DiIulio loses faith in the Gray Lady

450px The new york times building in new york city 01It’s hard to deal with life in the faith-based-politics era without running into the work of researcher John J. DiIulio Jr., the Democrat (and Roman Catholic) who briefly headed up President Bush’s faith-based outreach to religious groups that try to help their neighbors.

DiIulio is famous for his candor and he is, to say the least, not a card-carrying member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. His departure from the Bush team was memorable and he was way ahead of the curve in warning that the White House was more interested in faith-based voting than in faith-based projects to help the poor and the suffering.

All of this is to say, it is significant that it is DiIulio’s byline on top of The Weekly Standard‘s flamethrower article, “The New York Times versus Religion — So much nonsense in a four-part series.”

The series in question, of course, is reporter Diana B. Henriques‘ sprawling “In God’s Name” package attacking some essential elements of America’s tradition of church-state separation, including several laws and court decisions hailed by religious leaders on the religious left as well as the right. The GetReligion gang has, of course, already written about this series at quite some length.

DiIulio uses the much-celebrated sermon by Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse as his overture, but that is not what his essay is really about. He is convinced that the “In God’s Name” series is evidence that the newspaper agrees with Greenhouse that American public policy has been “hijacked by religious fundamentalism.” Of the first article in the series, DiIulio writes:

A Times “computer analysis” of post-1989 federal laws turned up “more than 200 provisions granting accommodations or protections specifically to religious groups.” The ostensibly faith-favoring laws covered “topics from taxes to immigration to education.” The article’s subheading was “From Day Care Centers to Use of Land, Rules Don’t Apply to Faith Groups.”

The computer analysis turned up 22 “social services” religious exemptions, including one that the story highlighted, “the landmark ‘Charitable Choice’ provision in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.” Apparently, however, the “analysis” did not extend to actually reading the provision, parsing cognate regulations, or carefully examining how the relevant laws have
been implemented or ignored.

Read the article for the details. But here is the heart of the matter, from DiIulio’s point of view:

For every court decision and anecdote in the story indicating how “accommodating” government has become in employment and related matters, leaders of religious educational, health care, and other faith-based organizations could rattle off contrary decisions and horror stories indicating how adversarial government has been and remains.

Times readers might be invited to imagine an America in which all of those ostensibly favored faith groups disappeared tomorrow. Who would suffer the most, and who would have to pay to replace the social services that they now provide? For instance, pick ten big cities, and ask how many low-income non-Catholics (Title I students, Medicaid-eligible patients, etc.) are served by Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities, and hospitals? Next, try to figure out who is subsidizing or “accommodating” whom: How much would it cost to provide the same services without religiously mobilized volunteers and institutions in the mix?

nytredesignThat’s a good question, and DiIulio notes that there are mainstream researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania — two institutions rarely called bastions of fundamentalist paranoia — trying to find out just how much it would cost taxpayers to replace these Catholic “civic assets.” He also mentions the amazing work done by urban African-American churches.

Meanwhile, I know, from my own experience as a reporter, that there are suburban Protestant churches on both the left and the right that do very little to minister in lower-income areas. But there are just as many that have major urban and blue-collar suburban outreach ministries that undercut the media stereotypes.

As I said, DiIulio is both a Democrat and a Catholic and, among reporters, he is known as a straight shooter. He is not a media basher.

Thus, the end of this article is rather stunning. To put it bluntly, DiIulio gets mad and wonders out loud if it really is true that many leaders in the Times newsroom are biased against religious believers, as opposed to merely failing to “get religion” on the intellectual, professional level. Perhaps their distrust of religious believers that they consider ignorant and dangerous has warped how the editors view American religion, in general. Thus, he concludes:

Despite survey evidence, case studies aplenty, and personal experiences suggesting that most elite national media outlets are home to people far less religious than most Americans, I have always resisted the conclusion that their reporting is systematically biased against religiously observant people and institutions. The Times, however, has very nearly converted me to that cynical view.

. . . Over the last two decades or so, the federal playing field has become less tilted against community-serving faith-based organizations, and more respectful of citizens’ free exercise of religious rights. Over the same period, orthodox Christians have asserted themselves in politics in ways that challenge settled ideas about church-state relations and spark deep disagreements even with faith-friendly fellow citizens like me.

The way forward on church-state issues is with honest exchanges of views, from the secular liberal left to the Christian right, conducted in a spirit of mutual civic forbearance. Sadly, the Times prefers to reinforce biases against “the faithful.”

Here at GetReligion, we have praised our share of reporters and stories at the Times, while feeling free to criticize others. We agree with editor Bill Keller that his newsroom needs more intellectual and cultural diversity. I hope that his staff read and meditated on DiIulio’s blast against this great newspaper. I know that it sure shocked me.

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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.

  • http://www.spaulspots.blogspot.com Don Neuendorf

    “Faith-based” institutions are not always tied so visibly to congregations – yet it is still the faith community that makes them work. And although their contribution to the community is sometimes intangible, it is still significant.

    I spent 6 years on the board of directors of a group of non-profit church-related nursing homes. In business terms they were much like other nursing homes, but the atmosphere and quality was significantly better. The difference was off-budget and hard to quantify. It was the large pool of volunteers from affiliated churches that enhanced the day-to-day life of the homes.

    People at the Times can’t see that. They see that exceptions are made for religious groups but don’t envision the alternative – that government should be empowered to limit, direct, control, or correct how people live out their faith.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I disagree Don.

    I think the Times DOSE see the alternative, and they LIKE the idea that government should be empowered to limit, direct, control, or correct how people live out their faith. (It’s not an uncommon point of view historically speaking.)

    I took that as the whole point of Henriques series, that these “Religious folks” need to stop getting “special treatment” and get with the program and start submiting to the State like the rest of us.

    (One suspects that the old grey lady has gone a little senile and now actually considers herself to BE the Ministry of Truth.)

    On a slightly more charitable note, the Left’s off repeated mantra about things being “hijacked by religious fundamentalism” needs to be examined in the light of how the Left defines “religious fundamentalisim”.

    To someone like me the phrase “hijacked by religious fundamentalism” brings to mind the Iranian Religion Police, or the Puritans banning Christmas, or Calvin’s Geneva. As such claims that (insert institutional name here) has been “hijacked by religious fundamentalisim” are laugable.

    To someone who works at the Times who’s parents never went to Church, who thinks being “spiritual but not religous” means you are deep, and has never even owned a Bible anyone who regularly prays (much less tithes!) WOULD seem to be a scary “religious fundamentalist”.

    Perhaps if more of them “got Religion” they would see just how silly their fears are.

  • Dan

    I appreciate it that GetReligion has begun to take on the New York Times. But stop with the presumption that the New York Times is owed fawning deference. What other institution receives such deference?

    Fr. Neuhaus wrote about the situation at issue, including Dilulio’s article, on the Frist Things website. He makes points similar in nature to Larry’s points above. With regards to the NYT’s motivations, Fr. Neuhaus commented:

    “The underlying, and nascently totalitarian, assumption is that everything in the society belongs to the state and should be under state control. Government exemptions from tax and control are a privilege granted, not a right respected. From which it follows that an exemption is, in fact, a subsidy. This is a long way from the Founders’ understanding of the independent sovereignty of religion that the government is bound to respect.

    The editors write, ‘Like most special-interest handouts, these privileges exist in large part because the majority is not aware, or is not being heard.’ No, these are not privileges but rights, and the majority, I expect, is aware and approving of the government’s respect for the free exercise of religion. Again, where free exercise rights are abused, the abuses should be remedied. The courts and legislatures are regularly involved in addressing these questions. But make no mistake about it: The Times is committing its considerable resources and influence to an all-out assault on the free exercise of religion.”

    Fr. Neuhaus attributes the NYT’s attack on religion to Bill Keller’s “religion problem”:

    “One may reasonably assume that this would not be the case without the full support of executive editor Bill Keller. It is hardly incidental that Keller has, by his own admission, a religion problem. He calls himself a ‘collapsed Catholic,’ and in a 2002 article in the Times (subscription required) he rails against the Church for having ‘replicated something very like the old Communist Party.’ He says, ‘The Vatican exists first and foremost to preserve its own power.” The pope “has carefully constructed a Kremlin that will be inhospitable to a reformer.’ Seminaries have been turned ‘into factories of conformity.’ ‘What reform might mean is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do.’ But Mr. Keller obviously cares very much about the struggle ‘between the forces of tolerance and absolutism’ in ‘the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.’ It is not surprising that ‘a fraternity of aging celibates’ opposes ‘the equality of women, abortion on demand, and gay rights.’ He ends by wondering “how long faith withstands such a corrosive rain of hypocrisy.’

    There is no anti-Catholic venom like the anti-Catholic venom of a collapsed Catholic. As I say, the Times’ campaign against the first freedom of the First Amendment is not likely to have much effect. It is yet another instance of the paper’s penchant to pander to the prejudices of a readership perplexed by the vibrancy of religion in American life. If the Times was half as important as it thinks it is, it would be twice as important as it is. Nonetheless, some attention must be paid.”

  • Phil Goodman

    The sixteenth amendment means that exemption from income taxation is indeed a privilege, sentimental references to the founders’ non-codified intentions notwithstanding.

    And the way the Office of Faith Based Initiatives has occasionally operated as a tax subsidized political operation disputes any notion that the program represents the proper relationship between the government and independent religion.

    Of course, independence and sovereignty are ridiculous terms to describe the constitutional relationship between religious congregations and the recognized ultimate source of political power, the citizenry. The constitution provides, through the amendment process, a means for citizens to more explicitly define a limited and subordinate place for religion. There is no such provision for religion to establish predominance excepting through members’ exercise of their rights as citizens. This is a straightforward reference to the founders’ codified intentions, and not some editorial aside lifted from correspondence or essay.

    Certainly, there are extremists among the opposition to this administration’s religious policies, but the mainstream complaints have to do with public dollars, overt political affiliation, and the legislation of private morality that only has basis in religion. All legitimate concerns in the context of our method of government.