Creeping Fundamentalism V: The gospel of the New York Times

The political and journalistic implications of that article by Jack Beatty are somewhat stunning, if you stop and think about it.

This makes me think of a similar, worldview-revealing statement in a New York Times article back in March of 1999. It was in a magazine profile of an anti-abortion activist who had veered far outside the mainstream pro-life movement and, apparently, out into the foreign territory of lethal violence. As he concluded his article, writer David Samuels made the following observation about issues of right and wrong, truth and error:

It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy. … Perhaps sacrifice in the name of a higher good — God, Marx, freedom or whatever the good of the moment happens to be — is admirable only as long as you support the cause. Or perhaps, in the absence of absolutes, we must judge beliefs not by their inherent righteousness but by their visible consequences.

Now am I reading that right? Is the point that Samuels is making this: For normal people, like New York Times reporters and our friends, the only objective truth is that there are no objective truths? Thus, anyone who believes otherwise — be they academics, artists, clerics, journalists or even holders of high office — is, well, “crazy.” They are probably dangerous.

So take that, Pope John Paul II. And all the rest of you revelation- and even creed-hugging lunatics out there. Oh, but note that this would not remove more mystical and personal forms of revelation through experience and, obviously, reason. Truth is OK, as long as it is pluriform.

This raises another question: How should we treat these crazy people’s viewpoints when they show up in newspaper stories? Shouldn’t the public be warned?

P.S. Lots of heavy stuff coming on in the comments section of this post. Check it out. To which I offer this update.

I really am not interested in a debate about metaphysics at this point. I am trying to write for a journalism blog. I cited the ancient New York Times piece for several reasons. Almost all of the major media-bias studies hinge on abortion coverage (and now, homosexuality issues). Having the Bible of elite journalism run a news-feature in which people who believe in moral absolutes are called “crazy” strikes me as important. And out of line.

I have known Unitarian agnostics who were perfectly capable of writing fair news stories that accurately quoted both sides of moral and religious issues, without feeling the need of calling moral conservatives “crazy.” I have even known some that would say they were agnostic on that issue, as well. Good for them.

And I have known some fire-breathing, big-C Charismatic Christians who were capable of doing the same kind of accurate, fair reporting. Good for them, too. In this context, I am more interested in the journalism of this issue than I am the theology.

Oh, what the heck: I know that we are all, in daily life, prone to relativism. That’s why my Church has Confession.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bugbee

    I must admit to being taken in by your lede. When I read “The political and journalistic implications of that article by Jack Beatty are somewhat stunning, if you stop and think about it,” I thought we were in for a refutation or at least close analysis of what Beatty actually wrote.

    Instead you offer a five-year old clip of a piece by David Samuels, claim (but do not demonstrate) equivalence, and go on to argue with what Samuels said.

    I think there’s a germ of a good idea here that has been somewhat lost in this editorial bait and switch.

    It’s about the narrative framing that is an implicit though rarelye explicit element in all media coverage, including coverage of religion.

    Diane Winston explored this from her particular perspective in a recent piece on The Revealer:

    “Media critics write about the meta-narratives that shape reporting, and the frequent use of sports and warfare metaphors. Just as comparisons to horse races, contests, battles and juggernauts flatten and simplify political coverage, so do similar tropes truncate the possibility of what we can and should know about religion. Take the current debate over the consecration of an actively gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Conservative Episcopalians frame their disagreement with this development as a conflict between those who believe the Bible is God’s revealed word and those who don’t between `orthodox` believers and everyone else. The resulting `pissing match,` as reporters call an `us versus them` story, is easy to frame and familiar to report. Moreover, it echoes a popular paradigm, for both religion and politics, of conservatives against liberals.

    The problem is that it dumbs down a complex debate: What do religious people choose to believe from the Bible, and why? The Bible, and Jesus for that matter, explicitly condemns divorce. But George Barna, whose market research firm specializes in Christianity and culture, has found that `born-agains` (his term) have the same divorce rate as other religious and non-religious groups. The Hebrew Bible, where prohibitions against homosexuality can be found, forbids the mixing of milk and meat, accepts polygamy and recommends stoning for disobedient children. What hermeneutic makes homosexuality a Biblical taboo while these other directives are ignored? Casting the debate as a conflict between `orthodox` interpretations and relativists ignores the sociological truth that, save for those who live in cloistered religious communities, we are all relativists to some degree.”

    Now I’m fairly certain that you would take a very different point of view, and it’s one I would be interested in seeing you develop. But to do so would have to be willing to admit to the relativism that is visible in your own life and the lives of those you love, respect and count as allies. Or is it really your contention that the contest is accurately portrayed as one between absolutists and everybody else?

  • http://www.sanskritboy.net Ryan Overbey

    I’m confused here.

    Since when is a moral absolute the equivalent of an objective truth?

    One can subscribe to a notion of objective truth and simultaneously ridicule any notion of moral absolutes. That’s perfectly consistent. Why do you conflate the two?

  • http://jackblogs.typepad.com/integrity/ JACK

    Ryan:

    Mind offering up a definition of “objective truth” and “moral absolutes” that allows you to say that “one can subscribe to a notion of objective truth and simultaneously ridicule any notion of moral absolutes”?

  • http://www.sanskritboy.net Ryan Overbey

    Sure Jack.

    If I drop a ball in a vacuum at sea level, it’s going to fall at 9.8 meters per second per second. That’s an objective truth. The value of pi is (roughly) 3.1415926535… We can test it and verify it, over and over again, and those facts will never change. That’s the nice thing about objective truths. Their truth is independent of anybody’s opinion or religious inclinations.

    Not so with moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are inflexible commands that an individual or group believes *should* have universal application. “Homosexual intercourse is always wrong” is a moral absolute. It’s not at all testable; to speak of it as objectively true or untrue is meaningless, since it is simply an expression of how one thinks people should act. Many times, these ethical persuasions are developed by reading translations of old books, or obeying voices people hear in their heads. They aren’t developed through rational inquiry– they are accepted as revelation or command. You know how it works.

    That’s why I was so confused when Terry took Samuels’ passage lambasting moral absolutes- which are contentious, controversal, not universally applicable, shifting quite often throughout the course of religious and social histories, and conflated them with “objective truth.” The two have nothing to do with one another.

  • Ed Jordan

    Chris, you wrote

    —-

    The problem is that [treating religion stories as "'orthodox' believers and everyone else"] dumbs down a complex debate: What do religious people choose to believe from the Bible, and why? The Bible, and Jesus for that matter, explicitly condemns divorce. But . . . `born-agains` . . . have the same divorce rate as other . . . groups. The Hebrew Bible, where prohibitions against homosexuality can be found, forbids the mixing of milk and meat, accepts polygamy and recommends stoning for disobedient children. What hermeneutic makes homosexuality a Biblical taboo while these other directives are ignored? Casting the debate as a conflict between `orthodox` interpretations and relativists ignores the sociological truth that, save for those who live in cloistered religious communities, we are all relativists to some degree.

    —-

    I would love to see a more detailed, intelligent, public conversation about these issues and about evangelical beliefs in general.

    The problem is that what we usually end up with is a televised show trial where the deck is stacked against the orthodox. The network decides whom to interview (and as a result the liberal theologians outnumber the orthodox 5 to 1), and Peter Jennings frames the story and stamps it with his imprimatur of newsiness. The result is hardly unbiased, and I don’t think it’s any less dumbed down. It’s just dumb in a different way.

    Here’s what I suggest to satisfy your concerns: Let ABC, CNN, or some other well-respected network televise a series of unedited, two-hour debates between well-versed evangelicals and their various opponents — liberal Christian theologians, atheists (or do I repeat myself?), Muslims, etc. The T.V. network shouldn’t select the debaters: let some evangelical group such as Focus On the Family select the evangelical debaters, and let comparable non-evangelical groups select the opposing debaters. If there is a moderator, his or her job is to stay out of the way as much as possible, and the moderator is not allowed to make a closing statement on the substance of the debated points.

    Would this satisfy your desire for a less dumbed-down presentation of religious issues in the media?

    I don’t believe ABC would go for this format for a couple of reasons. First, they would fear low ratings. Discuss Bible verses on national T.V.? To secularists, this sounds tedious. Second, the network would lose control of the message. What if the evangelicals won the debates? Or what if they just sounded reasonable? That would not suit the national media’s agenda of helping society evolve.

    However, if the debates received any kind of promotional effort and a decent time slot, I wager that ratings would be through the roof. Imagine: What if “The Passion of the Christ” audience decided to watch television all at the same time? The first debate might be the highest rated T.V. show in history.

    But even if you could promise stratospheric ratings, there is still problem number two — control of message. For people who aren’t evangelicals, and who don’t want to encourage them, control may be the real bottom line.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I really am not interested in a debate about metaphysics at this point. I am trying to write for a journalism blog.

    I cite the ancient New York Times piece for several reasons. Almost all of the major media-bias studies hinge on abortion coverage (and now, homosexuality issues). Having the Bible of elite journalism run a news-feature in which people who believe in moral absolutes are called “crazy” strikes me as important. And out of line.

    I have known Unitarian agnostics who were perfectly capable of writing fair news stories that accurately quoted both sides of moral and religious issues, without feeling the need of calling moral conservatives “crazy.” I have even known some that would say they were agnostic on that issue, as well. Good for them.

    And I have known some fire-breathing, big-C Charismatics who were capable of doing the same kind of accurate, fair reporting. Good for them, too. In this context, am more interested in the JOURNALISM of this issue than I am the theology.

    Oh, what the heck: I know that were are all, in daily life, prone to relativism. That’s why my Church has Confession.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    So, e.g., “racial discrimination is wrong” is not a moral absolute? I keep waiting for pseudo-relativists to come out with something like that so I can use their own favorite bludgeon of “That’s true for YOU.”

  • http://www.sanskritboy.net Ryan Overbey

    Will,

    The point I was making was a very small and nitpicky one, as Terry has pointed out in the update. I was simply trying to show that objective truth and moral absolutes should not be conflated.

    In all fairness, Terrry was going after something bigger: the use of the term “crazy” to apply to all people who hold moral absolutes. That is a serious issue: even if you decouple moral absolutes from objective truth, it doesn’t mean that moral absolutes are a sign of mental dysfunction.

    “So, e.g., “racial discrimination is wrong” is not a moral absolute?”

    No, “racial discrimination is wrong” *is* a moral absolute. And it has nothing to do with objective truth: it is a statement about how you think other people should act. It’s simply not on the same epistemological level as the definition of pi or the atomic weight of a water molecule. It’s the difference between “There is a toy factory at 1127 Smith Street” and “I think all toy factories should make blue teddy bears.” One is a statement that can be verified by anybody; the other is a preference that one wants to persuade others to adopt.

    OK, I’ll stop talking about this now. Terry is right about the Samuels article: there’s a tendency among unsophisticated journalists at elite newspapers to dismiss religious absolutists as crazy as an a priori assumption. It’s a sign of intellectual laziness and effete snobbery.

  • Chris Bugbee

    Even if you agree with Ryan that “Terry’s right about the Samuels article”, his original post purported to be a take-down of the Beatty article, which nowhere uses the term “crazy”. Asked to explain his reluctance to engage the Beatty article on its own terms, Terry argues that “Having the Bible of elite journalism run a news-feature in which people who believe in moral absolutes are called “crazy” strikes me as important. And out of line.” What’s wrong with Terry’s tenses here? The Samuels article was written FIVE years ago.

    When asked to account for the bait and switch with which he raised the issue in the first place, Terry demurs: “I really am not interested in a debate about metaphysics at this point. I am trying to write for a journalism blog.” That seems rather cavalier for someone whose initial “critique” hinged on “world-view revealing statement” and “objective truths”.

    Terry — you ARE right that there are significant journalistic issues to be addressed here about the narratives explicit and implict with which reporting about religion is framed, whether or not you are willing to actually pursue those issues in a straightforward and journalistically responsible fashion.

    Frankly, I’m a little surprised to see you back off so quickly from pursuing your original topic. Maybe memory doesn’t serve, but I seem to remember your courage being more closely matched to your convictions back in the day when you first broke into mainstream journalism covering religion for the Charlotte Observer.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It seems to me that Chris has now moved into his popular personal harassment mode, but let me note the main point briefly again.

    The heart of the Beatty piece is that this moral-absolutes thing is irrational and dangerous. This called to my mind the earlier statement in the Times, which, even at the ripe old age of 5, remains a stark worldview statement about an issue that is at the heart of many, many media-bias studies (see 380 URLs or so at Google News on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act).

    The Times quote, by the way, did make it into one of the cornerstone essays at http://www.TheRevealer.org and I would urge folks to read it.

    http://www.therevealer.org/archives/feature_000149.php

  • Ed Jordan

    I want to respect what this blog is about, so I’ll try to keep my comments focused on where media meets religion. Judging by the WSJ article which was the subject of a new post on this blog, it sounds as though I should give ABC another chance.

  • David Samuels

    Hello, folks. I am writing because I’m sick and tired of seeing a paragraph plucked from my five year old story for the Times Magazine on James Kopp being passed around on message boards like this one as an example of insidious liberal rationalist bias in the media. Read in context, the paragraph in question was clearly meant to provoke and unsettle my liberal friends who believe that sincere sacrifice in the name of a higher good – like revolution, or equality, or saving lives – is ALWAYS right, against which I presented the counter-example of James Kopp, a man who was undoubtedly sincere, and was also undoubtedly a killer (he pled guilty), and – as far as I can tell – sincerely crazy. I honestly don’t what degree of relativism makes the moral universe of the liberal elites go ’round – I grew up in a religious family, and still consider myself a religious person. In the context of my portrait of Kopp, I was quite clearly mocking the “shared but unspoken premise” that you seem to take for some kind of in-group wink-wink among journalists. I don’t think anyone could reasonably read what I wrote without coming away with a pretty complex portrait of James Kopp as a tortured human being in the grip of an ideology that sanctioned murder as a response to what it portrayed as the murder of the unborn. I also don’t think you’ll find a more sympathetic portrait of the men and women of the anti-abortion movement in the history of the New York Times.

    Now that may not be saying all that much, but it might be interesting to go back and read what I actually wrote instead of waving my ancient paragraph around as a token of how sinned-against religious believers are in the media.

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