Social issues

God and The New York Times, once again

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.

When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."

Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

Keller's Austin remarks were the latest in a series of candid comments in which the man who has called himself a "crashed Catholic" has jabbed at his newspaper's critics, especially political conservatives and religious traditionalists.

Shortly before stepping down as editor, he wrote a column insisting that religious believers -- evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, in particular -- should face strict scrutiny when running for higher office. After all, he argued, if a candidate believes "space aliens dwell among us," shouldn't voters know if these kinds of beliefs will shape future policies?

In another recent essay, Keller flashed back to an earlier national debate about the integrity of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness and accuracy. It was in 2004 that the newspaper's first "public editor" wrote a column that ran under the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Then, in his first sentence, Daniel Okrent bluntly stated: "Of course it is."

Discussions of this column continue to this day. The key to that earlier piece, noted Keller, was its admission that the Times' outlook is "steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city," which means that it tends to be "skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan."

This socially liberal worldview does have its weaknesses when it comes to covering news outside zip codes close to Manhattan.

"Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered," noted Keller. "Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or...)."

As for the future, the newspaper's new executive editor has carefully offered her own opinion on the worldview of the newsroom she leads. In an interview with current Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, Jill Abramson joined Keller in stressing that it's crucial to remain unbiased -- when covering politics.

"I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America," she said. "I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians, that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight."

Case by case government doctrines

Welcome to the church-state battlefield, President Barack Obama. Consider this hypothetical landmine: Would it be discrimination for a Christian AIDS hospice to refuse to hire a worker who believes AIDS is a sign of God's wrath?

Ponder these scenarios. Can a Muslim school fire a teacher who converts to Christianity? Can a Jewish pre-school discriminate against a job applicant who is active in Jews for Jesus?

Wait, there's more. Is it job discrimination for an evangelical shelter for parents and children to refuse to hire someone who rejects centuries of Christian teachings on sex and marriage? How about forcing a Catholic hospital to hire doctors and nurses who reject the church's doctrines on abortion?

These are the kinds of questions swirling around the White House as Obama tries to find a way to embrace a wide variety of religious groups and the faith-based ministries they operate -- while rejecting some of the ancient doctrines that guide their work.

"There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same," said Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he promoted his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we're going next -- and some subscribe to no faith at all.

"But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being."

Then, citing a variety of faith traditions, he said one law can bring unity, which is "the Golden Rule -- the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

The audience said, "amen." But church-state lawyers and packs of social activists began murmuring about the details. There are, after all, secular and religious groups that believe President George W. Bush's team erred when it allowed many faith-based ministries to receive government funds, while hiring only employees who affirmed their doctrines and mission statements.

These tensions remain, because Obama has decided -- for now -- to allow this practice to continue, while stressing that the Justice Department will review complaints on a case-by-case basis.

The ground is moving. For decades, a guiding principle of church-state law has been that state officials must avoid becoming "entangled" in doctrinal questions that allow the government to favor some faith groups over others.

In his prayer breakfast speech, the president said his initiative would not "favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups." But will some ministries get to hire according to their doctrines, while others will not, with the government separating the sheep from the goats?

"I really don't have a clue" what the case-by-case language means, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked with the Bush White House and now leads the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "I think they are trying to get out of the fix they're in. Obama's people have told so many religious groups that they're not going to hurt what they do. Yet they have also told groups on the other side, 'Of course we stand with you. This is discrimination and we're not going to allow it.' "

As recently as the 1990s a broad coalition of church-state experts -- from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Coalition -- managed to work together on some crucial religious liberty issues. The goal was to promote free speech, freedom of association and "equal access" for believers and nonbelievers in the public square.

But today, driven by conflicts over gay rights, the spotlight is on what candidate Obama consistently called "religious discrimination." The White House must choose between armies of religious believers who follow radically different sets of doctrines.

In the end, it's impossible to separate the power of faith from the doctrines and traditions that inspire these believers, said Carlson-Thies.

"The faith is where the passion comes from, it's where the witness is," he said. "It's clear that the president admires many of these faith groups and the work they do. The question he faces now is, 'Do you want to work with them or not?' "

Facing the unChristian reality

Times were hard for the single mother and her 4-year-old son, so she did what hurting people often do -- she joined a church seeking solace and support. But there was a problem, one that drove her right back out of the pews.

"Everyone told me what to do as a parent," she told pollster David Kinnaman, "but no one bothered to help."

This blunt encounter wasn't one of the formal interviews that led Kinnaman and social activist Gabe Lyons to write their book, "unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity ... and why it matters." But what the young mother said was painfully consistent with what they heard time after time during three years of research, as they focused on the concerns of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29.

The problem wasn't that she was turned off by the Christian faith or that she was an outsider who had never stepped inside a set of church doors, said Kinnaman, leader of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., where he has led nearly 500 research projects for both secular and religious clients.

From this woman's perspective, it was crucial that her anger and disappointment were rooted, not in ignorance or nasty media stereotypes, but in her own close encounters with Christians. She believed that real, live Christians had failed to treat her in a Christian manner -- leaving her burned and bitter.

Growing numbers of young "outsiders" say they know exactly how she feels.

"Most Mosaics and Busters ... have an enormous amount of firsthand experience with Christians and the Christian faith," wrote Kinnaman and Lyons, referring to Americans born after the massive Baby Boom. "The vast majority of outsiders within the Mosaic and Buster generations have been to church before; most have attended at least one church for several months; and nearly nine out of every 10 say they know Christians personally, having about five friends who are believers."

Here's the bottom line, according to their research: "Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than what we are for."

To be blunt, young "outsiders" think that modern Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, clueless fanatics who choose to live in protective bubbles, except when they venture out to attack homosexuals, run right-wing political campaigns and proselytize innocent people who would rather be left alone. Things are getting so bad that many young Christians -- especially evangelicals -- say they are embarrassed to discuss faith issues with their friends.

It's easy to tap into this kind of hostility and get angry or scared or both, said Kinnaman, speaking at the annual Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. Some religious leaders may even be tempted to rush into changes that compromise essential doctrines.

"The thing that we don't want to do is take a poll, figure out what kind of faith people want, and then just create Christianity in that sort of image," he said. "What I am not saying is that we change this, that we somehow lose touch with the biblical reasons why these perceptions exist.

"Jesus talks about sin. The Bible is clear about our brokenness. This is going to lead to the perception, sometimes, that we are judgmental."

But pastors, educators and other religious leaders must realize, Kinnaman insisted, that attitudes among young Americans have truly changed. The culture has moved light years past the skeptical attitudes that believers faced in earlier generations, when many young people rebelled and then, as they grew older, returned to traditional forms of faith.

At some point, he stressed, church leaders must find ways to listen to their critics and take their concerns seriously.

This will lead to hard questions. Can Americans listen to Christians in other parts of the world? Can religious leaders tune in signals from mass media? Can older Christians hear the voices of young people who struggle with pornography, who express their fears by cutting their own bodies, who struggle with issues of sexual identity?

"We have been the party in power for several hundred years," said Kinnaman. "That gives us a different kind of challenge, a different set of opportunities. ... We have been so busy trying to be a Christian nation that I think we may have forgotten what it means to follow Christ.

Young, cosmopolitan evangelicals

WASHINGTON -- Jim Wallis and Richard Land were preaching to the same flock, but their sermons at the recent "Values Voters Summit" reached very different conclusions.

"I am an evangelical Christian who tries to live under biblical authority. A fundamental is the dignity of human life. We are all created in the image of God," said Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of "God's Politics."

But it's time for new strategies, he said. Evangelicals should try to "dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America" through adoption and education, while striving to find "common ground to actually save unborn lives."

The message between the lines: Think about voting for Democrats.

But Land insisted that evangelicals must continue to demand legal protections for the unborn.

"I want to put together a coalition that will work and do what we can to save individual babies one at a time," said Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "But the fact is, if we didn't have laws against segregation, we would still have it. If we didn't have laws against slavery, we would still have it."

The message between the lines: Stay the course with the GOP.

Both of these preachers knew that evangelical Christians -- especially young ones -- have yet to embrace a 2008 presidential candidate. That's why Republicans are sweating and Democrats are praying, even in public.

Wallis and Land were arguing for a reason. Young evangelicals are losing faith in the current occupant of the White House, according to new numbers from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Many would be willing to listen to a Democrat who risked blending progressive politics with traditional moral values. But is that heresy?

Here's the big news. Five years ago, President Bush's approval rating with white evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 30 was 87 percent -- a number that has fallen to 45 percent. Meanwhile, 52 percent of older evangelicals continue to back the president.

Back in 2001, 55 percent of the young who called themselves "evangelicals" or "born-again" said they were Republicans, as opposed to 16 percent who were Democrats and 26 percent independents. This time around, it was 40 percent Republican, 19 percent Democrat and 32 percent independent.

"It isn't 100 percent clear why this has occurred," said John C. Green of the University of Akron, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum. "The young evangelicals remain quite conservative on moral and social issues. That just isn't changing or it isn't changing very much. ...

"There is a real sense that they are afraid of being seen as being judgmental, but if you push further you find out that they are still not backing away from traditional Christian beliefs."

On abortion, 70 percent of young evangelicals said it should be "more difficult for a woman to get an abortion" -- a stance claimed by 55 percent of older evangelicals and 39 percent of young Americans in general.

Nevertheless, it's possible that subtle changes are happening behind the political headlines, according to sociologist Michael Lindsay, author of "Faith in the Halls of Power." The "populist evangelicalism" of the past is evolving into a "cosmopolitan evangelicalism" that seeks success in Hollywood, on Wall Street and in the Ivy League, as well as on Capitol Hill.

Some of these young evangelicals don't want to hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls, fill their bookshelves with "Left Behind" novels or sing pseudo-romantic praise choruses in sprawling megachurches. And when it comes to politics, they also care about the environment, health care and social justice.

Eventually, these changes will affect their politics. The young evangelicals want to keep their conservative approach to faith, but apply it to a wider spectrum of issues, while using a different style of activism.

"The edges have been softened," said Lindsay, at a forum dissecting the Pew Forum research. Thus, while "populist evangelicals want to take back America" or contribute to the "Christianization of this country, cosmopolitan evangelicals have a more modest goal.

"They simply want their faith to be seen as legitimate, authentic, and -- they hope in the end -- attractive and winsome. In the same way, they do want their faith to draw others, but they use different forms of mobilization that are far more subtle, more nuanced, and because of that, more significant."

Does marriage have a future?

The slogan on the white t-shirts for kids is short and bittersweet.

The simple blue letters declare, "My daddy's name is Donor." You can buy a baby bib with the same proclamation.

For a self-proclaimed "marriage nut" like David Blankenhorn, it's hard to see this consumer product as a positive statement about modern family life.

Of course, America has been evolving for several decades after the cultural revolutions that changed how millions of people live together, break up, get married, get divorced, have children or some combination of all the above.

Thus, the president of the Institute for American Values keeps hearing this big question: "What is the future of marriage?" It's a logical question, since his most recent book is called "The Future of Marriage." There is no easy answer, however, other than stating the fact that elite opinion makers and academics are convinced that old-fashioned, especially religious, traditions about marriage are fading.

"The smart money says, 'Down the tubes,' " said Blankenhorn, speaking recently at Gordon College, an evangelical Protestant campus near Boston. "The big word is 'deinstitutionalization.' ... It's this notion of redefining marriage into just being a kind of Hallmark greeting card that says, 'We're in love, we have a commitment, oh special us.' That's what marriage is."

This trend can be seen in current definitions of "marriage" -- legal and otherwise. During his two years of research on the question, he ran into several breezy answers to the question, "What is marriage?"

For some people, it is a "unique expression of a private bond and profound love," while others prefer a ''private arrangement between parties committed to love.'' If that doesn't work, try a ''specific relationship of love and dedication to another person" or even ''committed, interdependent partnerships between consenting adults.''

The highest court in Massachusetts, in its majority opinion in 2003 backing gay marriage, strategically called marriage the "exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other" offering "love and mutual support."

This last variation on the theme is crucial, because debates about the future of marriage are now -- like it or not -- part of our culture's bitter conflicts about the legal rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Meanwhile, divorce rates remain high and millions of children are being raised in single-parent homes.

Blankenhorn consistently identifies himself as a Christian and as a political liberal who supports what he calls the "equal dignity of homosexual love" and of gay relationships. In an interview with the conservative magazine World, he bluntly said: "I know that many Christians believe that any sex other than sex between married spouses is wrong. I respect that view, but I do not share it."

However, Blankenhorn also argues that all attempts to define marriage as a vague, private, self-defined relationship will inevitably weaken an institution that -- across a wide range of cultures and faiths -- has emphasized the importance of children being raised by their natural fathers and mothers. Thus, he stressed, marriage has always had a civic and even legal dimension.

Contemporary definitions of "marriage" also strive to avoid two crucial words.

The first, Blankenhorn noted, is "S-E-X. Heat. Lust. Passion. Bodies entangled. Sex, behind closed doors in the bedroom. You know, because in the whole history of the world everybody -- up until about three minutes ago -- has always acknowledged that marriage is the social recognition of a sexual relationship that involves sex."

The second missing word is "children." Anyone who studies history and anthropology, he said, would quickly conclude that discussing marriage without mentioning children would be like having a "long discussion about General Motors and nobody mentioning cars."

But today, individual adults are convinced that marriage is all about them and that this means that they should be able to make their own rules. Thus, the key question is whether Americans believe that the individual couple is bigger than the institution of marriage or that "the marriage is bigger than the couple," said Blankenhorn.

"We have completely forgotten this idea that maybe there is something transcendent, maybe there is something bigger than us that shapes us," he said. "Maybe the vow shapes us. Maybe we don't simply come up with the vow ourselves and say, 'Here's our marriage -- wonderful sexy us.' No, there is something bigger than us that tells us what to be and that big something else is marriage."

Mike Huckabee still believes

Like any other Bible Belt state, Arkansas contains more than its share of church camps.

Gov. Mike Huckabee thought about that after Hurricane Katrina. The ordained Southern Baptist minister also knew that the summer camping season was over and that thousands of people fleeing New Orleans had to go somewhere.

"I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought, this isn't Rwanda. This isn't Indonesia. ... This was the United States of America," said the former governor, who is now part of the throng of Republican presidential candidates. "These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana. It was beyond my comprehension that we could get TV cameras to those people but we couldn't get a boat or a bottle of water to them."

Thus, he asked religious leaders to open camps all over Arkansas to the evacuees, while urging the public to rally around this blunt public policy: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This was one case in which critics didn't challenge his link between private faith and public action, said Huckabee, meeting with journalists at a recent talkback session at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. This didn't turn into another nasty clash between God and the government because the need was great and this faith-based effort united citizens instead of dividing them.

Activists on the right will have to do more of that. Of course, Huckabee told the journalists that he has no intention of surrendering on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, religious conservatives need to be less confrontational when it comes to convincing skeptical Americans that faith can be a positive force in the public square.

After all, he said, it's hard to believe that anyone actually thinks that political leaders are supposed to separate their personal beliefs from their public convictions.

"I sometimes marvel when people running for office are asked about faith and their answer is, 'Oh, I don't get into that. I keep that completely separate. My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern,' " he said. "To me, that is really tantamount to saying that one's faith is so marginal, so insignificant and so inconsequential that it really doesn't impact the way one lives. I would consider it an extraordinarily shallow faith that does not really impact the way we think about other human beings and the way we respond to them."

No one debated that concept after Katrina. Thus, Huckabee listed several other unifying moral issues that he thinks deserve attention on the political right.

While Americans disagree on what to do about health-care reform, the nation could rally around efforts to provide health care for children, he said. Liberals and conservatives also could focus on funding health-care programs that fight the big three activities -- smoking, overeating and "under-exercising" -- that fuel soaring medical costs.

While Huckabee acknowledged that environmental issues cause heated debates, he believes that it's time for conservatives to become more involved in efforts to promote the "better stewardship of the environment and in development of an energy source that is not foreign based but domestically produced."

And then there is the issue of corporate corruption, with business leaders drawing giant bonuses while wrecking their companies. Surely, conservatives can agree that this is immoral, said Huckabee.

"I don't see how we can call it anything other than a moral issue," he said. "That's not free enterprise. That's theft."

The point is that religious conservatives are will have to broaden their agendas and be willing to work on new issues, said Huckabee. They can do this without compromising on the essentials.

"I really do think that if Christian conservatives, who have ... held the Republican Party's feet to the fire on issues as they relate to traditional conservative social areas, no longer play that role, it not only is going to be the end of relevancy for them, but I also think that it means that the Republican Party will lose a lot of people. They will say, 'Well, you know what, if they're not going to be the party that really cares about these issues, I'll go home to the Democratic Party.' A lot of those folks came from the Democratic Party to begin with."