Friday, August 21, 2009

When Two Thirds Is Too Little: The Mainstream Media and Right-Wing Puppet Masters Report on Lutherans and Gays

I wrote two days ago about the attempt of groups fighting against gay-welcoming attitudes in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to play games with a vote that will take place today at the ELCA assembly meeting in Minneapolis. The vote is about whether the ELCA should permit churches and synods to call to ministry partnered clergy in committed same-sex relationships.

On Monday, opponents of this recommendation tried to change the ground rules for today’s vote. They fought to impose a supermajority, a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, to pass this recommendation. Delegates to the ELCA assembly rejected this rule-changing maneuver by a vote of 57 to 43 percent.

As my posting noted, the Catholic News Agency, a right-wing news service connected to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, published an article about this ELCA decision which proclaims that the Lutherans have established a “low threshold” for their vote on partnered gay ministers. CNA’s article states,

Supporters of the high threshold for passage said it was necessary to signal wide support for a major change in the church’s approach to homosexuality. About 43 percent of the 1,045 voting delegates supported the higher standard, the Associated Press says.

And, of course, it’s interesting to note that the preceding analysis of the vote does not take notice of the fact that while 43% of the vote was for changing the rules, 57% of the vote—a clear majority—was against changing the rules. Obviously, the CNA article does not want to note the majority vote because doing so undercuts the argument CNA wants to promote: that is, that the threshold for votes to welcome gay church members should constantly be shifted upwards, as support for inclusivity keeps growing both in church and society.

If you are not convinced that headlines like this (and the games played by organizations like CNA) do not have a powerful effect, I’d suggest you google (using parentheses) the search terms “Lutherans,” “threshold,” and “Catholic News Agency,” and see how many pages of hits come up, with blogs and news services parroting the CNA headline—the vast majority of them right-wing blogs and right-wing religious news services.

Following my analysis of the game-playing of those seeking to change the ground rules for votes on gay-related issues at the ELCA assembly, I posted again about the assembly, noting the games that the mainstream media continue to play with such stories. I noted that the mainstream media’s coverage of the relationship of churches to gay people and gay lives tends to slant right, because heavily-funded right-wing think tanks that disseminate information about religious news to the mainstream media assure such a slant.

For those interested in that story of how the mainstream media continue to slant news about the churches and gay people to the right, what is now happening as the media report on yesterday’s ELCA vote on a document entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” is fascinating. And enlightening. It proves the points I made in my two previous postings about the ELCA.

Because the “Human Sexuality” recommendation is a “social” statement, it required a two-thirds vote to pass, under ELCA assembly ground rules. And it did pass by two-thirds: 676 (66.67 percent) to 338 (33.33 percent).

But strangely enough, for those who just two days before had fought tooth and nail for a two-thirds supermajority requirement for today’s vote on partnered gay ministers, the two-thirds supermajority in the case of “Human Sexuality” is suddenly not enough. Reports are running like wildfire all over the internet that the Lutherans have changed their position on sexual ethics by a single vote.

And the mainstream media are colluding with this disinformation process.

Witness the headline of Religion News Service reporter Daniel Burke at Beliefnet yesterday: “Lutherans Approve Sexuality Statement by Razor Margin.” (On my conclusion that Beliefnet promotes a “centrist” perspective on gay issues and religion that is really skewed to the right, see my remarks here about closing my Beliefnet page when its founder Steven Waldman defended President Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to his inauguration.)

As reader nnmns points out in the thread of responses following Daniel Burke’s article about the “razor thin” margin by which the ELCA sexuality recommendation passed,

While a two-to-one margin may be just what's needed to pass it, calling it a razor thin margin is pretty misleading. But then this is RNS.
And the three to one margin against the conservative amendment is very encouraging.

And that’s absolutely on the mark. The news story here is that two-thirds of delegates to the ELCA assembly have just voted to pass the mildest of statements supporting the right of Lutherans to agree to disagree about the morality of gay relationships. To say that this recommendation passed by a razor-thin margin is misleading in the extreme.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s deliberately misleading. It obliterates noteworthy news that precisely what the right wing of the churches keep screaming for has just taken place. Lutherans have voted to adopt a more gay-welcoming stance not merely by a majority vote but by a supermajority vote.

But suddenly, when one church, the ELCA, produces just such a vote—a supermajority vote—in favor of a mild statement that Christian consciences may differ on this issue, a two-thirds vote is no longer enough. A supermajority vote is now a “razor-thin” margin—as if one solitary member of the church stood up and voted for this document, and now the whole church is saddled with it.

The point I’m making here is even more apparent when one looks at how the ELCA delegates handled a motion, prior to the vote on “Human Sexuality,” to amend the document with a statement condemning “the practice of homosexual erotic behavior as contrary to God’s intent.” The delegates rejected that proposal by a resounding three-to-one margin, as Burke reports. And that is what nnmns is getting at when she or he notes “the three to one margin against the conservative amendment.”

As Phil Soucy points out in his discussion of the two-thirds vote in favor of the “Human Sexuality” statement on the Goodsoil blog yesterday,

It was said that it was a close vote. Actually it wasn't. It was a vote in which the Social Statement received 2/3rds of the votes cast; that's not close.

But you wouldn’t know that, would you, if you relied on Daniel Burke’s “razor-thin margin” headline to frame the discussion? And that’s what these headlines about “razor-thin margins” and “low thresholds” are all about: attempts to frame the discussion so that people will not see how quickly and how decisively even church folks’ attitudes towards gay human beings are changing. Despite the game-playing of right-wing activist groups and the mainstream media’s collusion with that game-playing.

And, for more evidence of that game-playing in mainstream media reports of the ELCA story, take a look at Christina Capecchi’s article in today’s New York Times. Capecchi, who appears to be a freelance journalist in St. Paul, states,

The church has taken two steps this week that make the approval of gay clergy members seem more likely. It voted Monday to lower the portion of convention votes required to pass policy from two-thirds to a simple majority. On Wednesday, it approved a social statement calling on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations to “welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples.” The social statement, which required a two-thirds majority, passed by one vote, stunning delegates.

There's that “passed by one vote” statement again. When the vote that passed this recommendation was 676.

And, even more disturbing: unless my information about the ground rules for the ELCA votes this week is wrong (and I hope some readers will correct me if I am wrong),* Capecchi is simply flatly wrong in what she reports here. Delegates did not vote Monday “to lower the portion of convention votes required to pass policy from two-thirds to a simple majority.” They voted against a resolution to change the rules that would have created an unprecedented higher threshold for today’s vote—when all votes in the past to deny ordination of gay clergy or acceptance of partnered gay clergy in long-term committed relationships have required a simple majority vote.

There’s a world of difference between what actually happened at the ELCA assembly on Monday, and what Capecchi is reporting. And the two reports create a world of difference in how this discussion is being framed.

A newspaper of the stature of the New York Times ought to understand that difference. And assure correct, fair reporting—even about gay people and gay lives, and how the churches deal with us.

*See the first link in this posting for my documentation regarding what took place at the ELCA assembly on Monday. If any readers of this posting feel inclined to help me bring the mistakes in Capecchi's article to the attention of New York Times editors, I would not be opposed to such assistance—or to assistance at calling Beliefnet to accountability for its continued tendency to slant coverage of gay-related issues to the right.