Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.
I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.
Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.
But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?
So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.
If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.
So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.
In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?
One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.
Didn't I understand that this was THE Colorado Council of Churches? Those larger, growing religious groups didn't matter.
This brings me to a Religion News Service feature -- by veteran reporter Adelle Banks -- that ran the other day, under this headline: "Faith leaders on Kavanaugh nomination: Defender or destroyer of religious liberty?" Here is the overture for this collection of quotes.
WASHINGTON (RNS) -- As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a District of Columbia appellate court judge, headed to Capitol Hill to meet members of Congress who will determine his fate, religious leaders and experts weighed in on whether he should be named the replacement for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
One group of evangelical Christians, mostly men, is hailing President Trump’s nomination as someone who will protect “the God-given dignity of every human being,” while a group of evangelical women is seeking a more centrist Kennedy successor who will help mitigate the culture wars. As those debates over faith and culture continued ... secular leaders worry Kavanaugh could be a “disaster” for the principle of church-state separation, while some conservatives think he will be a staunch defender of religious liberties.
I'm curious: What is the name of this evangelical women's group? I do not see a quotation in this collection that represents this body.
Let me stress that this is a solid list of quotes -- way better than the norm in the heated atmosphere surrounding this empty seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, I found myself wishing that Banks had been granted another inch or two of copy, allowing for one additional sentence attached to each name providing more info about the size and reach of these groups.
For example, this one:
Samuel Rodriguez, president, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“As our duly elected president, the selection of Justice Kennedy’s replacement is President Trump’s decision, and his alone, as mandated by the Constitution. I urge the Senate to not unnecessarily delay or obstruct, but as polling demonstrates the majority of Americans want, to move ahead with a timely and honest confirmation process. I pray for our country in this process, that instead of yet another vitriolic and divisive political battle, the confirmation process would instead be a reaffirmation of the strength of our democracy and its institutions.”
Now, we are talking about a large network made up of Latino evangelical Protestants. That is a large and growing part of the population. However, I am sure there are many Hispanic leaders -- church leaders and otherwise -- who cringe when they see the word "Christian" in that title, as opposed to "evangelical."
Like the "Colorado Council of Churches," this is another brand name that is way broader than the reality. Correct?
As I read the reaction quotes, I kept wondering if (attention: James Davison Hunter alert) there are any religious groups in America that, when addressing issues in the public square, are not strictly defined by issues pitting religious liberty (and centuries of doctrine) against sexual liberty and the doctrines of the Sexual Revolution. Notice the silence, so far, from the U.S. Catholic hierarchy (unless I have missed something).
So, let me seek some input. Who could religion-beat pros call for reactions to this nomination? Is there anyone they could call that they would not already know the reaction in advance, before the telephone even rings? Are we stuck with the "usual suspects," once again?