It’s time for reporters to face the facts

moses tabletsLet me pause to plug an item or two over at Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s blog, in large part because he has veered totally into GetReligion territory with repeated appeals for journalists to actually cover the doctrinal contents of the current story about Pope Benedict XVI and Islam.

But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized without offending the religious believers involved in the stories (and doing shallow, inaccurate jouranlism at the same time)?

Thus, Rod writes, riffing on a Mars Hill Audio podcast by former NPR producer Ken Myers:

… I’m generalizing, but I’d say that the approach journalists take to reporting on Islam is palliative; that is, it seeks to soothe the public’s concerns about Islam by presenting it merely as a misunderstood faith. Episcopalians in hijabs and kufis. Of course it’s laudable to want to teach the public more about any faith as a way of dispelling prejudice, but when you take that approach, you run the risk of hiding aspects of that faith that the public would find offensive or unsavory. Worse, you yourself become incurious about things that about which you should be curious. And you do both the integrity of journalism and your readers a disservice by refusing to pay attention, and to ask the tough questions.

From there, Dreher leaps over to a weblog at The New Republic (that well-known right-wing rag) that offers a commentary by Jacob T. Levy on precisely the same topic.

Under the header, “Taking religion seriously,” Rod posts this sobering clip from Levy (advance warning to all Unitarian Universalists):

It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it’s serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards “No man comes unto the father but through Me” is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don’t expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don’t think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive; indeed, my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way. This is a bit like the stance of many American lapsed Catholic or many Israeli secular Jews, I incline to say, “I don’t believe in God, but the God in whom I don’t believe is a serious one!” But I don’t quite mean that. Rather, I want to say that if there is a point to religion and theology, then that point is undermined by the reluctance to draw distinctions and take them seriously.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

In other words, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity cannot be both right and wrong. The Ten Commandments can’t be suggestions and still be commandments, for those who practice Judaism. Christians do not believe that Jesus was a nice guy and Muslims do not believe that he was the Son of God. Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic. Islamic teachings about the nature of God, and the role of reason in faith, cannot be reconciled to Roman Catholic beliefs without doing violence to both faiths. Ask the pope. Ask your local imam.

I could go on and on. All of the roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same, unless, of course, they are all wrong and there is no mountain anyway because there is no life to come or there is no such thing as salvation and/or damnation.

So it’s hard to cover stories about traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others if you are not willing to admit that they have a right to their beliefs and that journalists have a professional responsibility to try to get the facts about those beliefs right.

End of sermon. Thanks for the links, Rod. And I hope The New Republic does a cover story on this issue.

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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.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    About coverage–I saw an analysis on a Catholic site that step by step shows how a non-issue for 2 or 3 days was stirred to white heat by the way the western media suddenly started promoting it as a burning issue–the lead culprits, both veteran anti-Catholic, anti- Ratzinger media giants the BBC and the NY Times.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Another aspect of the coverage in the mainstream media that scalds me as a Catholic is the poor coverage of the heroic martydom of Sister Leonella. Headlines, front page stories for those carrying signs saying or chanting things like: “Off with the pope’s head!” Yet Sister Leonella gets relegated to page 7 or so and hardly anywhere did I read her brave dieing words-with 7 bullets in her: “I forgive. I forgive.”
    This has been the pattern in the media as nuns, priests, whole monasteries of Trappist monks (in Algeria) have been murdered in Islamic countries–usually fortrhrightly “in the name of Allah.” Yet the stories get so regularly buried or ignored that when the pope rightly mentions such violence and the Moslem fanatics start marching around with threats and attacks–the NY Times climbs all over the pope and some people–not knowing “the rest of the story” courtesy of the Times’ incompetence, purposeful pigeonholing of stories of murdered Christians , or sheer anti-Catholic bigotry–nod their heads in agreement with the Times editorial on the pope’s speech which is really a call by the Times for all of us to copy the Times and become dhimmis voluntarily.

  • ceemac

    tmatt wrote:

    But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized…

    A response:

    It occurs to me that you direct your complaint in the wrong direction. Your real beef is with Schleiermacher and his influence on how educated folks in this country think about religion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Deacon:

    I disagree that the NY Times NEWS coverage drove the misunderstanding.

    I think the impact of the BRITISH press was the key.

  • mattK

    “advance warning to all Unitarian Universalists”

    That was funny. My four year old asked me why I was laughing.

  • mattK

    “Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic.”

    This is precisely why I can’t vote for that Governor who is running in the GOP. I wish some reporter (or probably an essayist in a news magazine) would explain the problems of polytheism in light of Plato’s “Euthyphro” dialogue, and then go on to show why polytheism makes for bad governance.

  • http://paragraphfarmer.blogspot.com/ Patrick O’Hannigan

    The Christian corollary to the aphorism that “all roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same” is that “one road came from God down to us”

  • VoxDilecti

    Game. Set. Match.

    Thank you Tmatt, for giving us all a level-headed and concise opinion on this controversey that doesn’t make my head want to explode.

    Now if only the media can wake up, do their jobs and do the same.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    “Fact” are slippery things concerning religion. Take the fact that “Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic.”
    Mormons are polytheists? Hm. http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2003_Monotheism_Messiah_and_Mormons_Book.html
    Now perform the same exercise for Trinitarian Christians. Monotheists or polythiests?
    Mysteries of faith or facts?
    Which does not negate your main point — that us media types should be makign the distinctions clear — and why or if they matter to non-theologians.

  • Larry Rasczak

    But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized without offending the religious believers involved in the stories (and doing shallow, inaccurate jouranlism at the same time)?”

    That would require that the journalist in question

    A) Understood the theology of the world’s major religions concerned to a level greater than one achieves by reading the first half of “Islam for Dummies”.

    B) Understood logic well enough that he or she could see the logical contradictions inhererant in the different belief systems. (i.e. that the doctrine of the Trinity is not able to be logically reconciled with the Islamic conception of Allah).

    C) Understood theology well enough to understand the place that logic and reason play within theology… i.e. that while the doctrine of the Trinity does teach that God is three persons in one God, this “one God” is not the same “one God” spoken of in the Islamic world, or even the Jewish tradtion.

    D) Had the courage to write something very poltically incorrect, possibly highly inflamitory, and of such complexity that many people could easily misunderstand it. Including Muslims that might come and go all “Theo Van Goho” on him or her, or the building.

    E) Had an editor that would not only be willing to place such a non-P.C., possibly offensive, possilby dangerious, hard to understand, and quite likely very long piece of limited appeal; but willing to place it INSTEAD of an easy to write, easy to understand, and no doubt more popular piece on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, or Brittany Spears, or some other pretty person’s sex life.

    And now you know why blogs are the future of journalisim.

  • Jens

    Some thoughts on why journalists don’t delve so deeply into religious beliefs:

    * The religious landscape is so fractured that a journalist often risks painting with too broad a brush stroke by saying almost anything. Let’s say a journalist wanted to look into the pope’s premise that Islam is not bounded by reason. Well — which branch of thinking do you start with? There is no hierarchical structure to the religion to declare certain views unorthodox, so it’s difficult to pin down such stark statements of belief. Similarly, how would you begin to compare the claim of an “irrational” Islam to the claim of a “rational” Christianity? After all, Christianity is also fractured into numerous sects. And very often you find that adherents within any given sect are extremely heterodox in their beliefs — so that one could report on what leaders of a sect say but that may not correspond to what the people in the pews really believe.

    * Then you have the issue of religious texts themselves being contradictory. The pope’s speech even had to work around that reality in regards to jihad by acknowledging that there is a sura saying there’s no compulsion in religion. Benedict claimed it was from an early, less secure point in Muhammad’s career. But I’ve already seen Muslim leaders disagreeing with this point.

    * And finally, I think many journalists are simply trained to be wary of reporting what people believe. For instance, some journos I know will never write “He believes such and such” because, technically, the reporter cannot know what a person really believes. At best, a reporter can only claim that “He says he believes such and such.” That lack of verifiability of what people actually believe — the inherent secrecy and privacy of belief in other words — creates an aversion to reporting on it.

  • Don Neuendorf

    You might say that “all roads to the top of the mountain called Salvation cannot be the same.” And I would certainly say that. But interestingly it seems that the Holy Father may not be saying that.

    Here’s a short clip from 2005…
    Nonbelievers Too Can Be Saved, Says Pope
    VATICAN CITY, NOV. 30, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Whoever seeks peace and the good of the community with a pure conscience, and keeps alive the desire for the transcendent, will be saved even if he lacks biblical faith, says Benedict XVI.

    On a rainy morning in Rome, the Holy Father …addressed …more than 23,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square, (saying):

    “(A)mong the inhabitants of Babylon there are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the Eternal City to which we aspire…. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for a genuine redemption…. (A)mong the nonbelievers, there are people with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope, in the measure that is possible for them in the circumstances in which they live…. With this faith in an unknown reality, they are really on the way to the authentic Jerusalem, to Christ…. God will not allow them to perish with Babylon, having predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem, on the condition, however, that, living in Babylon, they do not seek pride, outdated pomp and arrogance.”

    Of course, the Pope was talking about a metaphorical Babylon, but the point still sticks. If the Muslims would renounce violence they too could be saved, even without faith in Christ!

    The Pope’s discussion of the different roles of reason in Christianity and Islam was intellectually interesting, but it could hardly have been considered inflammatory. Evidently, if this other speech is any indication, the Holy Father did not intend to draw any insuperable distinction between the two faiths. Perhaps in the end the difference between the two was only a pleasant intellectual curiosity – and not something to die for.

    Let’s hope he doesn’t end up dying for it.

  • Rod Dreher

    But journalists are expected to be educated generalists; we write about things all the time that we don’t have mastery of, but we at least know where to go to ask people who do have mastery of the subject to explain these things to us, so we can help explain them in turn for the reader. Google has made our jobs vastly easier; if you want to find out about Islam and its relationship to reason, it’s not hard to find a lot of good information on the web, and pathways to further study. As I’ve been saying on my blog, the relationship between Islam and its view of God to reason, and the same in Christianity, has enormous implications for cross-cultural relations and cultural development within the Islamic world. I would really like to know more about this. I think that most journalists, at least most I’ve known over the years, are largely incurious about the way religion works, and assume that the American model of religion — it’s a private thing, something between you and God, and that’s it — is normative. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes in his forthcoming book about the year he spent as a disciple of radical Islam, Americans are at a real disadvantage in trying to understand Islam in this regard, because Islam is not meant to be a private thing, but a public religion that governs society.

    Anyway, just because a religion story is complicated doesn’t mean that it’s not important, and it’s not worth trying to get to the bottom of so readers can understand the world as it is. Political beliefs are often contradictory, complicated and difficult to understand clearly, but that doesn’t stop reporters (good ones) from trying to understand and interpret the evidence. Why should religious beliefs be any different — especially because religious beliefs dictate the way the vast majority of humanity deals with life?

  • Kyle

    Good topic. But I think what’s missing is that next level, honestly. Are journalists right or wrong in dancing around some issues? That’s the real story. The bigger debate is about that statement: “All of the roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same, unless, of course, they are all wrong and there is no mountain anyway because there is no life to come or there is no such thing as salvation and/or damnation.”

    Of course, another choice is that they’re all correct in some way. That’s a whole philosophical position to defend. But rather than assume that we’re dealing with some Unitarian-Universalist filled newsrooms, could it be that there is a “public good” issue?

    There is a real debate to be had there over whether journalists owe the public a kind of ethical duty…depending on how that debate is resolved maybe we, as a society, have decided that those who play to religious differences are not in keeping with good social order. It goes beyond just being politically correct. It cuts to how we view religion and spirituality. To give voice to certain ideas can legitimize them. Which isn’t to say I’m for censorship. What I’m more after is saying that the way certain things are portrayed says a lot about how reputable the source is. And it can be a fine line between writing a fine academic piece on the differences in thought among various faiths and sounding like an intolerance-driven hack. Even the Pope has had to learn that hard lesson.

    There should be freedom to write about religion, but the other side of that is that journalists are going to be judged by it. I agree 100% with the position often cited here that journalists need to have more knowledge about religion. That being said, is there a difference between writing about exclusivists and being one as a journalist? To play devil’s advocate, I might argue that to be a journalist requires one to assume all religions are true in some way otherwise to try to write about them is a kind of falsehood.

    Is it that journalists are afraid or is it that despite the religious chaos of the times we have the fortitude to understand that the real intellectual story is elsewhere? Just a thought.

  • Corey

    I’m not sure the theology here is right. Granted the various “roads to the mountain” are not identical. They may still run to the same place.

    The idea might sound like a bunch of liberal hooey, but it’s contained in the orthodox formulation of most world religion. The Sufis sometimes draw a wheel on the ground with all the spokes running to the center. Hinduism has a doctrine stating as much. The Catholic Church, outside which there is no salvation, has always left undefined just where the borders of the Church end.

    This does not imply we should (or could) mix religions, any more than we should mix two kinds of map or two recipes. The idea is simply that all roads lead to God, no more. It derives its truth from philosophical rigor. If a road does not lead to God, it would have to lead to some other reality coincidental with the divine, which would be impossible, and a form of polytheism. (Hinduism btw is monotheist.)

    There is a case for the transcendental unity of world religion other than religious pluralism.

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  • Larry Rasczak

    “But journalists are expected to be educated generalists; we write about things all the time that we don’t have mastery of…”

    Rod, I think you just stated that it is ordinary journalistic practice to literally not knowing what you are talking about.

  • http://copedi.home.bresnan.net Copedi

    I agree with the main premise of the post. But part of the problem — and I don’t know if it’s an excuse or not — is that it’s often hard for people, and that includes journalists, who are outside a particular religion to have a good understanding of what it means to be part of that religion. It takes some considerable effort to even become familiar with the theological language.

    One example, and I don’t want to belabor the point, is the statement in the post that Mormons are polytheistic. I know of no Mormon who would think of him/herself that way; I certainly don’t. Like most Christians, oneness Pentecostals and Christian Unitarians being the main exceptions, we believe there is one God (we often use the term Godhead, a term not distinctive to us) in three persons. There are those who consider our views henotheistic, and others who consider us tritheistic, but most Mormons (I think) would consider themselves part of a great monotheistic tradition. There are certainly merits to all the above-mentioned labels, but none capture fully the essence of the faith. Now if those of us who are interested in religious matters can’t keep our labels and definitions straight, how can we expect the average journalist to do so?

    As an aside, I would add to Corey’s remarks about religious pluralism that Mormonism is one of those religious movements that believes both that it has a certain exclusive claim to truth as well as a belief that people of other faiths can also come to know God and enjoy salvation, if not now then in the hereafter. It’s not so much a matter of saying that all roads lead to the same place as it is a matter of believing that we as humans have an obligation to live whatever truth has been revealed to us.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    One example, and I don’t want to belabor the point, is the statement in the post that Mormons are polytheistic. I know of no Mormon who would think of him/herself that way; I certainly don’t.

    ***

    That comment was based on my own interview with two members of the Twelve, when, on the record, they confirmed that the doctrine of exhaltation — taken to its logical ends — implies polytheism. They said they do not like to use that word, but the concept that man now is what God once was leads to that conclusion.

    Yes, it’s technical and hard to write about. But that does not mean that, let’s say, Romney will not be asked about it during the South Carolina GOP primary.

  • http://copedi.home.bresnan.net Copedi

    That comment was based on my own interview with two members of the Twelve, when, on the record, they confirmed that the doctrine of exhaltation — taken to its logical ends — implies polytheism.

    I wouldn’t argue against that, although I think that henotheistic would be a better description than polytheistic. Of course, how many people know what the former term means? I think it’s safe to say that the polytheism of Mormonism is not the same as the polytheism of Hinduism. All this gets back to the point that already has been made, that journalists (and apologists, for that matter) who are trying to explain beliefs need to carefully define the terms being used.


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