marriage

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

If you follow America’s battles over religious liberty (no scare quotes), you know that things are getting complicated.

One of the most important stories out there is the search for compromises that protect the rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers who affirm centuries of religious doctrines that reject this new teaching by the state.

Yes, that’s a complicated statement. It doesn’t help that America doesn’t do compromises very well, these days. It also doesn’t help that many — some would say “most” — political reporters have zero interest in learning more about these complicated church-state issues. The result, in many cases, are news reports in which it is almost impossible for readers to know what is going on or why some politicos are taking the stance that they are taking.

Case in point is this Alabama Political Reporter story that ran with this headline: “Legislature OKs bill ending marriage licenses.”

This is complicated, so let’s walk through this carefully. The key question: Who opposed this bill and why did they oppose it?

… The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the requirement that marriages must be solemnized with some sort of a ceremony and the state will no longer issue licenses giving two people permission to marry. Instead, the state will simply record that a marriage exists.

Senate Bill 69 is sponsored by state Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

Under Alabama law, marriages can only be between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that centuries-old legal standard in the highly controversial 5-to-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

SB69 ends the requirement that there has to be a marriage ceremony. A couple will simply fill out and sign the marriage forms, pay the recording fee, and the probate judge’s office will record that there is a marriage agreement between the two parties.

“All the state needs to do is ensure that a marriage is legally formed,” Albritton told a House Committee last month. “If you want to have a ceremony go to your pastor and have it in whatever form you want to do. This takes marriage out of the state purview.”

So what we have here is a radically simplified contract system that creates a legal union — gay or straight — in the eyes of the state government.

If citizens want a “marriage” rite, they are free to arrange that with the religious or secular professional of their choice. They just need to let the state know, for legal reasons, that this has happened.

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as American coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

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USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

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). …

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)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

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Bingo and monster trucks: Making sense of breaking news from United Methodists' high-stakes meeting (updated)

Bingo and monster trucks: Making sense of breaking news from United Methodists' high-stakes meeting (updated)

UPDATE: The Traditional Plan wins.

That’s the verdict from the United Methodists’ high-stakes meeting in St. Louis on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage

Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller reports that “the General Conference, the global denomination’s decision-making body, passed the Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 to 384.”

Here is the breaking news lede that just showed up in my email via the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey:

In a contentious meeting years in the making, the United States’s third-largest faith community voted to emphasize its opposition to same-sex marriage and gay clergy — a decision which was cheered by conservatives in the global church, especially in Africa, but was deeply disappointing to many Americans who had hoped the church would change.

Many American ministers in the United Methodist Church already perform same-sex marriages and approve of the ordination of LGBT people as clergy, although the Protestant church’s rules officially forbid these marriages and ordinations. Many Methodists hoped the church would amend those rules this week. Instead, a group of more than 800 clergy and lay leaders from around the world voted to affirm the church’s traditional view of sexuality — and in fact to punish disobedient clergy more harshly than before.

“The United Methodist Church will very soon lose an entire generation of leadership in the United States,” lamented Kimberly Ingram, speaking at the meeting on behalf of Methodist seminaries and theological schools, who argued that their students strongly approve of including LGBT people fully in the church. “The future of the United Methodist Church in this country is at stake.”

But presented with several options during a four-day special session on the future of the church in St. Louis, the delegates picked the “traditional plan.” Other options would have allowed local churches to choose their stance on sexuality for themselves, or would have split the church into separate denominations.

Here at GetReligion, look for more analysis of the decision and news coverage of it in the coming days.

In the meantime, don’t miss the tweets below about monster trucks. Trust me, there’s a connection to the Methodist meeting.

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Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Reporters who have followed decades of fighting inside mainline Protestant churches over marriage and sex will remember that doctrinal conservatives have always been promised that they will be able to continue to believe and practice their church’s old doctrines at their own altars.

In practice, that can be summed up as two beliefs that go back to the early church and scripture: Marriage is the union of a man and a women and sex outside of marriage is sin. Both doctrines affect who can be ordained as clergy.

These promises usually took the form of "conscience clauses,” such as those given long ago to reassure Episcopalians who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Over time, these clauses have a way of being erased — a trend that is highly relevant to debates currently taking place among United Methodists at a special national conference in St. Louis. (Click here for the Bobby Ross, Jr., post on coverage of yesterday’s actions.)

Two of the plans to shape the future of America’s second-largest Protestant flock promised, to one degree or another, to allow believers on both sides of the marriage and sex divide to be able to coexist — protected by structures to protect their doctrinal convictions. A crucial aspect of these debates is that the doctrinal conservatives (who want to retain current United Methodist doctrines) are arguing:

(a) That these “conscience clause” structures will not work over the long haul, in part because the church’s bishops have already endorsed allowing doctrinal progressives to carry on with same-sex marriages and other LGBTQ changes, such as the ordination of women and men who are sexually active in same-sex relationships or other unions short of traditional marriage.

(b) Passing “agree to disagree” doctrinal plans of this kind can be linked to the demographic disasters that are shrinking liberal Protestantism, in general. (The left, of course, argues that doctrinal innovations are required to reach out to young people in a changing America.)

Reporters who are not covering these two themes in the debates are not, well, covering the debates.

This leads me to the top of the current Associated Press report — “United Methodist Church on edge of breakup over LGBT stand” — about the St. Louis meetings. Here is the overture.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church teetered on the brink of breakup Monday after more than half the delegates at an international conference voted to maintain bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy.

Their favored plan, if formally approved, could drive supporters of LGBT inclusion to leave America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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A former Playboy centerfold complicates Donald Trump's 'changed life' timeline

A former Playboy centerfold complicates Donald Trump's 'changed life' timeline

While citizens of these here American States of America await the latest blast from Hurricane Stormy (on CBS tonight), people who are interested in religious themes in the life and affairs of Donald Trump may have connected some other dots this past week.

I am, of course, talking about former Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal baring her soul in a lengthy interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, one of America's high priests of elite grocery-aisle journalism.

The key -- especially for the president's evangelical apologists -- is how the details of her allegations fit into the timeline of events in Trump's campaign for the White House, including his efforts to convince cultural conservatives that he was, and is, one of them. Here's the top of a Washington Post story about the CNN interview:

Former Playboy model Karen McDougal spoke on camera for the first time about the 10-month affair she says she had with Donald Trump shortly after the birth of his youngest son, baring the relationship’s most intimate details and tracing its arc -- from the moment she first met the future president to what she says was her decision to end the romance later. ...
The hour-long interview on CNN marked a particularly sensational moment, for both Trump, as allegations about past affairs draw more scrutiny, and the media, for whom McDougal’s in-depth questioning from host Anderson Cooper was a prime-time event. If Trump’s presidency and the headlines it has generated have been considered a reality show, this was the grocery aisle tabloid rebuttal.
McDougal spoke about a physical relationship she says began in 2006, alleging Trump offered her money the first time they were intimate and choking up as she recounted the guilt she felt for being a party to an affair. ...
“When I look back where I was back then, I know it’s wrong,” McDougal said, choking back tears. “I’m really sorry for that.”

Forget the steamy parts. What is truly interesting is how this fits into the larger Trump timeline, in terms of religious issues. We are, of course, talking about an extramarital affair -- one that led McDougal to offer an on-air apology to Melania Trump.

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Chronicle of Higher Education offers shallow view of Christian colleges and student marriages

Chronicle of Higher Education offers shallow view of Christian colleges and student marriages

Before you get too far along, you might want to click on the video above and watch this introductory video from Cedarville University in Ohio.

Yes, it's a promotional thing, but it also captures the gestalt of this rather theologically conservative evangelical school.

I believe such understanding will help as you evaluate a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education that gives somewhat short shrift to the notion that one happy byproduct of Christian education is a crop of Christian marriages. That implied negativity, among other issues, is one of the journalistic problems I found in the article, headlined, "‘Ring by Spring’: How Christian Colleges Fuel Students’ Rush to Get Engaged."

Let's start with a slightly longish excerpt:

It was "surreal" for Nikki Garns when Cedric Martin got on one knee in Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, framed by a beautiful waterfall and mountains, to ask her if she would marry him. When she exclaimed, "Yes!," Ms. Garns was only a sophomore.
Mr. Martin’s proposal, although it felt surreal, wasn’t a surprise. For about a month before the engagement, both Ms. Garns and Mr. Martin had talked with her parents, assuring them that they were mature enough to be engaged. Initially, her parents said they thought she was too young. After talking with their daughter one-on-one, however, Ms. Garns’s parents gave Mr. Martin their approval.
Ms. Garns isn’t the only student at Houghton College, a Christian college in western New York, who’s engaged. Like many Christian institutions, Houghton is gripped by a trend known as "ring by spring," which refers to the aspiration among many students to be engaged by the spring semester of their senior year.
And, like other colleges, Houghton acknowledges the trend, and even advances it. The college’s counseling center offers a couples retreat for seriously dating or engaged couples, which brings 12 to 15 couples to a local camp to listen to a renowned speaker discuss the Biblical fundamentals of marriage. Six weeks after the retreat, the couples meet up again for a "Great Date Night."

I realize the Chronicle is a secular newspaper and I have no idea of the faith background, if any, of the reporter and editors involved with this story. But think about this: students at Christian colleges find themselves "gripped by a tend" in which these young adults want to get engaged and be married. Shocking, isn't it?

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Regarding obits, Hefner, Weinstein, Trump, religious hypocrites, 'Cheap Sex' and the death of eros

Regarding obits, Hefner, Weinstein, Trump, religious hypocrites, 'Cheap Sex' and the death of eros

Within the Christian fellowship, the Good Book says, members should “not speak evil against one another” (James 4:11). A societal maxim tells us verbal caution is especially required in one instance: “Do not speak ill of the dead.”

Though journalists have a duty to “speak evil” if it’s both true and  newsworthy, obituaries sometimes obey Johnny Mercer’s sermonic song lyric: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive.” Just before the defenestration of Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein over his sexploits, the death of publisher Hugh Hefner -- a personification of the media maxim that "sex sells, inspired bland, fond farewells, even on “conservative” Fox News.  

Or, given recent events at the New York City headquarters of that news operation, is that especially on Fox News?  

Not so the truly conservative and ever-fascinating New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, an outspoken Catholic, whose sendoff was an invective classic. His Hef was the “grinning pimp of the sexual revolution,” the “father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis,” a “flesh procurement” agent for celebrities, and “lecherous, low-brow Peter Pan” whose career concluded in “sleazy decrepitude.”

In Hefner’s wake it was perhaps inevitable, given the amalgamated contempt for both evangelical Protestants and President Donald Trump across sectors of U.S. high culture, that some journalists would brand believers as hypocrites, e.g. Brandon Ambrosino, a onetime Liberty University student who came out as gay, writing in Religion News Service.

Ambrosino noted that a Facebook post generated dozens of comments “to defend Trump’s sexual history while excoriating Hefner for his.” After rehearsing the president’s moral career in order to castigate preachers who vouched for his character, he concluded: “These evangelicals have lost any moral high ground from which to lecture culture about sexual morality.”

Interesting. So The Religion Guy scanned 95 posted comments about this column.

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