Eugene Peterson, RNS and gay marriage: Wave good-bye to clarity and objectivity

Religion News Service definitely made headlines on July 12 when it reported that the revered author Eugene Peterson had changed his mind on same-sex marriage.

Note that I said “reported.”

The news was actually broken in an opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt, a blogger and columnist who is same-sex attracted and writes frequently on LGBTQ issues.

Merritt is passionately on the side of gays to the point where, in March, he opined that it was “good news” that reparative therapy pioneer Joe Nicolosi had died. So I don’t expect objective reporting from that quarter.

But with RNS, as we’ve said previously, the difference between news and opinion is often pretty thin. Also, some RNS material that is opinion -- Merritt is clearly labeled as a columnist -- sometimes only comes with a simple byline. In the online world, clear labeling of news and features is crucial. Readers are getting confused.

So Merritt, we find out later, had heard rumors that Peterson had changed his mind on gay marriage. So why not get all this on the record? The piece starts out:

When a journalist has a chance to interview a paragon of the Christian faith like Eugene Peterson, there’s a lot of pressure to pick the perfect questions. I’d asked him about why he was leaving the public eye and if he was afraid of death. I’d asked him about Donald Trump and the state of American Christianity. But there was one more topic I wanted to cover: same-sex relationships and marriage.
It’s one of the hottest topics in the church today, and given Peterson’s vast influence among both pastors and laypeople, I knew his opinion would impact the conversation. Though he has had a long career, I couldn’t find his position on the matter either online or in print. I did discover that “The Message,” Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible, doesn’t use the word “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in key texts. But this wasn’t definitive proof of anything. After all, those words never appear in any English translation of the Bible until 1946.

The article then veers into a Q&A, which in my book qualifies as news.

Peterson is asked his position on same-sex relationships. I’ll repeat the next four paragraphs verbatim, as they’re important to this blog post:

EP: I haven’t had a lot of experience with it. But I have been in churches when I was an associate pastor where there were several women who were lesbians. They didn’t make a big deal about it. I’d go and visit them and it never came up for them. They just assumed that they were as Christian as everybody else in the church.
In my own congregation -- when I left, we had about 500 people -- I don’t think we ever really made a big deal out of it. When I left, the minister of music left. She’d been there ever since I had been there. There we were, looking for a new minister of music. One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.
I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So, we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.
RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?
EP: Yes.

Right next to it, RNS ran a sidebar with the headline “Notable Christians who’ve had a change of heart on LGBT issues.”

Twenty-four hours later, Peterson abruptly changed his mind, saying in a statement from his literary agent that he felt “put on the spot” by Merritt. (If I were Merritt, I’d be beyond annoyed that Peterson was implying entrapment, when the writer followed rules that everyone in the public eye is well aware of when they do such interviews.)

As Merritt relates in a follow-up piece on July 13:

The condemnations from conservatives were swift. LifeWay, America’s largest Christian book chain, threatened to ban his books if he didn’t affirm a traditional view of marriage. The heat rose quickly, and then Peterson retracted his remarks, claiming he was put on the spot. While he said a same-sex couple would be welcome in his church today, he would not perform a same-sex wedding “out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching.”
It is possible Peterson felt he had been placed on the spot and offered an answer that doesn’t reflect his true conviction. But it is also important to note that in the week prior to the publication, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.

Then there is a switch in tone and journalism voice:

To all the LGBT Christians who read Peterson’s words and felt a sense of hope but today feel like deflated tires: I am sorry if today feels like yet another church-induced bruise. Regardless, you are sons and daughters of Almighty God and the object of God’s love. In fact, God is obsessed with you. There is nothing you can do today to make God love you less or more. Trust that these statements are true of you and that their truthfulness is not dependent upon the statements or beliefs of any leader.

Is this an editorial? Why do we have a first piece that’s all news and then a second that’s all advocacy?

Either you have objective-style journalism or opinion-based columns, but you can’t have both. If the title of your organization includes the word “news,” shouldn’t there be something that looks like objectivity? Or has RNS abandoned that on this issue? Again, RNS can (and does) produce material that is clearly mainstream news, as well as waves of editorial columns. Is it clear which is which in the new world of online publishing?

Moving on. Then on July 14, RNS issued yet another opinion column on Eugene Peterson’s remarks. Time.com covered with their own opinion column. Let's add the Babylon Bee's humorous take on it all to the mix if opinion is all that matters. 

NBC-TV actually had unbiased reporting on the story that had decent quotes from both sides of the aisle. So it is possible to treat this item as news.

Usually we don’t report on commentaries and opinion pieces, but the weird mix of news and opinion about a topic that has transfixed America in recent years leads to this conclusion: That some news organizations aren’t interested in objective examination of this issue. They want the pull-to-emotions, tell-us-your-story, narrative-is-more-important-than-facts versions to coax an emotional response from people.

That makes it easier to discount the-Bible-condemns-homosexual-acts history or centuries of religious tradition don’t recognize same-sex marriage story lines in favor of more touchy-feely stuff that no one in their right minds would be seen opposing.

That's the space Eugene Peterson occupied for about a day.

I don’t mind that Merritt wrote the original column. He broke a legitimate story. I do object to him doing the follow-up, in the form that he used. A news reporter should have been assigned to tell how the story unexpectedly took flight, how Peterson’s publisher threatened to dump him and how Peterson may have caved under pressure.

Readers of this blog may think it somewhat arcane in this opinion-saturated age to insist on a wall of separation between news and advocacy. But it's the mixture of the two that has led to accusations of "fake news" and "alternative facts." As bad as those monikers are, can you see the exasperation toward advocacy journalism behind such accusations?

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