Spring 2004, Vol. 7, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2004

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Journalistically Ignorant

God the Poppa

Gendering the Religion Gap

Hindus and Scholars

Godawful Numbers

Georgia Evolves

Bare Naked Christians



From the Editor:

Journalistically Ignorant
       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 journalists.

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 abuse story.

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.•






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