Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

After 15 years of work here at GetReligion, it’s easy to describe the question that I hear more than any other when I get into discussions with readers of the blog.

The question: Do you ever get frustrated having to write posts about the same issues in mainstream news, over and over, criticizing the same errors — noting the same holes, the same biases, the same “religion ghosts”?

The answer: Yes, it’s frustrating. However, when we see problems over and over, that means we have to write about them. The repetition shows that the problem is real and is not going away.

That brings me to a new Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing LGBTQ debates at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college in greater LA. Our own Julia Duin wrote about some of the early coverage in post the other day. Please check that out.

The new Times piece is the same song, all over again. Frankly, this is one of the most slanted stories I have seen in a mainstream publication in a long time. So here we go — again.

The liberal evangelical side of this equation is covered in depth, as it should be. But if you are looking for student voices, faculty voices, trustee voices on the traditional side of this doctrinal debate, you need to look somewhere else. Let’s walk through the overture of the piece.

On a recent fall day, a group of protesters gathered in a university courtyard, many holding rainbow flags. About 100 students and faculty members were fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus.

With a crowd this size, it might have been possible to get a specific figure. However, let me note that APU has about 5,600 students.

This does not mean that a small crowd of this kind is not important. It takes guts to protest your own school when it is a private school that, when you enrolled, you were told upfront the doctrinal standards that would frame campus life. We are talking about a voluntary association, a private school that no one has to attend. People choose to study there, work there, teach there.

Joining this protest means either (a) I lied when I joined this association, (b) I have changed my mind or (c) I believe the school is wrong and needs to change its doctrines (or some combination of these stances).

These voices are important — especially the faculty members who are protesting their own school’s doctrines. Frankly, the faculty members are the big story here.

However, what about people on the other side? Why do they support the traditional Christian teachings defended by the school? Why are they at APU? Why do they believe what they believe?

The Times offered this — click here. Let’s keep reading:

The scene was unusual, though — in some ways radical — given that the location was Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college, and that the debate was over how God would view the issue of same-sex couples.

“This isn’t something sinful, God,” one student said, leading the emotional gathering. “This is something beautiful. I pray that we continue to live out the mission of being difference-makers, God, that this world be a place of equality, God.”

The public display of support for LGBTQ students was a response to the evangelical Christian university’s recent decision to reinstate its ban on same-sex relationships. The school had quietly removed the ban in August and created a new LGBTQ pilot program, which includes the creation of weekly student meetings backed by the university.

But following criticism from conservative Christian media, the university changed course, saying there was a “miscommunication” between the college and its Board of Trustees.

Now, remember one of the most important realities in higher education: If you are looking for the heart, soul and mind of a school, year after year, there are two crucial groups of people — the faculty and the trustees. If you do not hear from voices on both sides of this debate, among faculty and trustees, then you — to be blunt — have no story.

But let’s be honest: At this point, would traditional evangelicals on this campus trust The Los Angeles Times to accurately cover their point of view?

At the same time, faculty members (and perhaps trustees) who OPPOSE the teachings of their school cannot afford to speak out, either. They are embedded behind enemy lines.

So, what shows up in this Times report?

An Azusa Pacific professor, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired, said the reinstatement of the ban is a fiscal decision borne out of concern over losing donors at a time when the university is facing dangerous debt.

In emails to faculty, President Jon Wallace said top university leaders were surprised by the school’s debt, which includes $17 million from the 2017-18 fiscal year, a projected $20 million loss for this fiscal year and an additional $61 million in unpaid bonds. In response to the newly projected $20 million loss, the university has put a freeze on hiring, eliminated retirement plan contributions, canceled a scheduled employee raise and reduced benefits, according to the emails.

“When you’re this far in debt, you don’t have a choice to be autonomous,” the professor said, adding that the decision to be inclusive of LGBTQ students and remove the ban on same-sex relationships likely stemmed from a fear of “losing students in the 21st century, when our stance for these students is so backward.”

I have heard all of those arguments, while working in Christian higher education. Those arguments are real and should be heard. However, there are voices on the other side.

Once again, we are talking about voluntary associations. Where are the views, in this story, of students, teachers, parents, donors, trustees, and administrators who support the school’s stance on the Bible, the church, marriage and sexuality?

Here is Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — yes, an Orthodox Christian with a big “O” — summing up what’s going on in this Times report:

It’s a long story, with plenty of comments about the feelings of LGBT students … but nothing about why Azusa Pacific and other Christian colleges have these policies in place. The framing is entirely about mean, bigoted Christian colleges, driven by “conservative media” — like me — inflicting pain on queer people, and giving the finger to modernity.

I know that “liberal media gets Christianity wrong, treats Christians unfairly” is an evergreen story, but this stuff really does matter. Millions of people who will never hear a Christian argument for tradition will assume, from reading stories like this, that there are no arguments. That holding to Biblical tradition is nothing but bigotry. It’s not right for traditional Christians to insist that only our side of the story is told. But it’s right and it’s necessary that we insist that at least our side of the story is told.

Dreher’s bottom line: In this case, the Los Angeles Times is “manufacturing the marginalization and, ultimately, the demonization, of traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims.”

Reading this Los Angeles Times report, I was reminded of two related documents.

First, there is this passage in a famous column by Daniel Okrent, the the public editor at The New York Times in 2004.

… For those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it's disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ''For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy'' (March 19); that the family of ''Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home'' (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ''Gay Couples Seek Unions in God's Eyes'' (Jan. 30). …

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn't even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you'd have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

Also, there is this newsroom memo from 2003, discussing media bias in a major story about abortion, a hard-news report in which only one side of the debate was shown respect, with its views reported accurately:

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

The author of this memo? It was John Carroll, editor of The Los Angeles Times in 2003.

Let’s focus on the last line in the Carroll quote.

This is the point of this post: “I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.”

Carroll is pleading for journalism. Period.

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