Newsweek moralizes on interfaith communion

interfaithNewsweek‘s weekly BeliefWatch section is great. It’s a guaranteed two-column slot in a national magazine that will focus on some unique issue relating the religion. Usually it’s a story that has received little or no coverage elsewhere, and for that the contributors to the section should be commended.

This week is a great example. How often do you read about the history and the results of “interfaith dialogue”? But unfortunately this piece by Lisa Miller gets off to a poor start by quoting Nexis search results. Miller found that of the 173 entries since 1997 in major national newspapers, 100 were in the past five years. I guess that tells us something, but there are better ways to prove a trend than keyword searches.

After explaining to us what a tremendous thing it was for Pope John Paul II to reach out to Jews in 1987 and to give support to the state of Israel, Miller goes on to explain that if children of different faiths become friends, “that’s all to the good” and that dialogue between religious sects is “essential to world peace.”

Now I don’t disagree with any of that, but why is Miller telling us this? Can she site specific examples where interfaith dialogue led to peace? I don’t doubt that there are examples out there, but unsupported statements fail to pass as quality journalism.

In an attempt to insert some skepticism, Miller interviews a college psychologist who seems to be an expert in interfaith issues. Here’s where the piece gets interesting:

Based on the sheer volume of these efforts, however, it’s reasonable to assume that the bulk of them, though sincere, are quixotic. For the past five years, Steve Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the effects of interfaith camp programs on youth over time. “You go to these camps [in the Balkans or the Middle East] and afterward, everyone’s hugging each other,” he says. That glow quickly fades. “Many of these programs are one-shot deals, and these are attitudes that have grown up over generations … You don’t change deep-seated hatred in a week.” More lasting, says Worchel, is a feeling of self-esteem. Kids who attend interfaith camp tend to think of themselves as part of the solution, but they need the long-term support of their community and political leaders to keep their minds open. And then Worchel says something really profound. Conflict, he says, is part of life and love; communities require enemies in order to cohere. Interfaith dialogue is not a magic bullet. The question is how to manage the human instinct for conflict into the future so it doesn’t destroy the world.

I love how Miller has taken on the job of telling us what is “really profound” about a person’s words. And again, I agree, what Worchel says here is pretty profound, but I believe I can make that determination myself. I’m not against personal essays, but if this is supposed to be genuine journalism, personal opinions ought to be kept out.

Also, as an afterthought, since this is the age of the Internet, could we see more of Worchel’s work on Newsweek‘s site?

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  • evagrius

    Which do you mean, “interfaith dialogue” or “interfaith communion”?

    The two have definite meanings for quite a few Christians.

    From your headline, I thought it was to be a post abbout RC-Orthodox or RC-Lutheran etc; efforts at common and shared liturgical practices.

    As for the article itself, I’m curious as why Worchel’s comment on conflict seems to be profound. I think it’s a rather commonplace observation. Why then the drive, at the same time, for no conflict?

  • tmatt

    The key, for many reporters, is that the various world religions are supposed to stop making absolute truth claims that clash with one another. This is, of course, just as offensive to a traditional Muslim as it is to a traditional Christian.

    But this “I don’t believe very much and you don’t believe very much so we have a lot in common” (to quote Martin Marty) approach to ecumenism and interfaith work is a key step toward a what’s right for you is right for you and what’s right for me is what’s right for me approach to religious faith and morality.

    The true goal is for people to truly believe what they believe AND to back the religious liberty of others to disagree.

    The question that some raise in Islam is whether that stance is an option in traditional Islam. Some say yes and some say no and there is no central doctrinal authority to rule on such a question.

    But ask our friends the leaders of Saudi Arabia that question and you get a very, very clear answer. No. Has anyone ever asked W Bush about that?

  • Michael

    The true goal is for people to truly believe what they believe AND to back the religious liberty of others to disagree.

    According to TMatt ot according to some larger, agreed-upon philospophical principle? And how do you define “religious liberty”?

  • Stephen A.

    If I can address FORM for a second, I’m also noticing the lazy reporting practice of quoting meaningless statistics and from sources that make no sense, rather than doing the hard work of finding REAL trends and interviewing actual people to gain these facts.

    One of these traits (and it seems to be companion sin to the Lexis Nexis search) is “going to the dictionary.” It’s almost always the sign of an inexperienced reporter, or a lazy one.

    In a particularly horrid piece of journalism in the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald recently supposedly on evangelicalism, the term is defined from that venerated theological journal, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. The sin was compounded, then, by the reporter relying on a college professor’s psychological analysis of churchgoers as simply “disoriented” folks with nowhere else to go than a church. And a narrow-minded one, at that, which sets rigid moral parameters for people.

    Old slanders, but odd ones to find in an article supposedly educating readers about religion.

    The reporter did manage to quote ONE evangelical Christian (I’m assuming – she wasn’t actually labeled as such) but then quickly turned to extensively quoting a liberal UCC pastor who said “progressive” religion was growing faster than more conservative churches. I suppose it may be true in Portsmouth, anyway. Or it could be more unverified opinion. No stats were given. I question whether a hostile “reubuttal” source was even necessary here, in an educational article on a religious movement.

    And this was first of a series of religious articles. God help us.

    The bottom line is that the level of reporting on religion is abyssmal, even when they DO spend time on the subject.

    I suspect that like Miller in the example here on GR, the reporter put a bit of her own opinions into the article. That, and I think both were lazy and used lazy sources.

    (read my mini reviewlet on this NH story at along with a link to the original story )

  • Dale

    The key, for many reporters, is that the various world religions are supposed to stop making absolute truth claims that clash with one another.

    That seems to be the ideology underlying alot of reporting on religion. I don’t think reporters consciously choose to frame issues in that way–they’re taught to think that way in the educational system, and assume its common sense. The concept of religion as a “private” aesthetic experience primarily concerned with personal fulfillment and otherworldly salvation has been part of the dominant Western political ideology since the time of Hobbes. The concept itself is a religious claim, but generally students aren’t called upon to question it. Thus, stories about the minimization of religious differences are reported as “progress” and “positive”, while public conflict over religion is “negative”.

    Political disputes, however, are given “real world” significance. That’s important conflict, not purposeless and needlessly divisive religious conflict.

  • tmatt


    I am writing in the American context and referring to the roots of our separation of church and state. We have a tradition of religious toleration, not a demand of theological toleration.

    In other words — old liberalism.

  • tmatt

    Oh, and freedom of speech and freedom of association are crucial.

    I speak in defense of both principles, which are under fierce attack today.

  • tmatt

    Here is the link to the story discussed by Stephen A above:

    Has anyone seen in data on liberal churches beginning to outgrow conservative churches? Heck, even in New England?

  • Bill

    I second evagrius’s comment about the headline versus the body of the post. I went to this post expecting something very different than what I ended up reading about.

  • Jerry

    finding REAL trends and interviewing actual people to gain these facts.

    Both are laudable methods but you don’t necessarily find out about trends through interviews, unless one is a poll taker and further one who does their best to make a valid, non-directive set of questions to ask.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled why it is considered a new thing for a weekly news mag to have a weekly religion column or report. When I was growing up in the 1950;s and 60′s both Newsweek and Time had a regular weekly “RELIGION” section right there with “BUSINESS,”SPORTS,” BOOKS,” etc. sections.

  • Stephen A.

    Jerry, statistics do tell a story about a trend, but that’s not enough to ensure that it’s a REAL trend with real meaning behind it.

    A reporter can certainly take some time to verify trends she/he finds in books and online by talking with actual human beings on the ground. As we’ve seen, simply citing stats isn’t always enough. Filling in the void left by just using stats by citing one’s own opinion isn’t the answer, either.

    Perhaps the reporter can instead dig deeper into the trends they’ve read about to discover the “why” behind them, and perhaps put a human face on them.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I also agree with matt. You don’t need to water down your beliefs or doctrines to have mutual respect–or even love across religious boundaries. My mother -and her whole family– are strong Protestants of varying denominations from Methodist to Christian Science. My father–and his whole family–are devout Catholics. Yet there was always mutual love and respect between them on the personal level. One of the fun parts of growing up in this environment was to hear some of the occasional lively religious discussions that would end in a beer and a burger on a hot July 4th eve or a Christmas Carol (or Irish song) on that holy eve. As a teen-ager–after a lot of independent Bible and Church History study- I chose the Catholic Way, and I can think of only one Protestant relative who was somewhat disappointed for a short while.

  • Jerry

    Perhaps the reporter can instead dig deeper into the trends they’ve read about to discover the “why” behind them, and perhaps put a human face on them.

    *That* I do agree with. Putting a human face on statistics is something that I think helps “flesh out” (literally) a story.

    As I was typing this, I was reminded about the Newsweek, Washington Post OnFaith effort. I wonder if the space inside Newsweek and the web site are related in some way?

  • evagrius

    Perhaps reporters should do a little reading on the subject before reporting on it. They can even do this on-line if needed.
    I recommend that they Google Raimundo Panikkar and Leonard Swidler on inter-religious dialogue.
    Maybe after reading on those two eminent experts, they can ask better questions, make better observations and write more informative articles.

  • Martha

    If, by “progressive religion”, you mean all those who say “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious”, then yes, it’s a growth area. Mainly because it doesn’t even require you to darken the door of a church.

    Once you’ve sorted out a Kabbala red thread for your dominant dosha and feng shuied your Bahai Ringstone, you might be able to spare the time to walk the labyrinth in your local Women-Church :-)