It’s hard to imagine a news article less challenging to the cultural hegemony of conservative straight white Christian men than focusing on the plans of a bunch of conservative straight white Christian men to start a new and stricter denomination. Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine. This Religion News Service piece by Kathryn Post serves it up on a platter, discussing the breakaway aspirations of the Alliance of Reformed Churches. Helpfully, the article includes the ARC logo for identification purposes.
I want to talk about Post’s story in some detail to inaugurate what I hope will be a series of columns dedicated to media criticism of religion journalism. We at Religion Dispatches certainly have for a long time analyzed the shortcomings—and successes—of the mainstream discourse on religion, particularly when it comes to what journalists and pundits get wrong or miss altogether about the complexities of their stories. What we haven’t done much of in any integrated way is consider religion journalism as journalism.
Because while religious affiliation may be dropping, religion plays as powerful a role as it ever has in our society. So there’s a need to look directly at the quality, intent, and effect of religion stories, particularly in the national media. More precisely, there’s a need to look at these stories on their own terms, rather than the more common RD analysis or commentary. We won’t leave politics completely out of the analysis, but there will be no litmus tests for ideological conformity.
There’s a wrinkle to this in that while I’m a longtime analyst and have only occasionally produced straightforward religion journalism, I don’t have a degree in the subject, nor have I ever made a living as a journalist. Likewise, while RD has produced traditional journalism in the past, it’s less common these days. So I’m instituting an open-door policy of sorts to make sure things stay in balance.
If you’re a media type who feels unnecessarily or unfairly skewered, feel free to respond at firstname.lastname@example.org with your side of the story. If you’ve got a point I’ll say so in print. (If you don’t, I may note that as well.) Readers are also welcome to send perspectives, tips, or suggestions. It’ll be like Rod Dreher’s mailbox—except not made up.
Meeting the critical moment requires answering basic questions: Is a particular story accurate? Is it complete? Does it consider multiple perspectives, or use sources other than the subjects of the piece? Is it biased toward or against its subjects, or for or against the concept of religion in general? Does it add anything new to the conversation?
Above all, we have to ask: is this story informative for an average reader who may or may not share the beliefs of its subjects? That’s not to say reporters need to be apologists. The standard here is simply that good journalism informs, which often means explaining what’s at stake for someone not directly involved in the story. Not always an easy standard to meet, but an important one!
More philosophically, this last question subtly aligns with Habermas’ idea that citizens in a democracy owe to one another good reasons for their positions. That’s even more the case for positions rooted in beliefs that might not be shared by all members of the society. What this means in concrete terms is that true citizens participate in the mutual work of understanding, speaking in ways that give good and fair arguments to the best of one’s ability and listening in ways that likewise seek to understand as much as possible.
Journalists can rightly assume that their audience will participate in the listening part of that work. Nobody needs a willfully obtuse reader. But in trying to understand their sources, journalists often forget the first part of the equation. Which is to say, in a civil society such as ours, there’s an obligation to not only speak in a way that’s available to those outside one’s subculture, but to be responsive to other perspectives and aware of the consequences of one’s speech.
Good journalism, in other words, resists hegemony by keeping perspectives in tension and reminding readers and interviewers alike that there are always other voices to consider. This isn’t exactly quantum mechanics; it’s the “speaking truth to power” principle that every J-school claims to teach its students. But political journalists forget it all the time when they allow their sources to run through rehearsed talking points without challenge.
And for whatever reason, as Chrissy Stroop has pointed out on numerous occasions, religion journalists are particularly deferential to the subjects of their stories, and even to the idea that religion is necessarily a positive force in society. Why this is, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s a disservice to readers, to truth, and to the democracy which relies on it. While that point is valid regardless of who makes it, remember: I’m an ordained minister. If I can get comfortable with the idea that religion shouldn’t be given a free pass, reporters can surely get there.
Which brings us, unfortunately, back to Kathryn Post’s piece. I’m afraid it doesn’t pass many of the tests laid out above.
The trouble starts immediately, with the headline: “Reformed Church in America splits as conservative churches form new denomination.” The first two paragraphs then inform us that 43 out of 1,000 congregations have left the RCA. In other words, a better headline would have been “95.7% of Reformed Church in America churches remain.”
This isn’t a split, it’s a very small segment of the church body walking out. (Ask yourself how you’d feel if you asked to “split” dessert and your companion kept 95.7% of it.) It’s possible this is part of a larger trend. A number of paragraphs down there’s mention of a long-delayed vote on the future of the denomination, which might lend credibility to the headline, but no details are given, so it’s not possible to evaluate the claim.
Likewise, near the top of the story comes a paragraph with a quote from an RCA pastor about the financial difficulties this will create. Does he speak for the denomination? What’s the basis for his quote? Is there evidence to substantiate his claim? Impossible to say, because none of this information is included in the story.
What is included is the perspective of the dissenters leaving the denomination, from three different sources. The new church’s director of spiritual leadership and outreach says, “Part of our strategic thinking is designing things for the 21st century that allows a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.” In other words, they’re an evangelically-oriented bunch. How does that make them different from any other evangelical denomination? What are they going to do differently in the face of increasing secularism? No idea, it’s not discussed.
“We believe if the church is going to be successful in the 21st century, it needs to be powered by a more agile structure and it needs to be more theologically aligned than theologically diverse,” said Dan Ackerman, ARC’s director of organizational leadership.
This clarifies matters somewhat. Like many Reformed splinters, they’re going to re-emphasize doctrinal agreement. What are the prospects for such a strategy? Again, it’s not discussed. What does this mean for the average reader? Well, that does come out fairly quickly:
“As the RCA was attempting to define and clarify marriage,” said Barr, “and efforts had been happening over the decades in that regard, there continued to be this tension within the RCA of whether or not the Bible was the full authority of God’s Word. We started feeling at Fellowship we no longer belonged within the RCA.”
In the next paragraph, readers are informed that in the new church, “the question of women’s ordination is a ‘second tier issue’ that local leaders can address in their own contexts.” In other words, they’re conservative evangelicals who are going to stay rigidly opposed to marriage equality, but might allow women to be ordained—maybe.
After all that, the pastor of a congregation that has decided to stay in the denomination for now talks about grieving for the people who have left, and—twenty-five paragraphs into the story—a denominational executive for the RCA offers an anodyne quote: “‘We want to bless our brothers and sisters who are choosing to find another denominational family,’ said Christina Tazelaar, director of communication for the RCA.”
There’s no other perspective from within the denomination, not a single quote from anyone who disagrees with these churches’ decision to leave the denomination, who thinks it might undercut the RCA’s mission or ministry, or who might feel threatened or harmed by yet another religious body opposed to equality for women and LGBTQ+ people.
If you haven’t gotten the point yet, allow me to make it plain. There’s a lot of information missing in this piece, a lot of stories that could have been told and weren’t. Instead, there’s a lot about the plans of a bunch of conservative, straight white Christian men with only the scarcest of consideration given to the idea that this might not be great news for the people they leave behind, much less that it’s possible the last thing America needs right now is another bunch of conservative, straight white Christian men planning “a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.”
There are enough fig leaves in the story that I’m fairly confident the writer will feel justified in creating a balanced story. And honestly, the point of these columns is less to chastise than it is to try to understand. So I’ll leave things here with one last unanswered question: Why is it that religious leaders such as the men of the ARC are never asked how they can justify wrecking the communion they called home in order to form another church dedicated to propping up a patriarchal social order? It’s a disservice to readers to pass by such questions of responsibility lightly, as though they don’t need to be asked.