Fifteen years ago, a story I wrote about gays in the ministry was illustrated by a photograph of a former Lutheran pastor kissing his male partner.
It was the second installment of a three-part, page-one series, “Testing Faith,” so lots of editors read the stories and looked over the photos before publication. But when the first edition of the Monday paper rolled off the press Sunday night, an editor I won’t name here had a fit. We had a photo of two men kissing in the newspaper!
That apparently would be too much for Iowans to handle, in the view of this editor, and other editors had to tear up the front page, move a nice photograph from the front-page display (an excellent portrait of the former pastor) inside, place a standalone wire photo on the front page and kill the photo of men kissing, which had anchored the jump page. The before and after pages are below:
I wasn’t the only journalist to experience this fear of showing readers a photo of men kissing. I have read on Facebook two other journalists telling of such stories (one photo catching flak from a publisher after publishing a photo, one telling of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story with which editors refused to publish a photo of men kissing). Given my own experience and my knowledge of similar cases, I took pleasure in Saturday’s front page of the New York Times, which pictured a dozen couples, seven of them kissing, celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry throughout the land.
Like our nation, newspaper editors have come a long way in the past 15 years.
Friday’s ruling seemed unimaginable back in 2000, when I wrote that series for the Des Moines Register about how disputes over homosexuality were dividing much of Christianity. That series, and coverage the same week of a contentious United Methodist Conference that illustrated the divide, were my last work as religion reporter for the Register. (I didn’t quit in a huff after the photo incident; I had already given notice that I was rejoining the Omaha World Herald.)
The series was literally the result of nearly two years’ work. As I covered news of various churches and denominations in Iowa, homosexuality was a volatile issue again and again. I covered the news and gathered string for my eventual series about the issue and how it was dividing Christendom.
Probably a hotter issue than marriage at that time was the issue of whether ministers in openly gay or lesbian relationships could serve in the clergy of various denominations. Generally they couldn’t and I interviewed more than a dozen closeted gay clergy, openly gay former ministers and defiantly open gay clergy challenging their churches’ rules.
In addition to that Methodist conference, I covered an American Baptist convention in Des Moines that was dominated by division over homosexuality. I covered a church trial (really, that’s a thing) of a minister who had presided over a wedding for a lesbian couple (of course, at that time, it was just a religious ceremony, not a legal marriage). And I covered more smaller fusses over sexual orientation than I can remember. It was easily the dominant issue of my time on the religion beat.
When I left the Register in May 2000 to return to the World-Herald, covering homosexuality again was a huge part of my work. Nebraska had a ballot issue that year to outlaw same-sex marriage and deny recognition to same-sex marriages or civil unions from other states. No other state allowed such marriages and only Vermont had civil unions, but Nebraska was taking no chances. It seemed absurd at the time, a solution in search of a problem, but clearly Nebraska’s anti-gay forces saw the future better than I did.
I have followed the issue in the 15 years since it was nearly a full-time pursuit, and I haven’t always been pleased with how journalists have covered it. This has been the kind of issue that defies the simplified summaries we bring to too many stories and can’t be told in the he-said-she-said stories that journalists too often write, especially about controversial issues. (I’ve been guilty of both offenses, by the way.)
Too often this issue gets portrayed as a struggle between Christians and secular society. And much coverage of the issue presumes that Christianity and Jesus’ teachings sternly forbid homosexuality. Neither of these things is actually true.
I saw again and again that Christians themselves were deeply divided over this issue. Jesus himself actually said nothing — not a single word — about homosexuality in any of the four Gospels. But he set an example of compassion for society’s outcasts (which surely gays and lesbians once were, even if they have gained increasing acceptance). He threw out stern Old Testament laws in favor of new commands to love one another.
I interviewed and covered the meetings, protests and actions of hundreds, if not thousands, of devout Christians who deeply believed Jesus taught them to love, accept and support gays and lesbians.
The truth is that Christians who so vigorously oppose ordination of gays and lesbians or blessing their marriages by the church or state invariably ignore or downplay lots of Jesus’ actual commands in making this such a high priority of their churches.
While Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, he commanded his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome immigrants and free prisoners. How many of those commands guide the politics of the same Christians who are apoplectic about same-sex marriage?
What was Jesus’ position on taxes? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
What was his position on the death penalty? He risked his own life to stop a legal execution and set an impossibly high standard for others to carry out executions: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And, if you’re a Christian who favors the death penalty, you have to look no further than your own savior for an example of an innocent person who was unjustly executed.
Can you imagine (or recall) a Christian response on any of these issues as apoplectic as Rod Dreher’s absurd claim that “Orthodox” Christians (whatever that means) will now have to live as exiles in their own country?
Of course, there are Bible passages that deal with marriage and homosexuality. Jesus did refer to a man and wife in discussing marriage. Christians take that passage one of two ways: meaning only a man and a woman should marry, or as a beautiful statement about the holiness of marriage, using gender references of the time, but not in any restrictive or condemning way.
And don’t look for anything approaching the “traditional marriage” that churches are defending in the Old Testament, which is full of polygamists and arranged marriages of men to young girls.
You know what Jesus did condemn? Divorce. But nearly every church finds a way to welcome and forgive divorced members, even if it teaches that divorce is wrong.
The Bible does have passages condemning homosexuality. Some are in Old Testament laws that Jesus replaced with his commands to love one another (and you’d need to avoid wearing blended fabrics and eating shellfish if you followed all those old laws, not to mention execute people for a variety of sexual offenses).
The Old Testament says God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Some interpret this list of offenses to include homosexual relations. Others say the sexual offense was a threat of gang rape. One way or another, the wickedness also include being inhospitable to visitors. The first chapter of Isaiah discussed the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah at length, with no mention of sexual sins, but condemning their lack of concern for widows and orphans.
You also can find passages in the letters of Paul that condemn same-sex relations (though some who know Greek better than I do challenge the common translations of these passages). But these same passages also condemn such sins as greed and slander. (How much do churches preaching the “prosperity gospel” have to ignore from the Bible?)
The simple fact that journalists don’t often report is that opposition to same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues has its roots in culture, ideology and politics. Its tie to the Christian Scriptures is selective and making it a high priority in your life and politics requires overlooking or downplaying many issues about which Jesus actually had a lot to say.
I will be fascinated to watch this issue continue to play out in the months and years ahead. The rapid growth in acceptance of same-sex marriage and the generational differences in opinions give me hope that in another 15 years, this won’t be an issue in our culture or our politics (maybe not even in religion), and that newspapers, if they’re still around, probably won’t publish many pictures of kissing couples because they’re usually boring, not shocking.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court made abortion legal throughout the land in 1973 and we’re still fighting that battle more than 40 years later.
My stories from 1999 and 2000 on gay rights issues
“Testing Faith” series, part 2, 2000 (the story that originally included a photo of two men kissing)