Stay tuned: The New York Times probes sex debates and the quiet evangelical left

One of the hot social-media stories right now, in the world of religion news, is the New York Times piece that ran under this headline: "Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights." Note, in particular, that the word used is "debate" rather than the omnipresent liberal Protestant word "dialogue."

There really isn't anything new in this story, for those who have covered the evangelical left for the past quarter century or so. The news is that this debate is now in The New York Times, the bible of our culture's principalities and powers (that be). Even though there is little news content here, this piece does offer a fascinating update on three issues that we have been discussing here at GetReligion ever since we opened our cyber-doors a decade ago.

I. The news media consistently show a lack of interest in covering the actual beliefs -- doctrinal, not political -- of believers on the religious left. The assumption seems to be that their views are so obviously correct that there is no need to cover the fine details or let leaders in these pews and pulpits discuss why they believe what they believe.

For example, it will be interesting to watch mainstream media coverage of the long-expected announcement by the Rev. Tony Campolo, one of America's best known evangelical progressives, that he -- in the words of the Baptist News Global report -- now "supports the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church." Reporters should also watch what is said, and not said, by those hailing Campolo's decision, such as retired Christianity Today editor David Neff. Again, it is crucial to look for what they are actually saying about Christian doctrine, not U.S. laws or public policy. A political change does not always equal a doctrinal change (see decades of abortion fights about that).

II. What does the word "evangelical" mean in public discourse? Does it have any doctrinal or factual content at all or, as the Rev. Billy Graham once told me, have we reached the point where this is essentially a mystery? To be specific: When the New York Times calls someone an "evangelical," what does the word mean?

III. All of this brings me back (cheers!) to those three questions (a "tmatt trio" search here) I have long used (see this discussion with the late George Gallup, Jr.) to probe what Christian leaders actually believe on core issues in the faith in our age. The goal is to ask these questions and then listen to the content of the answers, which are almost always highly nuanced and quite revealing. Here they are again:

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, here is the section of the new Times report that will be causing the most conversation online today, in certain "evangelical" circles. The set-up is that activist Matthew Vines, author of "God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships," is quietly touring the nation meeting with other evangelicals to "debate" their differences on doctrines linked to sexuality. The Times put a piece of that debate online here, in written form.

In this report, he was visiting Biola University and the story includes quite a bit of very predictable "debate" material, from both sides. It will be interesting to see if the conservatives included in this piece believe that they were quoted in a way that truly represented their views. I am also curious about why it was so important to focus on the details of how these men were dressed. Looking for symbolic details?

Finally, near the end, the story points to the emerging future:

Mr. Vines did not really expect to change minds at Biola. The night before, at a packed meeting in Culver City for supporters of his organization, the Reformation Project, he explained that the first step in changing churches would be to identify the “silent sympathizers” and encourage them to speak up.
So in the meeting at Biola, Mr. Vines was on the lookout for just one silent sympathizer. He quickly homed in on a pastor with gelled hair and an unconventional past. The Rev. Ian DiOrio, the lead pastor of Yucaipa Christian Church, told the group that he had spent years as a D.J. and worked weekly in a gay club called the Lion’s Den. He said he was close with his gay brother, who just got married.
The conversation returned to whether human reproduction was proof that God intended marriage to be between only a man and a woman. Mr. DiOrio confided that he was infertile and that he and his wife had adopted three children.
“That’s why I know the only reason for marriage can’t be procreation,” he said. “I would think there’s a depth of our relationship that transcends sexuality.” ...
Mr. Vines and Mr. DiOrio decided to go to lunch at an Italian restaurant. They talked for two and a half hours, and Mr. Vines later deemed Mr. DiOrio “definitely movable.”

This story will certainly make life interesting for DiOrio.

Meanwhile, the Times is on the hunt for the next stage in the evolution of what it means to be "evangelical." Stay tuned, reporters. There is content here, old and new.

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