When covering the wide divide between liberal Christians and Christian conservatives, is the status of same-sex marriage the only doctrinal issue that matters?
Of course not.
In fact, if you dig deep enough, you'll often find that other issues are much more important in these disputes, such as how different brands of believers view the authority of scripture (especially in low-church Protestant settings) and how much authority they grant ancient doctrines taught in the early church (especially in high-church, liturgical settings).
Yes, there are times when a person's experiences linked to sexuality leads him or her to seek a new ecclesiastical home. That is common. However, even then, this faith crisis almost always involves other doctrines, other theological issues.
But sexuality -- same-sex marriage, in particular -- is the hot issue right now and that is what mainstream reporters will write about, over and over, even when other issues are involved.
If you want to see this process at work, check out the recent New York Times "Weddings" feature that ran with this headline: "Two Pastors in Love, and Only God Knows." The basic structure of this story is seen in the overture:
Pastor Twanna Gause stepped out of a limousine amid the whir of cameras outside the New Vision Full Gospel Baptist Church in East Orange, N.J.
Dressed in an off-white wedding gown and veil that sparkled in the cascading sunshine, she carried a bouquet of white roses and lilies, hugged several guests, then parted a sea of well-wishers on the way to her best friend, Pastor Vanessa Brown, who stood waiting at the altar in a cream-colored long coat called a sherwani and gold Punjabi jutti shoes.
The church doors opened, allowing the faint strains of “You Are So Beautiful” to float on the hot August air. Pastor Gause stepped inside, where she was greeted by Bishops Levi Richards and Eugene Gathers, both of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries.
“She’s our spiritual daughter,” Bishop Richards said.
Both men walked Ms. Gause down the aisle, a role she had initially hoped would be accepted by her father, the Rev. Sam Gause Sr., a Pentecostal minister who lives in Atlanta.
But Mr. Gause, citing “differences in theological beliefs,” refused his daughter’s invitation.
This is, as I noted, a "Weddings" feature -- not a story produced by religion-beat specialists. The fashion details are more important than the doctrinal ones.
This is not a religion story.
The heart of this long, detailed story is how these two African-American women ended up in love and, after a complicated journey, getting married. This love story is interrupted, at several points, by angry words and silences by the the father, the Rev. Sam Gause (The Times does not grant him "the Rev." for some unknown reason).
When his pastor Gause declines to speak, others speak for him. Such as:
“My father would not come here because he does not believe in same-sex marriage,” Ms. Gause said. “He told me the devil tricked me into this, and that if we had been married in biblical times, we would have been stoned to death.”
Second-hand quotes are always problematic, but it is also clear that this Pentecostal pastor did not welcome a theological chat with The New York Times.
Now, is there anything else going on in this story, a second level of theological information that didn't interest the Times team?
Yes, there is. Readers who know something about the landscape of American Protestantism can see all kinds of signs, on the left as well as the right. All one needs to do is look at the church connections of the main players.
For example, the Rev. Sam Gause, Sr., is connected with a giant, conservative denomination that is well established in African-American culture -- the Church of God in Christ.
Meanwhile, the pastors who performed this same-sex marriage rite are part of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, whatever that is.
Now, I used that somewhat snarky "whatever that is" language because it is next to impossible to find references to this denomination, or parachurch group, or activist network, using a basic search engine. That's rare, in this day and age. Most reporters would take this as a sign that this organization is not well known or well connected. So these "bishops" represent the apostolic authority of what denomination or tradition?
Meanwhile, the Times team notes that the two brides do have solid connections to a specific denomination, serving as pastors with "Rivers of Living Water United Church of Christ, which has locations in Newark and New York."
Now, what is the United Church of Christ? This oldline denomination is, with good cause, known as the cutting edge of liberal Protestantism in America, a liberalism defined in terms of basic doctrines of all kinds, including moral theology. The UCC ordained its first openly LGBTQ pastor in 1972. In recent years, the best known members of the UCC, in terms of news coverage, were President Barack Obama and his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago.
It also helps to note that one of the brides, the Rev. Brown, is a graduate of New York Theological Seminary, which is based in the famous Interchurch Center on the West Side of Manhattan -- a facility long known as the "God box" because of its symbolic role as the Vatican of liberal Protestantism. For many years, the National Council of Churches was based there, until a financial crisis forced a move.
What's the point? There is no question that theological differences over sexuality are at the heart of this story. However, it's also clear -- to be blunt -- that the faith proclaimed by the Church of God in Christ is radically different, in every possible way, from that of most flocks linked to the United Church of Christ and the left edge of free-church Protestantism.
Thus, when the Rev. Sam Gause, Sr., talks about theological differences between himself and the people surrounding his daughter, he is probably not just talking about same-sex marriage. There are other differences linked to biblical authority and core doctrines in the Christian faith.
Like what? It's hard to know, since that is clearly not what this Times article is about.
Remember: This is not a religion story. This is a same-sex love story with blunt interruptions from the all-but absent father of one of the brides (yes, there is a divorce angle in there too).
You can see hints of all this in yet another second-hand anecdote about a key moment in this family drama -- soon after the two women told family members about their relationship.
... [They] were still in Atlanta two days later, when Mr. Gause, carrying a large King James Version of the Bible, confronted them in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was being held.
“He slammed the Bible down on a table and said to us, ‘Did you all read this book?’” Ms. Gause said. “He was furious.”
During his recent phone conversation, Mr. Gause said he had actually stormed the hotel “to confront their pastor over theological beliefs, but he never showed.”
That is pretty much that, in terms of theological content.
In terms of the love story, the Times piece is very detailed. In terms of the family story, readers get a taste of the pain involved on both sides. Clearly, for the nation's most powerful newspaper, this is the story that mattered.
But what is going on, in terms of Christian faith and the actual beliefs of people on both sides? Clearly, that is not what this story -- a love story of two female pastors -- is about.
Remember: This is not a religion story.