NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists


Four different GetReligion readers — two of them journalists — sent me notes about an NBC News feature that ran the other day about liberal reactions to that special General Conference that reaffirmed, and even strengthened, the United Methodist Church’s support for old-fashioned, traditional teachings on marriage, sex and the Bible.

One note simply said “wow,” over and over.

Two used the same word — “ridiculous.”

Another added, “Something seems to be missing.”

You get the idea. If you are looking for some kind of gold-standard when it comes to one-sided, biased news coverage of this event — this is the story for you. This is a shake-your-head classic when it comes to assuming that there is only one side in this argument that deserves serious attention and, yes, respect.

Let’s start with the report’s coverage of the conservative side of the story. Ready?

Well, actually, there isn’t anything to quote. Sorry about that.

The story does not include a single sentence of material drawn from African, Asian or American delegates or insiders who support the church’s teachings that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin. That’s a stance that would be affirmed by leaders of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority of the world’s Anglicans, almost all Baptists and, well, you get the idea.

Journalists do not, of course, have to agree with this approach to doctrine. However, there’s no way around the fact that this point of view is crucial, in this debate, and it would help if readers had a chance to understand why traditional religious believers defend this stance.In this case, it’s crucial to know that the growing regions of the global United Methodist Church back this doctrinal approach, while the liberal corners of the church — in the United States, primarily — are in numerical decline.

Try to find that fact anywhere in the NBC News report. The story opens with the voice of a gay pastor — the Rev. Mark Thompson — and everything else that follows affirms the same perspective. You can catch the tone in this passage:

Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.

“I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but just continually disappointed,” said JJ Warren, 22, whose impassioned speech at the conference went viral. Warren, a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is the process of being ordained as a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

“I think a lot of people are rightfully responding with a lot of remorse, and people are questioning whether they should stay in this institution that has reinforced its conservative policies,” Warren explained. “What I’m encouraging other people to do is stay the course, because when we’re sharing our stories, we’re no longer issues, right? We’re people.”

Here’s one other example of the method that is at work here.

Quite a bit of the story focuses on the trailblazing progressive theology of the UMC’s Western Conference in the United States, including the openly gay Bishop Karen Oliveto. This region (basically everything west of Denver) has been in open rebellion against the UMC’s Book of Discipline ever since the early 1980s, when I started covering the story for the Rocky Mountain News (RIP).

However, would it also help to know that the shrinking Western Conference, in 2017, reported 293,308 members, compared with 2,668,806 in the more conservative Southeastern Conference, as well as 2,999,242 in the UMC flock in the Congo? West Africa has 2,129,937 in that 2017 report. Germany — wait for it — had a mere 28,657. Now, read on:

Some jurisdictions of the UMC, including the Western Jurisdiction, which covers a large swath of the western U.S., and Germany, have stated that they will pursue the “One Church Plan” and continue to ordain church leaders regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the UMC, sees the general conference vote as not indicative of the values of the church.

“There is a message of love and grace within our tradition that transcends any rule made by General Conference,” said Oliveto, who hails from the church’s Western Jurisdiction. “And no matter how hard they try to legislate us out of the denomination, babies will be born into United Methodist families who will grow to love God and the church and seek to serve as clergy. Some of these will realize they are queer, and then a new expression of justice seeking will begin. The UMC has not seen the last of the queer community.”

Wait, there is more from that “large” section of the US church.

“It feels as if a new expression of Methodism is being born,” added Oliveto, who is bishop for the UMC's entire Mountain Sky Conference, which covers all of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, along with a small portion of Idaho.

That’s pretty much that. The rest of the story is even more one-sided.

Now, this story might be fine if NBC News offered it as half of a package that allowed readers-viewers to understand the important conflict in an important denomination. The other half of the package, of course, would be a feature of a similar length that focused on people in the other, growing, half of the global United Methodist Church.

Did I miss that story?

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