The activists at ChurchClarity.org are back, with another narrow, but important, set of numbers detailing what some strategic American churches are, and are not, saying about LGBTQ issues and other causes that are crucial to the Christian left.
Anyone who cares about the development of an open, candid, evangelical left has to be paying close attention to this project. That means bookmarking two essential websites -- ChurchClarity.org itself and the Religion News Service columns of Jonathan Merritt, the scribe who has done the most to provoke and define debates on the evangelical left on these topics.
The goal of the project, simply stated, is to examine the public statements of various churches -- symbolized by doctrinal documents on websites -- in order to determine where the leaders of these congregations stand on LGBTQ issues.
While some may see the project as hostile to Christian orthodoxy, the bottom line is that it's offering newsworthy material that reporters need to know about. It is also providing links to its source materials. Journalists can respect that (as demonstrated by this Rod Dreher post reacting to these surveys).
The bottom line: Reporters can use ChurchClarity.org as a key voice in an important debate.
That is, journalists can choose to do that. It appears that some will settle for a public-relations approach. For example, see the Newsweek piece with this headline: "AMERICA’S LARGEST CHURCHES ARE ALL ANTI-LGBT AND LED BY MOSTLY WHITE MEN." Yes, the all-caps thing appears to be Newsweek style. Here is the overture:
None of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBT-affirming and almost all of them are led by white men, according to ChurchClarity.org, an organization that reports churches’ LGBT policies and rates congregations based on their level of clarity.
Just one of the U.S.'s largest churches has a female pastor and 93 percent of the churches are led by a white pastor, according to the site, which collected data from churches and represents over 1.1 million Evangelicals in America.
Now, if you know anything about megachurches, it would appear that many really large African-American congregations were overlooked, somehow.
This Newsweek piece is so over the top in its rah-rah tone that it's pretty easy to spot the other side of this debate. The headline, in other words, could just as easily have said: "America's largest churches affirm centuries of Christian doctrines on sexuality and ordination."
But that kind of report would only tell half the story, right? If that is the case, then what is the Newsweek report?
Let's read on. Later on, Newsweek explains the goals of ChurchClarity.org:
These churches are also all anti-LGBT. The study found that it was difficult to tell what a church’s outright LGBT policies are, so it looked at which of the 100 churches simply had clear policies on the main pages of their websites. Over 50 percent of churches profiled were categorized as “Unclear: Non-Affirming,” meaning that they “do not clearly and accessibly communicate” their LGBTQ policies. Thirty-five percent of the churches were “Clear: Non-Affirming,” meaning that they “clearly indicate non-affirming policies in a way that can easily be found on their website.” Eleven percent were categorized as “Undisclosed,” meaning their “policy cannot be found on their website."
"An affirming policy means much more than 'welcoming' LGBTQ+ people," Church Clarity says on its website. "It means that the church will ordain, hire, marry and baptize LGBTQ+ people."
All of this was, in a way, prophesied by another strong voice on the religious left. As I wrote last fall:
Tensions on the left side of American evangelicalism had been building for years and then Christian ethics professor David Gushee drew a bright red line.
Many religious groups reject gay-rights efforts because of ancient doctrines on marriage and sexuality, he noted in a Religion News Service essay last year. Some have tried to do this quietly.
"It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it," wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including, "Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics."
Gushee warned the orthodox: "Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."
ChurchClarity.org is part of the "come and find you" project, operating on the theological and cultural left. It will be interesting to see how many "conservative" churches do attempt to hide the teachings affirmed and defended in their pulpits and classrooms. The same thing goes for Christian colleges and universities.
In a way, we have already seen one small-o orthodox response on this front. I am referring to the much-discussed document called The Nashville Statement. While much of the mainstream news coverage seemed to think this document was essentially political, its authors were very clear about their theological intentions.
In the same "On Religion" piece in which I quoted Gushee, Union University professor Hunter Baker noted:
The key to the Nashville Statement is that it ... was primarily written "to other evangelicals who are considering compromises in face of cultural pressures that have radically increased in recent years," said Hunter, reached by telephone.
Right now, most of these pressures are falling on Christians in academia, publishing and nonprofit ministries -- such as those linked to medicine or work with the poor -- that interact with corporations or government agencies, he said. Many religious believers fear discrimination in major corporations and when seeking admittance to professional organizations and elite graduate schools.
"There is a fear that, if you maintain your beliefs in classical Christian doctrines, you will be pushed to the margins of mainstream American life," he said.
Thus, The Nashville Statement asked evangelical leaders to sign a statement that clearly affirmed a stance that was the exact opposite of that offered by ChurchClarity.org and others on the left.
Journalists, however, should be able to see that both of these groups are providing information that could -- repeat COULD -- lead to intelligent, complex, fair-minded, accurate and even balanced coverage. Both of these projects are seeking church leaders to produce on-the-record statements on these important topics.
So why not treat these projects the same or as essential parts of one important story?