The Revealer crew tries its hand at New Old New Journalism

Notwhatimeant_1OK, friends and cyber-neighbors, here is your reading assignment for the weekend.

Jeff “The Hulk” Sharlet and the crew over at conducted a kind of loose-form experiment in religion-news coverage during the Republican National Convention and have posted the six-part “What God Gap?” series that resulted. Sharlet wrote me earlier this week specifically asking for my reaction and asking that we point our readers that way, in order to spark dialogue and feedback.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

Here is a piece of the overture for this operation.

The “God gap,” as the media has come to call it, is the imaginary abyss that separates pious conservatives from atheistic liberals and leftists, as if there was a heavenly kingdom divided between red states and blue states. Sound a little too simple for the world we actually live in? We thought so, too. So instead of getting press passes to the predictable rituals of the Republican National Convention, five Revealer reporters went looking for religion, spirituality, belief — the ” mysterium tremendum “– outside the Garden.

This is interesting, since it assumes there was mucho religious content INSIDE the Garden and there wasn’t that much. Big-tent moderation and all that was the goal, you see. Nevertheless, I sent Sharlet some reactions to their package that looked something like this.

* One of the big themes here at GetReligion is linked to the red vs. blue phenomenon, but not the simple electoral college map that started the debate.

A better way to state this is that I believe there are red and blue zip codes, but that this split is essentially three way, not two way. The blue zip codes appear to be dominated by two groups that combine to form a coalition of secularists and the religious left. The political sciencists at New York University call this the coalition of “anti-evangelical” voters. I think it is broader than that and favor the James Davison Hunter thesis on clashing definitions of truth — the orthodox vs. the progressive, the absolute truth vs. experiential truth camps.

* But here is what I must stress: I see this essentially as two different approaches to faith — not people with faith and people without faith. Here at GetReligion, I have jokingly attempted to pin the “DaVinci Vote” label on this political zone on the left. The religious left exists and it deserves coverage. This is one of the most important stories of the year.

* As for the reporting in The Revealer package, let me say this. Long ago, I used to read and enjoy the old Rolling Stone. What you are doing is basically the revenge of New Journalism, right? I do not see this as an approach that is valid in the mainstream press. It is an honest, advocacy, European approach to journalism. I will gladly read both your work and, let’s say, that of Marvin Olasky’s World. But I do not want to see this in the Washington Post, except on the op-ed pages.

* One more thing. It was amazing reading some of this New Old New Journalism through my own lens — as a reporter who, long, long ago, wrote his first master’s thesis on the role of a liberal form of civil religion in the Vietnam War Moratorium. Wow. What goes around, comes around.

Sharlet wrote back and here is some of what he had to say. The key point we need to keep discussing is at the end.

* I hadn’t thought of it in explicit terms of the religious left, but yes, that’s it, ironically the historical tradition of religion in America and yet almost totally overlooked now. Or was it always thus? The press dragged its feet on King, scorned Day, didn’t know about the messianism of the wobblies, and would have hanged John Brown if they could have got to him first. …

* Red & blue zip codes cut three ways — I’d buy that. Though where does that leave the evangelical preacher voting for Bush and marching against him?

* Revenge of new journalism: Ha! Yes, SORT OF… my own route to this kind of stuff was via modernist fiction like Melville and Woolf and “modernist” documentary photo, which I used to be a big fan of. I’ve never had much use for the 60s new journalists, other than Didion — all were capable of great things, but most were anti-intellectual in a way that prevented them from doing really good things with their stories. Well, I don’t know — Executioner’s Song and Dispatches are important books. But I just can’t get through Wolfe and Talese and Thompson and all those guys. They’re too distracted by their own genitals.

* Which is why I differ from you about the mainstream journalism, which desperately needs massive infusions of narrative, integrated analysis, recognition of subjectivities, understanding of character and plot, etc. Nowhere more so than in the coverage of religion, which simply isn’t well-served by journalistic conventions.

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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.

  • Achilles

    “Though where does that leave the evangelical preacher voting for Bush and marching against him?”

    In the minority.

    There are two big, brawling forces: the Baptist right and the Unitarian left, and then a number of smaller strands that line up uncomfortably on one side or another. I am on the left, but consider myself theologically orthodox (others might disagree with that opinion). That means when I read political message boards I get to read a lot of posts about the evils of organized religion (and all too often, the wonders of the DaVinci Code). There are always a few people who will stick up for Christianity, but they are usually in a minority, and have to fight to make their voices heard. On the other side, I have a Southern Baptist friend who thinks social justice and the environment are very important, but cannot bring himself to vote Democratic because of abortion.

    IMO, it is usually the people with the least grasp of or liking for nuance that end up dictating the agenda for everyone else, simply because they’re the loudest and most passionate.

  • Mark Byron

    You also have multiple types in the “religious left.” You’ll have theologically conservative (believing in the need for a Savior and taking the Bible at face value) folks who are liberal on economics or anti-war grounds and you’ll also have folks who are across-the-board liberal on both theology and politics.

    The former will agree with theocons on many sexual issues, but feel the lack of focus on the poor and on peace makes the Democrats the lesser of two flawed options. The latter feels like a full subsidiary of the Democrats, when they’re not lurching further left than that.

  • Bene Diction

    I think the points in Jeff’s last paragraph is what is key to a reader.

    ***desperately needs massive infusions of narrative, integrated analysis, recognition of subjectivities, understanding of character and plot, etc. Nowhere more so than in the coverage of religion, which simply isn’t well-served by journalistic conventions.***

    Jeff Sharlet has a gift of telling people’s stories in a compelling and nuanced way.

    He is a listener and observer, key traits for any good reporter. Even when he is doing basic religion reporting and needs to be a bit more academic, his writing isn’t like he is in a dry ivory tower. And like Yancy, he is able to speak clearly to those within or without his country.

    I enjoyed your review. Blog on!

  • alicia the midwife

    There is, I think, a growing group whose needs are not met by either political party. I speak from my own theological position (Roman Catholic) in that I oppose abortion, euthanasia, sexual libertinism including non marital sexual activity (regardless of age, gender, number etc – if you ain’t married, I’m agin it!). But I also support the preferential option for the poor, the need for the wealthy to help the disenfranchised (preferably voluntarily, but by taxation if needed), the rights of the employed to a decent wage and working conditions, and the rights of the employer to a days work for a days wages. I support the concepts both of Humanae Vitae and Rerum Novarum. The Democratic party pays at least lip service to Rerum Novarum, but violently rejects Humanae Vitae. The Republican Party pays lip service to the principles of Humanae Vitae (at least to some of them) but rejects much of Rerum Novarum. I see the Dems as the party of Moloch and the Reps as the party of Mammon, and I say a pox on both their houses.

    Over at Mark Windsor’s blog Vociferous Yawpings, we have been bouncing around the idea for a new political party, one that embraces the values both of traditional sexual morality/family and life values and the more ‘liberal’ ideas of embracing and helping the poor. It is quite a challenge.

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