Friday, October 22, 2010

Freedom of press, speech, and religion

Juan Williams was fired from NPR this week because of comments he made on Fox News, where he’s a regular commentator.  His comments included the statement that he gets nervous when he’s on a plane with people who identify first and foremost as Muslim, as evident from garb.

I realized I have a particular perspective on this that might be different, and so is worth sharing. And I expect it is probably an unpopular opinion, as well. 

In this country we have a lot of freedoms, among them freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.  Sometimes these freedoms come into conflict.  And sometimes we voluntarily choose roles that curtail these freedoms.  We’re free to not choose those roles and retain the full exercise of our freedoms, and usually we know in taking up these mantles that we are thereby giving up certain freedoms.

As a minister, I’m caught up by the freedom of religion that also requires churches, as non-profit agencies, to keep the government free from their influence.  What this means is that the church is not to take any partisan position, not involve itself in campaigning for a partisan political candidate in any way, and not urge its members to vote for a specific partisan candidate.  The way I interpret this, although some differ, is that as a representative of the church--the “face of the church” in many ways--I, too, cannot publicly take any position of endorsing a candidate or writing a letter to the editor in which I imply that one candidate is a horrible choice.  I can take stands on issues and even behaviors, but the line is drawn between that and publicly taking a stand for a particular candidate.  And, as a public figure, this applies even when I’m off the job.  If I’m appearing on the news on TV or if I’m appearing in a quote in the paper, I’m known as a public figure and as a minister, so anything I saw will be perceived to be from the perspective on the church.  It’s something you do when you take up a public life--you lose your ability to be just another voice, a private voice, in public forums.

Last week when I found a stack of political bumper stickers in the church for a candidate that I personally think is pretty darn wonderful, I handed that stack of bumper stickers to someone and said, "These need to be taken out of the church.  Immediately.  Can you see to it?"

Now, I still do have certain rights politically.  I can still vote.  My personal interpretation of things is to say that I can still have a bumper sticker or a yard sign for a candidate--my house and car are not only still more private than my public voice, but also they’re shared by my husband who retains his political voice.  I have been known to even wear a political button when out and about (NEVER in the church), and to attend a political rally.  But I don’t speak up publicly (i.e. at the microphone) at political rallies.

Now, back to NPR.  NPR journalists, NPR argues, have similar problems to what I face in ministry.  Because their job is to uphold an image of fair and impartial reporting, it is a necessary aspect of their job that they, like me, relinquish part of their freedom of speech in taking up this important role in our society.  Any speech they make in a public setting with a microphone will be taken as coming from an NPR journalist.  NPR journalists, like ministers, know that in taking up this public role of journalism they are bound by its code of ethics which requires them to be publicly neutral in order for NPR to have a public appearance of fair and unbiased journalism.  Because of this, they cannot attend any political rally, something that made headlines recently when they decided that the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally counted as a political rally, and therefore their journalists who were not covering the event could not attend

Essentially, NPR's Ombudsman argued in the wake of the firing, the problem was not so much Juan Williams' recent comments, but that a role as a regular pundit on Fox News was incompatible with the role of an NPR journalist.  NPR's Code of Ethics says this in the section on outside speaking engagements:

8. NPR journalists may not speak to groups where the appearance might put in question NPR's impartiality. Such instances include situations where the employee's appearance may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization. This would include participation in some political debates and forums where the sponsoring group(s) or other participants are identified with a particular perspective on an issue or issues and NPR journalist's participation might put into question NPR's impartiality.

9. NPR journalists must get permission from the Senior Vice President for News, or their designee, to appear on TV or other media. Requests should be submitted in writing to the employee's immediate supervisor and copied to . Approval will not be unreasonably denied if the proposed work will not discredit NPR, conflict with NPR's interests, create a conflict of interest for the employee or interfere with the employee's ability to perform NPR duties. The Senior Vice President or designee must respond within seven days of receiving a request. It is not necessary to get permission in each instance when the employee is a regular participant on an approved show. Permission for such appearances may be revoked if NPR determines such appearances are harmful to the reputation of NPR or the NPR participant.

10. In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.
 NPR's Ombudsman says:
It's not about race. It's also not about free speech, as some have charged. Nor is it about an alleged attempt by NPR to stifle conservative views. NPR offers a broad range of viewpoints on its radio shows and web site.
Instead, this latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.
Some have argued that this is an archaic view of journalism.  Arianna Huffington has said that this view of journalism is both archaic and untenable and that what's needed is not objectivity but transparency.  There's an argument for that--we know that journalists all have their biases, so why not let them show clearly so that we know what they are?  Currently, however, we're seeing the results of that on the cable news networks, where prime time is taken up not by news reporting but by pundits expressing opinion rather than fact.  I think we need more news sources like NPR and fewer like Fox News or even MSNBC.  If maintaining this level of journalistic integrity requires their reporters to give up certain public freedoms, I think NPR has the right to expect this of their reporters.  And in talking about rights, NPR has the right to fire a reporter for violating the terms of his employment and breaking the code of ethics.

Perhaps this should change, and ministers should have the right to endorse politicians from the free pulpit and journalists should have the right to endorse politicians on the free news.  I think that point may come in both cases.  And of course public has the right to put pressure on NPR if they disagree with the firing of a journalist for something he or she said, or if they want a journalist fired for something he or she said.  Boycotts and letter-writing and other forms of persuading companies are time-honored methods of achieving change in corporations.  Right now, though, I'm happy to have a news outlet that tries to achieve impartiality.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One More

Like a lot of other UUs, I got the message about "Spirit Day" and wore purple yesterday, and pink, too, since that was the color being used in my community.  Hopefully the national show of spirit helped someone, somewhere.  But we know it's not enough.  That point is made eloquently by Melissa Pope of Oakland University who said:
While the national press has picked up this issue over the last two months, we have been losing high numbers of LGBT youth to suicide for decades. In recent years, we’ve labeled the cause as bullying. But the root cause goes deeper – it goes to the very core of our society that discriminates against the LGBT community on all levels, including the denial of basic human rights that are supposed to belong to every person.
This response from Pope comes following the news of the suicide of a young Oakland University student, Corey Jackson.

Meanwhile, I'm searching for answers after the death of this one young man that has hit close to home.  Sources close to him say that bullying wasn't the issue.  And the message of the "It Gets Better" project seems to be that it gets better after high school when you can get out of your smaller circle into the larger, more liberal, more supportive world of college.  I know, even as a heterosexual person, that it got better for me--high school was pretty miserable for a nerdy, awkward teenager, and once I got to a world where my intelligence was more appreciated and there were lots of other nerds, well, it got better.  For lots of lgbt youth, they get off to college and find a world with a social circle and a support circle that they can fit into for the first time, and it does, indeed, get better.

Corey's death and other deaths of young college men belie this "It Gets Better" argument as a cure-all.  For some people, it did get better. For some, like Corey or Raymond Chase or Tyler Clementi, apparently it did not. And I'm sure the support in Rochester/Detroit or Providence or New Brunswick could be stronger, but none of these are rural, isolated, or particularly conservative--Michigan, Rhode Island and New Jersey are all states that are blue or swing states.  There are resources and support networks in all these areas.  I'm sure all the campuses have support networks and probably offices dedicated to supporting lgbt students. 

It wasn't enough for these young men.
Everything we're doing--it's not enough.

We have to change hearts and minds of those who are sending out the message that gay people are less than human, are sinners and damned, are not normal and natural.  

After Zach Harrington's death, I watched the footage of the Norman, Oklahoma City Council meeting that he had attended on September 28th which debated whether to pass a measure proclaiming a lgbt heritage month for October in Norman.  That is, I watched approximately half of the three-hour debate.  That was enough.  That was enough in a city council format, wherein each resident can say their few minutes of their point of view, and there's not rebuttal or correction or debate with each perspective unless the next person who gets up says something to refute the previous statement.  I heard some really good people get up--one doctor, one minister, many other residents--and say some really positive, heart-filled things in favor of the measure.  And I also heard lies after lies and stereotypes after stereotypes, and I heard slippery slopes and special privileges and all sorts of logical fallacies.  The worst one comes at 1:42 into the video--this is the point where I started to just feel sick to my stomach.  The speaker pretends that he hasn't made up his mind, asking how many people have reported to the police that they've been harassed by the police.  Without having much time to respond, a member of the human rights council says that they have been gathering instances and hearing stories on this sort of thing at every single meeting, and that most of them go unreported, and the city council chair says that she does have the number of hate crimes reported in the city (6 in the last year).  The speaker then comes to what he clearly always intended to say, which is that he's a minister in the city and that "78% of them carry sexually transmitted diseases and die from it" and that he "loves them enough" to "teach them that that's a lifestyle that's destructive to them." 

Over and over the real opposition to homosexuality came out: religious beliefs.  It always really comes down to that.  As a country, I don't think we can, through the governement, be about the process of changing religious beliefs--I absolutely believe in freedom of religion from government involvement.  But as a a minister, and as a human being, I believe that we, people of a healing and loving faith, absolutely have to be about the work of changing these beliefs.  As Sophia Lyon Fahs said, "It matters what you believe."  And the truth is, some religious beliefs kill.  I don't believe in supporting or upholding religious beliefs that lead people to terrorism--I believe in changing those beliefs.  These beliefs may not have the effect of causing their believers bomb buildings, but these beliefs are killing these young men, one at a time. 

A year ago, Bishop John Shelby Spong, in a manifesto essentially declaring victory against a theology he now saw as irrelevant said:
I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured."
Spong believed:
The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us.
I had some skepticism at the time.  Now, much as I like him, I think he was flat-out wrong.  The battle isn't won, and we don't need to stop debating this theology in the public arena, we need to do it more.  We have to do it more. 

Everything we're doing--it's not enough.
We need to do more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It Gets Better/Coming Out Day 2010/Everything Possible

Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day, a holiday started over twenty years ago to mark a celebration for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth and adults who were coming out of the closet and sharing the fact that they’re gay. This year, the weeks leading up to Coming Out Day have been horrendous and sad as we’ve heard news after news of young gay people committing suicide because of despair in the aftermath of bullying or the accumulation of messages of hate they’ve received in their short lifetimes. Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Zach Harrington, and others before them and probably some other recent ones as well—a string of deaths of young boys who thought they had nothing left to live for.

It should go without sayingthat we do think their lives are meaningful and important, and cherished, and that whatever God there is or isn’t is a God of love. We think that people are born gay, and it’s not a sin, but a natural difference in a segment of humanity’s glorious diversity.

It should go without saying, but if we go without saying it, those needing to hear this life-saving message of our faith, literally life-saving message, won’t hear it. It can’t go without saying at a time when so many aren’t hearing it, and are desperate with the need to know that they are loved, and that we consider them whole and good.

So at this time, I wanted to say this, now, to all of our children, and to their parents and loved ones, that we love you, and that whoever you grow up to be, whether you decide that you’re a girl who loves girls or a girl who loves boys, or a boy who loves girls or a boy who loves boys, and whether you decide that you are the girl or boy we think you are now, or if you decide that no, I’m not a girl, I’m a boy, or I’m not a boy, I’m a girl, that we love you, and we will keep loving you and we think you’re wonderful the way you are, and we want you to be happy.

One of the best ways I know to say this message is with Fred Small’s wonderful lullaby that says you can be anybody you want to be. So if you're a parent, grab your child and cuddle up, and if you don't have someone who you can cuddle up with nearby, let this song be the arms of a loving community around you.

Adapted from homily given in worship 10/10/10 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.