by Marcia Alesan Dawkins
From church pews to synod hierarchies, Christians have a long history of social discomfort with and moral conflict about same-sex relations. But news media coverage of recent cultural shifts in mainline denominations and of conservative opposition to same-sex marriage has offered a glimpse into how that history has been evolving. Before the 1980s, news stories generally framed LGBT life as a categorical perversion. More recently, however, reporting has begun to reflect the changing landscape of our cultural discussions. Two important features of this landscape are the upcoming ordination of Scott Anderson as a teaching elder at the Covenant Church in Madison, Wisc., and the move by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) toward accepting same-sex relationships.
Though Anderson's story broke in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week, the broader context goes back to early July, when the PC(U.S.A.) voted to allow openly gay people to serve as clergy. In an MSNBC interview on gays and lesbians in the Ministry, gay minister Paul Mallory described the new policy as a victory even though hundreds of churches left the denomination. Meanwhile, the Christian Post reported that the PC(U.S.A.) seems headed for a split as nearly 2,000 conservative Presbyterians gathered in Minneapolis to create a “new Reformed body.” Despite such sociopolitical turmoil the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a progressive organization within the denomination, maintains that Anderson's ordination is a reason to “rejoice.”
The coverage of Anderson's upcoming ordination and the intra-denominational rifts it has revealed reflects many of the themes in broader debates about same-sex relations in sacred and secular circles alike. For instance, while many mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times covered the state of New York's legalization of same-sex marriage in June primarily as a political matter, Christianity Today explored objections based on “the order of nature itself.” And, in the wake of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, when the Pentagon decided that military chaplains may perform same-sex unions it was reported that some members of Congress objected based on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
But at its root this story–or group of stories–is about far more than nature, politics or sexuality. For many people engaged in these interconnected matters, the relevance of religion itself is at stake. And the angles that typify current news media coverage–a view of same-sex relations as a social menace, on the one hand, and acceptance of LGBT people as the fulfillment of the Christian mandate to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” on the other–add deeper dimensions to stories about religion. For if, in the past, journalists almost always framed LGBT issues in negative terms, they also tended to see religion and religious institutions as unchanging monoliths.
As stories related to sexuality and religion continue to develop, reporters would be wise to continue giving voice to those who rejoice as well as those who oppose–and to those whose beliefs place them somewhere in between. In so doing they will enhance their profession's ability to illuminate evolving religious opinion and its deep connection to other forms of cultural change.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins is a visiting scholar in Ethnic Studies at the Center for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at Brown University. She is a columnist for Truthdig, Cultural Weekly and Huffington Post and the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor University Press, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).