Chicago Tribune's take on Moody Bible student lacks some tough, logical questions

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One of the rules of journalism is to make clear why a reader should care what you’re writing about.

One way to make that happen is to choose a sympathetic figure. Personal stories are always easier to grasp than abstract concepts such as teachings, doctrines and beliefs. This principle has been used brilliantly by movements seeking to push modernist ideas, such as gay marriage. It’s one thing to oppose the idea; it’s another to oppose two human beings right in front of you.

Those of us who covered the Episcopal Church’s slide from an influential denomination of 3.6 million members into a fast-declining church of 1.8 million saw this principle used repeatedly in the 1990s and 2000s. Whenever the denomination wanted to push some novel sexual idea, it put forth stories of the courageous individuals who indulged in such practices. Such folks were easier to like than the seemingly stodgy types who were bent on keeping to the old ways.

All of which is why the Chicago Tribune chose a 24-year-old lesbian who was hounded by Moody Bible Institute administrators to be the face of a new lawsuit. An engaging dissident with a compelling story was far more interesting than the traditional institution she was fighting. The story begins:

Megan Steffen had completed all her college coursework at Moody Bible Institute and was at home with her parents in Michigan, waiting to graduate, when she got an email from the school, telling her an administrator needed to talk with her.

She agreed to a meeting via Zoom, where she learned that faculty members at the conservative Christian college had raised objections to her graduation.

Which was in 2020, by the way.

Then the two administrators on the Zoom call began asking questions, among them: Had Steffen ever had romantic or sexual relations with a woman? Had she ever dated men? Did she envision dating women in the future?

Steffen, who had faced pushback at Moody ever since coming out as a lesbian two years before, answered the questions as best she could, in the hope that she would be allowed to graduate.

At this point, we learn that Steffen is one of 33 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education) by present –- and past — gay students at religious colleges and universities asking why the feds aren’t enforcing of Title IX anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students. This NBC story (which only made a token attempt at getting quotes from the colleges’ POV) profiles a Liberty University student who’s also one of the plaintiffs.

Being that the events concerning Steffen happened a year (or more) ago, one wonders why the Tribune is running this piece now. Are we going to be seeing sympathetic profiles of all 33 litigants at some point across various platforms?

I have to ask –- the same question tmatt has raised again and again — didn’t this student agree to abide by a written set of rules (known as a doctrinal covenant) when she enrolled at Moody? Did she sign a document at that time?

Of course she affirmed a covenant, or she would not have been accepted. All schools ensure students agree -– at least on paper –- to abide by school morality rules. No one was forcing Steffen to attend Moody. The University of Chicago has a reputable divinity school, so she had in-town choices.

So why didn’t the reporter quiz her on this?

I looked at the lawsuit itself and found this:

She attended MBI for many reasons, including that her sister went there, it was an alcohol-free campus that would support her sobriety, and it was a Christian school.

According to Megan, “I did not consider MBI’s stance towards LGBTQ+ students at the time I decided to attend as I was not out, even to myself, yet.”

So … Moody is to blame for the fact that she had some self-discovery along the way? Hey, we all make commitments to various things not knowing the full import of our decisions. But when it becomes clear, further down the road, that we made the wrong decision, the ethical thing to do is to change course. People transfer out of colleges all the time.

If not –- and it was clearly inconvenient for Steffen to change schools midway through her studies -– then the smart move is to lay low until you have that diploma. We’ve all done something similar at distasteful jobs. I am not saying Moody was right to stalk her social media posts once she was off campus, but -– as she says in the lawsuit –- she had promised to shut up until spring of 2020, a vow she didn’t keep.

I am curious why the reporter didn’t at least challenge Steffen on the wisdom of blasting Moody when she’d agreed not to broadcast her sexual preferences until graduation.

But here is the essential journalism question: Why are the Christian campus leaders the only ones getting tough questions? Did the reporter seek out other students –- who might have had a different read on the situation –- to interview?

What we have here is not exactly hard-hitting journalism. Here at GetReligion, we have a term for this — “Kellerism.” Click here for some background on that.

This is a hot issue, obviously and there’s been a lot of back-and-forth as to how hard the Biden administration will defend these schools’ rights to set their own policies on sexuality. The Biden Administration is committed to the polar opposite of religious protections in its support for the Equality Act, which would compel religious groups not to discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. This Washington Post piece explains some of the issues at stake.

The Post said here that Title IX has a religious exemption that any lawsuit may find hard to shake. (After complaints from LGBTQ advocates, the administration tweaked its take on the issue.) Former GetReligionista Mark Kellner — newly hired for religion-beat work by the Washington Times — just wrote about that issue here.

A lot of the journalism out there concentrates on gay advocates, or lawsuit plaintiffs and their stories. I’m not seeing anything out there giving equal time to the religious institutions’ point of view and how their teachings on sexuality are common to the world’s monotheistic religions; how these traditions go back thousands of years and are basic to the core teachings of these faiths.

What I do see comes down to this: Religious institutions = repressive and bad. Gay and transgender individuals and causes with interesting narratives = enlightened and good. The latter are represented by media-savvy individuals such as Paul Southwick, head of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (which filed the lawsuit), who seems to spend most of his time on the phone with the media. Reading Kellner’s piece, I discover that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities didn’t respond when he tried contacting them. Bad move.

Even for the Tribune piece, they merely submitted a written statement. Watch the video atop this post. Speaking to the camera are two lesbians who claim oppression at the hands of Moody. The institution’s response? A written statement.

Anyone with a brain can see which side most journalists will tend to favor.

But that doesn’t let reporters off the hook for finding sympathetic characters and narratives on both sides. There are plenty of people who agree with these religious institutions. They may not have as articulate a defender as the lawsuit plaintiffs do, but that’s no excuse for failing to tell their story in just as engrossing a manner.

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