Culture Friday – The girl with the rainbow birthday cake

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, January 24th, 2020. Glad to have you along for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Before we get started, I need to make an apology. On Wednesday, as we were reporting on the impeachment trial in the Senate, I made a sarcastic remark about the congressional schedule, very strongly implying members of Congress don’t work as hard as we regular taxpayers do. 

Well, that was just wrong, and really I know better than that. When I was young, I was a congressional staffer, and I know how many hours members of Congress work, and it’s a tough schedule.

Many of them are away from their families, and that’s hard on families. And many members work hard to serve the public, and Congress the institution doesn’t deserve the broad brush treatment that I thought I gave, so I’m sorry about that. So I apologize.

BASHAM: Yeah and I spent a couple of weeks a couple years ago doing interviews with lawmakers and I couldn’t believe the pace some of them kept up, so I’ll add my apology to Nick’s.

Well, onward. Maybe you heard about this story. It went viral last week. A Christian school in Kentucky expelled a 15-year-old girl simply for wearing a rainbow sweater and posing in front of a colorful cake during her birthday party. 

Pretty bad, right? It certainly sounded bad when the local paper’s story hit the web with the headline, “Louisville Christian school expelled student over a rainbow cake, family says.”

The school’s outrageous act was then covered by FOX News, Good Morning America, The Washington Post, and the U.K.’s Daily Mail, to name just a few. 

Here’s a bit of the report that ran on the Today Show.

AUDIO: [Singing Happy Birthday] It was a happy moment. freshman Kayla Kenney celebrating her 15th birthday with family at a restaurant in late December. Her big smile, rainbow top, and a colorful birthday cake captured in this photo.

She was happy, she looked beautiful, you know, of course, as a mom I took her picture blowing out her candles and I posted that on my Facebook page.

The girl’s mother was quoted in USA Today saying, “I just feel like it’s a label [the school officials] have put on her. Just because I’m wearing a rainbow doesn’t mean I’m gay.”

And that’s the angle all those news outlets started and stopped with.

EICHER: The problem is, there was more to the story. A lot more.

Some intrepid citizen journalists spent, well, it probably didn’t take much time at all to check out the girl’s social media to verify the family’s account.

What they found put a decidedly different spin on things.

In multiple public posts the girl referred to herself as “coming out” and “getting a girlfriend.” She mentioned going to bed with other girls. One picture showed her in boy’s clothing—a formal suit, essentially—asking a girl at another school to a dance. 

All of it suggests that when the mother insisted the rainbow sweater and cake “meant nothing,” as we said, there was more to the story.

At the very least, it showed that her daughter had an extensive and very public record of being in violation of the school’s Bible-based policies for student conduct.

John Stonestreet joins us now for Culture Friday. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


EICHER: Now John, it seems like in the mother’s own initial comments there were some red flags that should have made a competent reporter’s spidey senses tingle. She said of the school, “I just feel like those religious beliefs they are imposing now are very judgmental.”

Now I would naturally ask, why would you send your child to an unequivocally Christian school if you object to their religious beliefs?

I don’t necessarily say that to render judgment on the mother here. But when I saw this controversy, I did the same thing the citizen journalists did: pulled up one of the girl’s publicly available social-media accounts and in two minutes had enough information at least to begin to question the narrative. 

You have these massive media organizations basically mounting a PR campaign when a citizen journalist can easily pop the balloon.

Listen, feel free to comment on the story, but I’d like for you to interact with what I really think is a crisis of credibility in the news media, especially where it applies to disfavored groups like people who run Christian schools.

STONESTREET: Yeah, I kind of wonder sometimes if some members of the media are trying to feed the Babylon Bee new headlines—headlines that aren’t even satirical. And that’s where Babylon Bee is at its best is when it reports on actual stories that happen. 

There’s this kind of long line of journalists, a long history of journalists that certainly has become more intense in recent years as journalists missing the story and, really, what’s behind it. It’s hard not to think of the Covington Catholic boy’s story that happened basically a year ago at last year’s March for Life clearly misrepresented from a narrative that should have taken very little effort at all to correct. And, again, it underscores, I think, what is a deeply held worldview across many that are in this position. Now, let’s be clear, too, that this is a position where the job is to kind of get past any sort of narratives that are already embraced and kind of get to the facts. That’s really the job of a journalist from day one. 

But the worldview is affecting their job really in two ways. First, it is kind of introducing a narrative up front and anything outside of that narrative is not told. But I think it’s also creating a sort of intellectual laziness. It’s a laziness that can’t even imagine—what would keep you from just doing that? What would keep you from just Googling this girl or looking up Facebook? It’s only if you’re already convinced up front that there’s no possible other angle to the story. And that’s really the role that a worldview can play in our lives.

By the way, it’s interesting. I just spend this past weekend speaking to our Colson Fellows program about a story where we first saw this sort of media bias and it goes way back. 1925. The Scopes Trial where 6,000 journalists flood into Dayton, Tennessee to cover what is the trial of the century before OJ—what happened in the courthouse there between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. And you saw that same sort of thing. It was very much a narrative driving that media and intellectual laziness where so many of the journalists actually believed that they didn’t even have to go to the trial. They could just get it through hearsay. And then send the news to their papers. We’re just seeing that same sort of thing and it’s unfortunate that—It’s one thing to be captivated by a narrative. It’s another thing when that same kind of worldview assumptions lead you to laziness and not doing your job.

BASHAM: You know, John, this follows on the heels of CNN paying out a large settlement to the family of Nicholas Sandmann from Covington Catholic.

So a hypothetical in light of the Sandmann settlement. Let’s say the school had it in mind to sue over damage to their reputation. And let me be clear, I’m not suggesting they’re going to do that or have any grounds to do so–I’m not the legal lady around here!

But I do wonder if more Christians aren’t going to go the route of the Sandmann family and start taking the media to court. If so, do you think that’s a viable, Biblical option for dealing with a negligent or even hostile press?

STONESTREET: That’s an interesting question. I’m going to draw a kind of strange analogyI think that there’s all kinds of legal recourse that Christians right now are taking. It is a completely justified recourse and because of financial damage or reputational damage or things like that. And I think that’s legitimate. 

I’m grateful, for example, and this is something a lot of folks don’t realize is that the tremendous legal work that’s being done by ADF or Becket or the Christian Legal Society. A lot of that never gets to the Supreme Court or even to the courtroom at all. There’s legal action that’s taken in order to kind of stop it in its tracks. Sometimes a sternly worded letter is all that it takes in order to kind of rebalance the power here. And I’m completely ok with that. I also think, though, that the mistake is going to be made if we think that the legal action is the only action we have. In the midst of all of this, I don’t think we should ever underestimate the power and the influence and the reputational boost that Christians will get with a well-timed act of forgiveness. And, look, I’m not imposing my conscience on anyone or on this particular situation at all. In fact, man, I’ve been trying to figure out what is the settlement that Nick got? No one seems to be reporting on how much it is. I really want to know that and I think it would be really helpful information to rebalance the scales if we kind of knew what’s at stake.

And I think that both of those things need to be in the arsenal as we try to figure out what it looks like to live in this cultural moment.

BASHAM: So, John, I want to turn to another Christian conflict playing out in the media, and I want to be careful that we don’t commit any of the journalistic errors we just talked about. 

Earlier this week the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a story about a United Methodist church whose older members claim they’re being asked to leave to make way for young families. 

When I posted the article in our internal communication channel, a lot of staff members said they thought it was a Babylon Bee article. 

Now, the church’s leadership clarified a bit in a follow up with the Washington Post. They said they’re not saying the mostly 60 years and older parishioners will be barred from the church. Only that the services they attend are being cancelled.

So there’s a lot happening in this story, from why mainline churches are struggling to the issue of age-discrimination.

So to start, I guess I’ll just ask, do you think there’s any merit to this idea that attracting young people means moving away from the elements that appeal to older people?

STONESTREET: Well, you know, I suppose if what we’re after is to attract younger people, if that’s the win of the church, then maybe there is. Or if the win is to have a bigger church, then maybe the strategy could work. The problem is I think both of those things are the wrong definition of a win. I think that there is a big infection in the American church that bigger is always better, that growth is always a measure of God’s blessing the church. Maybe God’s blessing the church by shrinking it.

Anyway, I just feel like there’s something at work here.

There’s something ideological here. Because within the United Methodist Church, that has dealt with such deep division right now and so many mainline denominations in the same sense, I wonder if the divide between young and old is also a divide between ideologies. Whether this church is trying to become more progressive in order to attract more people and these old people are standing in the way. I don’t know that that’s behind this story, but I certainly wonder if it is and I know that there are churches that are dealing with that as well.

EICHER: Well, John Stonestreet is the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. 

John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thank you both!


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One comment on “Culture Friday – The girl with the rainbow birthday cake

  1. Glenda Cloutier says:

    This narrative is no accident. On the contrary, Christians and conservatives are driving blind if they impute an agendaless attitude on the part of anyone, much less our media. Thank you for calling them out. Please keep it up.

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