "Lutheran Belt." Click here to tune that in.

The problem was that a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press never got around to telling readers which brand of Lutheranism was found in this specific megachurch. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune report clarified this big denominational question in its lede and in a follow-up paragraph a few lines later.

Did this picky detail really matter? Only if readers wanted to know what the fighting was actually about. Was this really a battle over sexism and a female pastor (even though she had been at the church for some time)? Were there other issues in play, perhaps dating back to the church's flight from the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during battles over biblical authority and sexuality?

In the end, readers of both papers were left in the dark. Why? It appears that there were big doctrinal questions that needed to be asked and answered.

Or how about the ongoing United Methodist tensions I described this week in my "On Religion" column? At the heart this piece was a letter, from an anonymous female pastor, that was published by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was clear, as in the U.S. Supreme Court debates about the Health & Human Services mandate on contraceptives, sterilizations, "morning-after pills," etc.

Here is most of that letter, as published in my column:

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in the United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.
"Luckily, we don't have an insurance plan that requires the church to sign off on the prescriptions that my doctor writes. ... However, because I value my job, I have to remain anonymous in writing this. It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules. I'm very grateful that ... I don't have to justify my prescriptions to my Bishop. I don't think it is any of his business. I hope the U.S. government agrees."
Meanwhile, the UMC Book Of Discipline remains clear on premarital sex, requiring clergy to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness."

Now, this is an argument about whether clergy in a particular flock need to defend and strive to follow the doctrines that are in the vows they took when they were ordained.

Do those vows still matter? That's a question about doctrine.

GetReligion readers who have been around for awhile probably know where this is going -- the "tmatt trio."

These are the three doctrinal questions that I have used for several decades to probe the fault lines inside Christian denominations, schools and parachurch groups. The goal is not to obtain a particular answer to these questions, but to listen closely to what people say as they articulate and defend their positions. Here is how I explained that a few years ago, in a column that started with how my three questions were refined in conversations with the influential pollster George Gallup, Jr., around 1990.

The key, Gallup affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions were:
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Through the years, I have discussed these questions ... with other journalists and additional pollsters, seeking overlapping insights. However, the leaders of LifeWay Research recently went so far as to write these questions into a new "Theological Awareness Benchmark Study" conducted for the Ligonier Ministries of Samford, Fla.
The results, once again, echo decades of work by Gallup and other pollsters indicating that surprisingly high numbers of Americans affirm -- in words -- fairly traditional religious beliefs. However, when questions push them toward actual conflicts with the content of mainstream culture, an increasing number of Americans waffle and move toward what LifeWay President Ed Stetzer calls the "mushy middle."

I developed these three questions while reporting about tensions between and inside Christian groups. You'd need different questions when covering Judaism or Islam, for example. I have on several occasions asked GetReligion readers -- without success -- to propose basic questions reporters could use when covering those two faiths, in particular. I think you could create some interesting questions to map the lines between "nones," agnostics and atheists.

But all of that requires a willingness to talk about doctrine and then to sweat the fine details, when covering religion news. Right?

Enjoy the podcast.

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