Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.
Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.
Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”
Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:
Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.
The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …
"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.
My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?
If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?
Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?
Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?
Here is another question from a reader. In light of the current #MeToo movement, and debates about Trump’s past behavior, here is a newsy headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at Christian school that bans sexual abuse and harassment.” Isn’t that a newsworthy angle?
I could go on, of course.
We are talking about accuracy issues. But we are also talking about questions of news judgment. Writing at The Washington Examiner, scribe Quin Hillyer opined:
The story at issue is that Pence has resumed teaching at a school that “does not allow gay students,” and otherwise discriminates against homosexuals. Well, that’s a rather slanted way to describe the situation.
The school requires adherence to beliefs that include rejection of all forms of pre- or extramarital sex, specifically including heterosexual activity outside of marriage. It’s not homosexuality per se the school disapproves of; it’s the act of sex except as pro-sanctioned by the Bible. This may sound strange to those with oh-so-modern sensibilities, but it’s hardly invidious discrimination.
Thus, the basic journalism question: Is it a scandal that an evangelical Protestant — Karen Pence — will teach at a traditional Christian school?
Are all of those paranoid Christians right when they say that — in elite newsrooms — the act of defending basic Christian moral theology is now controversial to the point of public scandal? After all, we are talking, on these issues, about the beliefs of Mother Theresa, the late Billy Graham, Pope Francis, etc.
Why did elite newsrooms aim all of those Eye of Sauron headlines at this story?
As you would expect, #NeverTrump #NeverHillary superstar David French — a Harvard Law School grad who focuses on religious liberty — jumped into this debate at National Review: The history major friendly headline asked: “Karen Pence, Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, Part of a Christian Ministry?”
Let’s consider two crucial passages in that piece:
Hmm, something doesn’t seem right. I’ve been involved in Christian education for much of my life. I attended a Christian college, my oldest kids attended a dozen consecutive years of Christian schooling, I served a term as chairman of their school’s board, and I’ve represented Christian institutions for more than two decades, and I’ve never once seen a Christian institution declare that no gays are allowed.
Instead, many thousands of Christian schools have statements of faith and codes of conduct that require teachers and sometimes students and parents to agree with the school’s theological doctrine and comply with a code of conduct. They don’t say, “No gays allowed.” They say, “Here is what we believe, and here is how you must behave.”
Later on, he defends the religious left:
I disagree with people who believe that extramarital sex can be morally appropriate. I disagree with people who believe that biblical marriage is anything but the lifelong union of one man and one woman. But there is no scandal at all if people who dissent from Christian orthodoxy form churches, organizations, and schools and hire like-minded people to advance their shared faith. It’s no scandal at all if they exclude people who disagree with their mission and purpose.
Is the Democratic party wrong if it excludes Republicans? Is a Muslim mosque wrong if it wants to be led by an imam and not a rabbi?
So what happened here? What was this story all about?
The headlines are about politics, of course. And the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rod Dreher (no Trump fan, of course) found an absolutely crucial take by Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett, writing at the Mirror of Justice blog.
First, this story (and others like it) are tactical moves in an effort to "condition the environment" for situations when nominees to federal courts are revealed to have been involved with/sent their children to schools that have policies in place that reflect the above mentioned norms.
Second, this story (and others like it) are tactical moves in an effort by opponents of school choice to -- having largely lost the battle over the "statist monopoly or parental choice?" debate -- cripple voucher and other school-choice programs by pushing legislatures (and enlisting business boycotts and pressure to push legislatures) to exclude from voucher programs those schools that "discriminate."
In other words, the Dogma Lives Loudly in schools of this kind.
These religious doctrines have little or nothing to do with The Donald, other than the fact that the Trump base includes lots of people who are conservative religious people. Then there were the conservative religious people who didn’t want Trump, but they really didn’t want Hillary Clinton — because of fears about the Supreme Court and issues of this kind. So this mass of voters supports some of what this White House does, but not all.
So what is the lens that so many journalists used in this story?
In a long, complex, must-read post, Dreher offered this, referring to a source quoted in a Washington Post report:
It never would have occurred to me that Karen Pence going to work teaching art to children in a Christian school was a political act meant to signal to the right-wing base. But that’s how this GW law prof sees it: Pence’s decision to teach art part-time to little Christian schoolchildren is an attack on LGBT people, and part of the Trump administration’s war on decency.
My guess is that the Post sees this non-story as a big deal, because LGBT rights are the most important thing that have ever existed in the history of America.
This is how they think: everything is political. Everything.
If everything is political, then that means that church history, scripture and doctrine are essentially meaningless. Why would people care about religion? Why would people want to follow, in real life, ancient religious beliefs?
What does religious faith have to do with real journalism, in the real world, writing about real issues, in the lives of real people?