Table of Contents
Articles in this issue
From the Editor:
God the Poppa
Gendering the Religion Gap
Hindus and Scholars
Bare Naked Christians
From the Editor:
by Mark Silk
In the January/February issue of Christianity
Today’s bimonthly magazine Books and Culture, Professor Christian
Smith of the University of North Carolina delivered himself of a jeremiad
entitled “Religiously Ignorant Journalists.”
“Today,” Smith began, “I received a phone message from
a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a
story he was writing about ‘Episcopals,’ about how the controversy over the
2003 General Convention’s approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson,
would affect ‘Episcopals.’ What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to
him that there are no ‘Episcopals’? Actually, they are called Episcopalians.
Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an
informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and
complex matter when he doesn’t even know enough in starting to call his
subjects by their right name.”
The horror, the horror. Of course, given that his
article appeared months after the General Convention, Smith might, like any
minimally scrupulous journalist, have taken the trouble to see if his
concern was warranted.
As it turned out, the 1,500-word article on the subject
that ran August 16 in the Dallas Morning News—the only existing
“major Dallas newspaper”—not only used the terms “Episcopal” and
“Episcopalian” correctly but also happened to be informed and informing.
From this Smith could have concluded that the reporter, Jeffrey Weiss, was
either a wonderfully quick study or not nearly as ignorant as his voice
message seemed to suggest.
But that would have blunted the homiletic point. With
“few exceptions,” Smith wrote, “most ‘religion journalists’ actually seem
quite ignorant about religion generally.”
The charge did not go unanswered. John Dart, sometime
longtime religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, hit back in the
February 10 issue of Christian Century, in whose venerable vineyards
he now toils. Dart pointed out that religion reporting has improved markedly
over the past decade thanks to increased resources devoted to the beat by
news executives, a heightened commitment to fostering public understanding
of religion on the part of religion scholars, and considerable material
support for enhancing journalistic expertise from large foundations.
Dart notwithstanding, Smith’s broadside is so misguided
and unmerited that it behooves this journal, dedicated as it is to
patrolling the DMZ between the academy and the newsroom, to offer a response
of its own.
Smith’s central gripe seems to be that reporters waste
his time. They call him up not simply “looking to pick up a few good quotes
to add color or an air of authority” to their stories but in need of a “free
hyper-crash course” to make up for their lack of “an informed background and
close familiarity with religion.”
Yet suppose that Smith himself, a sociologist
specializing in the study of American evangelicalism, were asked to put
together an informed story on the historical Jesus, the Hindu god Ganesha,
the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Shi‘ite Ashura festival, the Lubavitcher
Hassidim, or any of the scores of other subjects that religion writers must
compass on a few days’ notice. Might he feel the need for a briefing from
one or another of his colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies?
The usual critique of religion writing is that
reporters, operating with little sense of historical context and—as any good
postmodernist should expect—preconceived ideas of what their stories are
about, talk to academic experts only in order to get the sound bites that
fit their preconceptions. In the May issue of Religious Studies News, the
newsletter of the American Academy of Religion, AAR past president Robert
Orsi explains why, under these supposed circumstances, he refuses to talk to
Unlike Orsi, Smith appears to recognize that very often
reporters are eager to be educated about the meaning and context of their
religion stories. It seems perverse of him to grouse about it.
But, unsurprisingly, Smith has a preconception of his
own to push. Last year he published an edited volume, The Secular
Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American
Life, in which he advances the thesis that the “historical
secularization of the institutions of American public life” was not “a
natural, inevitable, and abstract by-product of modernization,” but rather
the “outcome of a struggle between contending groups with conflicting
interests seeking to control social knowledge and institutions.”
Ignorance about religion thus, he believes, comes
naturally to religion reporters. As members of the victorious secularizing
“knowledge class” they associate religion largely with “fundamentalism,
violence, scandals, homophobia, dying churches, repression, exotic rituals,
political ambition, cults, trivia.” No wonder that “about the only” thing
they could “seem to imagine reporting on last year” was the Catholic priest
By way of remedy, Smith proposes that editors assign
religion stories only to reporters who know as much about religion as their
political and sports reporters know about politics and sports. He also
suggests that all news reporters and journalists “go on a retreat to search
their hearts in order to discover why when it comes to religion they are
simply obsessed with sex abuse and violence, and what the answer might mean
for more balanced, representative coverage of religion in the future.” Oh
yes, and they should pay religion professors for their crash courses.
The claim that the American “knowledge class” is
hostile to religion has been culture-wars boilerplate for over 20 years.
Debatable as a general proposition, it certainly doesn’t apply to religion
writers, who according to surveys have a higher rate of religious
affiliation than the American public at large.
The Catholic crisis was without doubt the consuming
religion story of 2002. It became, I would argue, the biggest religion story
in the history of the American news media, and deservedly so. That’s because
the coverage was driven not by the accounts of sex abuse, which had become
familiar enough over the years, but by the revelations of the extent of
cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy, with some complicity on the part of
police, courts, and mental health facilities. Does anyone doubt that there
is no greater service performed by journalism than exposing cover-ups of
malfeasance, wherever they occur?
But even in the midst of flat-out coverage of the
Catholic crisis, religion writers managed to write about Mormons and the
Winter Olympics, the selection of the next Archbishop of Canturbury, the
Supreme Court’s approval of public school vouchers for religious schools,
and above all about Islam. Among the Islam stories that drew national
attention was a fracas that arose when some folks on the right raised a fuss
about the assigning of a book on the Koran to incoming freshmen at the
University of North Carolina.
What about 2003? I’ve just finished reading the 59
five-article submissions for the AAR’s annual religion writing awards. Of
the 295 pieces under consideration, exactly seven dealt with the Catholic
crisis. Sex abuse was the subject of an additional two.
As for violence, it was associated with religion in a
total of seven stories, if you count one on a handful of surviving Branch
Davidians and another on the visit of a minister with an anti-Muslim message
to a New Jersey church. On the other side of the ledger, there were nine
articles on religious efforts to promote peace and non-violence. Scant
attention was given to homophobia, dying churches, and the other items on
Smith’s list of unworthy topics.
All in all, the submissions did display considerable
range and variety, with a pretty pronounced favoritism towards religion and
a generally high level of journalistic competence, especially on the part of
those writing for publications with circulations over 100,000. I’d be happy
to put the latter up against their opposite numbers from any other specialty
beat, including politics and sports.
Okay, let’s presume that Smith is a busy guy who
doesn’t have time to do much more by way of tracking religion coverage than
most other professors who read the local paper and the New York Times,
listen to NPR, and field their phone calls. How has he, personally, been
treated by religion reporters?
He singles out for opprobrium an article (again from an
unnamed major paper that turns out to be the Dallas Morning News) on
the subject of amusingly named figures in the field of religion. Like
Cardinal Sin of Manila. And that Professor Christian Smith of UNC. This is
what’s known in the newspaper trade as a “brite,” and perhaps the less said
about the genre the better.
Unmentioned by Smith, though, is the amount of
appreciative attention he has received for his critique of evangelical
stereotyping—by the Raleigh News & Observer’s Yonat Shimron back in
1999, for example, and in a column devoted to his thinking by New York
Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels in 2000. And in an interview in
2000 by Juan Williams on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”.
Not to mention U.S. News and World Report’s
Christmas cover stories in both 2002 and 2003. And again, this April, in
that quintessential knowledge-class rag, The American Prospect, in an
article premised on the Smithian proposition that not all evangelicals are
right wing nuts but that in fact many are tolerant folk who wish to love and
serve, not dominate, the non-believers in whose midst they live.
Likewise, over the past year journalistic attention has
dropped like a gentle rain from heaven upon Smith in his capacity as
director of something called the National Study of Youth and Religion—in the
form of enthusing articles in the Boston Globe, the Columbus
Dispatch, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, and, yes,
the Dallas Morning News too. The March 21 Post piece, by Laura
Sessions Stepp, ran under the headline, “An Inspired Strategy; Is Religion a
Tonic for Kids? You Better Believe It, Say Teens and Scholars.”
In other words, Smith is a prophet not without honor in
the house of religion reporting. The readers of Books and Culture
would hardly have guessed that.•