WORLD magazine gets it wrong on Wheaton College
I last wrote about Wheaton College in February, when over a hundred students peacefully demonstrated in response to the school bringing ex-gay speaker Rosaria Butterfield to speak at an all-campus chapel session.
This past week, the school was targeted by World Magazine’s Julie Roys, who wrote about school employee Julie Rogers, the celibate gay Christian (which the article defines as “someone who identifies as homosexual but does not act on her same-sex desires because she also believes such behavior is sinful“) who currently works in a chaplaincy office that provides spiritual direction and pastoral care for Wheaton students.
The article has already received quite a bit of backlash from students (one of whom is quoted directly by Roys) who claim that the piece manages to simultaneously misrepresent their perspectives, malign a trusted friend and mentor, and under the guise of orthodox journalistic tactics manages to discreetly promote ex-gay “reparative” therapy.
How accurate are these claims? If the scare quotes in the article’s title or the strikingly antiquated discourse around reparative therapy are any indication (not to mention the author’s description of “former lesbian” Rosaria Butterfield’s story as “eloquent” or Roys’ subtle framing of ex-gay advocates as the embattled faithful ), these students may just have a case.
Yet it has been particularly disheartening to see the approach that the author and others have taken to actively defending the way WORLD went about writing this piece. This article is not necessarily advocating for a practice that has been proven destructive to human life, Roys and others seem to be saying, she’s just giving an equal voice to all perspectives. Roys herself has tweeted similarly several times in defense of her work, saying “[my article] was very fair and had both sides” and “reporting both sides of a controversial issue is not encouraging either side.” (To be clear: the “sides” here are a) allowing a celibate gay-identifying person to exist as an employee on a college campus and b) promoting hope in “changing” one’s sexual orientation through prayer and pseudoscience.)
Perhaps it is not surprising that an article as cold-blooded as this might emerge from the depths of a very conservative and entrenched religious publication. But what is truly dumbfounding are the author’s claims of supposed objectivity. If her claims of mere impartiality and adhering to industry-standard journalistic practices are to be believed, it would be the first time in WORLD history that her magazine took this approach.
My statements here aren’t intended to be provocative or hyperbolic – anyone familiar with this publication, headed by former political advisor Marvin Olasky, is likely to understand that Roys’ claims of fairly reporting “both sides” ring awfully hollow.
Olasky, the editor-in-chief, founder, and visionary behind WORLD magazine, has repeatedly gone on the record rejecting traditional journalistic commitments that seek an impartial or unbiased presentation of facts. Speaking to his organization’s operational ethos, he remarks that on some things, “the Bible is very clear, so we are not going to be even-handed in the sense of balancing subjectivities, which is what ‘objectivity’ often [comes] down to.”
In his landmark work, “Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism,” Olasky argues that Christians in the field of journalism must recognize that in some areas, popular understandings of fairness in reporting must be jettisoned. In his book, he calls this kind of journalism “Biblical objectivity,” and gives the example that, among other things, this “means showing the evil of homosexuality.” His logic? “Balancing…stories by giving equal time to gay activists is ungodly journalism.” After all, “in an article showing the sad consequences of heterosexual adultery there is no need to quote proadultery sources.”
It would be unimaginably vapid to assume that Olasky’s philosophy here doesn’t hold any particular sway when it comes to reporting on a gay-identified individual who works on what is widely considered evangelicalism’s flagship campus. Whether Roys knows it or not, WORLD’s founding paradigm drenches every aspect of this article, and she should apologize for suggesting that she has taken a fair approach in reporting on this non-issue.
I am beginning to understand a bit more how this report was constructed. The author appears to have gone out and interviewed a few individuals under false pretenses, then found enough random people to talk about a celibate person having a job nearby. As evidenced by her inclusion of the guy who works at a church a mile off campus, she wasn’t really concerned if these people went to Wheaton or were related to the issue at all as long as they were willing to parrot “pray the gay away” talk couched in intentionally vague rhetoric around “healing,” “faithfulness,” and the “possibility” of “change.”
Then she shared the piece with WORLD’s readers (who generally hold to the impossible position of both anti-sexuality and anti-celibacy for gay Christians) and feigned indignation when she was accused of presenting a report biased towards the discredited practice of trying to “convert” a gay person into a straight one. It seems inappropriate to use the word agenda here, but either Roys was intentionally employing the wicked language of implied gay-no-more miracle cures to advocate for the practice (and therefore appease her readers), or she simply forgot the publication she works for and elapsed by reporting in what she really believes was an objective manner.
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Actual LGBT Wheaton students are already responding to Roys’ work, so I won’t take up much more space here. Part of the valid criticism I received after folks read my last article on Wheaton was that because I’m not on the ground, I don’t have the full perspective on what happens there. This is more than true.
One final observation I will make though is that we’re sure to see more conservative pile-ons when it comes to non-issues at Wheaton. Because of the institution’s stellar reputation in evangelical circles – and because of its historic commitment to espousing conservative religious and political ends – supporters are likely to feel a territorial sense of defensiveness for anything smelling like liberalism that comes anywhere near campus. Wheaton students are holding a silent demonstration in response to a potentially harmful message? How dare these uppity young people think to protest the Gospel. The campus office holds to the stance of the vast majority of conservative churches by hiring a non-heterosexual person who is celibate for life? They’re believing the lie that God cannot change anyone.
These pundits are correct when they predict that we can expect to see more of these “liberal” trends (such as affirming the leadership and scholarship of women in the church, respecting the human dignity and agency of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gay people) as they continue to impact public life at institutions of Christian higher education across the country.
But for one reason or another, Wheaton seems to draw the fiercest critics. While, for example, Mercer University’s Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life can write a book about his journey of becoming LGBT affirming, and fairly conservative Calvin College can host a brave series of articles and discussions showcasing the stories of their openly LGBT students, because Wheaton is often framed as the national cradle of evangelical academia and theology, my feeling is that fewer such moves could be made here without immediate pushback from powerful donors and supporters. Maybe that’s because, in the end, it simply feels like the stakes are higher when it comes to Wheaton College.
While significant disparities and problems certainly plague some aspects of life there, the Wheaton students I’m privileged enough to call friends have shown me that though support is sometimes lacking, the special home that the school holds in the hearts and minds of so many should be enough reason to stand against the kind of muckraking apparent in Roys’ recent reporting.
To these students, I can only say that while it may seem like there is little hope of shifting the sordid stance of your school and its “defenders” when it comes to the LGBTQ conversation, WORLD magazine wasn’t wrong about one thing: the times are indeed changing, and God can certainly move mountains. Anything is possible.