Pregnant while teen-age and Christian: An obvious clickbait story raises lots of questions

By now there is a good chance that many of you have read the story of the pregnant teen who got shamed by her conservative Christian school in rural Maryland and how even fellow Christians are lambasting said school for its nasty behavior.

Heritage Academy is a place that lots of people like to hate: Merciless and judgmental when it came to one of their own students getting pregnant in her senior year, not to mention the school’s decision to use her as an example.

Yet, were all the leads followed on this story? Here’s how the New York Times handled it:

BOONSBORO, Md. -- Maddi Runkles has never been a disciplinary problem.
She has a 4.0 average at Heritage Academy, the small private Christian school she attends; played on the soccer team; and served as president of the student council. But when her fellow seniors don blue caps and gowns at graduation early next month, Ms. Runkles, 18, will not be among them.
The reason? She is pregnant.
The decision by school officials to bar Ms. Runkles from “walking” at graduation — and to remove her from her student council position — would have remained private, but for her family’s decision to seek help from Students for Life. The anti-abortion group, which took her to a recent rally in Washington, argues that she should be lauded, not punished, for her decision to keep her baby.

That is interesting. The family knew how the court of public opinion would rule on this, so took the plunge.

Ms. Runkles’s story sheds light on a delicate issue: how Christian schools, which advocate abstinence until marriage, treat pregnant teenagers.
“You have these two competing values,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who directs the National Marriage Project, which conducts research on marriage and families. “On the one hand, the school is seeking to maintain some kind of commitment to what has classically been called chastity — or today might be called abstinence. At the same time, there’s an expectation in many Christian circles that we are doing all that we can to honor life.”
Navigating that balance is exceedingly difficult for Christian educators, and schools respond in various ways, said Rick Kempton, chairman of the board of the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents about 3,000 schools in the United States and many others overseas.
 “There’s a biblical term that many Christian schools use, and it is the whole idea of grace: What would Jesus do?” Mr. Kempton said. Of Ms. Runkles, he added: “She’s making the right choice. But you don’t want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, ‘Well, that seems like a pretty good option.’ ”

That last statement is pretty cringe-worthy. And, what about the guy? He’s not a student at the same school, so there’s no discipline question there but why isn’t he facing the music? (According to a Facebook post, he is planning on helping to raise the kid.)

The back story here must be interesting. And so the piece ends with the pregnant student calling attention to the hypocrisy of all involved.

She is trying to start a chapter of Embrace Grace, an organization that works with churches to help single pregnant women. While many in her school are supportive, she still sometimes feels like an outcast. She wears a jacket over her school uniform — a polo shirt and khaki skirt — to cover her bulging belly, so as not to make others feel uncomfortable. Her parents are planning their own graduation ceremony for her on June 3, the day after Heritage Academy’s event.
“Some pro-life people are against the killing of unborn babies, but they won’t speak out in support of the girl who chooses to keep her baby,” she said. “Honestly, that makes me feel like maybe the abortion would have been better. Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.”

What’s intriguing about this story –- which has happened many times to pregnant girls in similar schools, colleges and universities –- is how some in the religious community have fought back by siding with this girl.

Typical is the comment by a writer for the pro-life LiveAction.org who also got pregnant outside of marriage who writes:

Maddi Runkles is certainly making news, and unfortunately in ways which doesn’t present the Christian pro-life community in the best — or the most accurate — light.

Blogger Julie Roys says much the same thing

The story, which was published over the weekend in The New York Times, has infuriated scores of Americans. It also sadly has reinforced negative stereotypes of Christians as legalistic and hypocritical jerks, who simultaneously rail against abortion, while shaming those who choose life.
Unfortunately, the damage this incident has done to the reputation of the church, not to mention the soul of this poor girl, cannot easily be undone.

Of course those in the non-religious community, like this post from Friendly Atheist, makes a cogent point with this headline: "Christian school condemns abortion, then punishes student for not having one.”

It is the perfect story that pushes all the right buttons. Villainous Christian school foists hypocritical stance on hapless teen-ager.  Christians enact double standard by focusing on the girl, but not the boy. A faith based on a pregnant unwed teen-ager journeying to Bethlehem is (2,000 years later) condemning other girls in the same situation.

Journalists may want to ask a few questions, though. Although the school is non-denominational, is there no pastor affiliated with the place? If there was, he should have been quoted. The story does mention that the Runkles know that their daughter violated the school's lifestyle covenant (see the letter posted on the school website addressing this issue).

What about the reaction of other families who are sending their kids to this school? Do they side with Runkles or are they glad she’s being made to pay for her mistake?

When members of other faiths mess up –- like after a terrorist attack by Islamists –- media accounts are filled with quotes by folks who say that real Muslims don’t do such things. OK, so where are the intelligent quotes by Christians saying that a truly Christian group wouldn’t act this way?

I’d like to see a follow-up on what are the policies at other Christian (and to be fair, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish) institutions about this? I know that at some Christian colleges, a pregnant female student might not be denied graduation, but she is forced to drop out once she is visibly or highly pregnant (often because of medical liability issues). This may put her behind a terrible eight ball in terms of ever finishing her studies -- unless the school has a compassionate policy that allows her to do work online or some other option to complete those courses.

What if the college discovers the student has had an abortion? Is she punished at all? And in a culture that can barely conceive of people abstaining from sex outside of marriage, how best to explain schools and colleges that have abstinence as a standard?

The bottom line: Writing up a Christian school for punishing a pregnant teen is an easy target and great clickbait.

Instead, why not look into that space between a rock and a hard place that these schools inhabit?

Why not cover the debate of Christian vs. Christian as to how to have rules and mercy at the same time? Find out the policies of well-known evangelical colleges such as Wheaton or Westmont. How do conservative Catholic schools handle these issues? Hint: Find out how widespread the whole "scarlet letter" treatment is and whether the male ever gets punished. 

The more you look, the more questions there will be. This will only make the resulting news stories stronger.

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