The email is starting to come in asking when GetReligion is going to have something to say about that New York Times Magazine cover story from this past weekend, the massive piece called “The Politics of God” by Mark Lilla. The sad thing about it is that I am three time zones away from my office and involved in some long, long meetings in which a circle of journalists and academics are, during the break times, talking about this piece.
I wish I had the time to devote to it that it deserves. Let me stress that it is not a piece of journalism, yet it is certainly about a subject that looms behind much of the journalism of this era. It is very much a piece about whether our culture’s elites “get religion.”
Here is the opening, which the Times underlined by publishing on the magazine cover:
The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity– these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
This is not the kind of piece that will make the Rev. Pat Robertson dance for joy, or anything like that. Trust me. It also must be said that some of its major themes are similar to points that historian Martin Marty has been making for ages. So this is not really a liberal vs. conservative matter. But secular vs. religious?
Consider this quote from a column I wrote about a Marty presentation in the wake of Sept. 11:
Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.
“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”
There is much to write and, for once, I simply want to point you in the direction of a post elsewhere — by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher over at his Crunchy Cons blog. Rod has gone to the trouble of writing a lengthy summary of the Times piece and then offering his comments. He also rounded up another reaction or two.
To read that summary, click here. Here is a short sample of what he has to say:
I’ll say quickly, and for now, that I am glad to see this essay appear in such a prominent mainstream media outlet. I have been deeply frustrated for a long time over the inability of so many Americans, especially in the media, to understand that the American way of seeing God is not universal. Muslims are not Episcopalians in hijabs. For better and for worse, they follow their own powerful creed, and their creed is deeply incompatible with Western secularism, and with modernity. And we’ve got to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were.
And that is the key for journalists. Do we want to try to offer informed, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates? Is that possible?
At the very least, this thunderclap in the holy Times is a sign that it is getting safer and safer to admit that religion is news, period, and that it is impossible to make sense of the news that is going on around us without admitting that journalists will have to “get religion.” Amen.