Baylor, same-sex marriage and ink

Every decade or so Baylor University endures another media storm about Southern Baptists, sex and freedom of the press.

Take, for example, the historic 1981 Playboy controversy. It proved that few journalists can resist a chance to use phrases such as "seminude Baylor coeds pose for Playboy."

Right now, all kinds of people -- from the New York Times editorial board to Baptist Press -- are hyperventilating about a Baylor student newspaper editorial backing same-sex marriage.

By a 5-2 vote, the Lariat editors concluded: "Just as it isn't fair to discriminate against someone for their skin color, heritage or religious beliefs, it isn't fair to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation. Shouldn't gay couples be allowed to enjoy the benefits and happiness of marriage, too?"

I know how these Baylor dramas tend to play out, because in the mid-1970s there was another blowup in which students tried to write some dangerously candid news reports. In that case, I was one of the journalism students who got caught in the crossfire.

It's interesting to note that some of the administrators who crushed us back then are often hailed in the media these days as enlightened, progressive voices at Baylor. Meanwhile, the current Baylor administration expressed outrage at the editorial, but did not sack anyone. Times change.

This latest controversy about Baptists, sex and journalism comes in the midst of national headlines focusing on scandals in the Baylor basketball program and bitter divisions in the faculty over what is and what is not "Christian education."

There's valid news in all of this. But I also think there are lessons to be learned about the tensions between journalists and religious leaders.

So let's pause and consider a different scenario for this new Baylor brouhaha.

Let's say that the students did not settle for writing an editorial about one of the most divisive issues in American culture. This quick-strike strategy was almost certainly a trial balloon seeking headlines in Texas and national newspapers.

Let's say that, instead of writing that easy editorial, the editors assigned their best reporters to write two news stories.

Like any religious institution in the era after James Davison Hunter's book "Culture Wars," Baylor has its own "camp of the progressives" (truth is personal and experiential) and a competing "camp of the orthodox" (truth is eternal and absolute). This is what the ongoing Baylor academic warfare is all about -- clashing views of what truth is and how one finds it.

That's a good news story, if journalists take the time to report it.

So let's say that the Lariat devotes one 1,200-word story to the views of Baylor "progressives," who explain why they think changing U.S. laws to favor same-sex marriage is a good thing. They also explain how this change might affect public education, free speech, freedom of assembly and religious liberty. They say what they have to say -- on the record.

Then the newspaper devotes another 1,200-word story to the views of the "orthodox," those who believe that America should not embrace a fundamental redefinition of marriage. They address all the same questions -- on the record.

After these stories run, the editors might want to write an editorial. On an issue this hot, it would certainly help to hear dissenting voices as well.

I think this is a more journalistic approach. After all, what's the purpose of having student journalists write editorials that cause news, before they have gone through the process of writing stories that report the news?

I also think this approach would create a different kind of controversy, a more constructive kind. Instead of fostering academic guerrilla warfare and media stereotypes, this would put more information on the record.

It might even lead to informed debate. And note that this approach would require leaders on both sides to put their views out in the open for the world to see -- including regents, donors, parents and potential students.

This candor would be a good thing, at Baylor and in lots of other religious camps.

So here is my final question, as a battle-scarred veteran of the journalism wars at Baylor and in other religious sanctuaries. Which side would oppose this open, on-the-record, journalistic scenario? The progressives or the orthodox?