Just another boring religion story

KAK KIR 220How does anyone argue that covering the religion beat is boring work?

I have never understood that complaint.

Yet, long ago, when I was doing the research for my graduate thesis at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I asked many editors why their newspapers didn’t do a better job of covering religion news. I consistently heard two answers, sometimes from the same editor.

Answer No. 1: Religion news is too controversial.

Answer No. 2: Religion news is too boring.

You see, there are just too many boring, controversial religion stories running around out there. That’s the ticket.

I mean, check out this story from today’s Washington Times, care of veteran Godbeat scribe Julia Duin. This is the kind of thing that happens on the religion beat. You take (1) a papal visit, combine it with (2) holy daggers, then add that to (3) security concerns in modern Washington, D.C., and you have a showdown between the Sikhs and the U.S. Secret Service:

Followers of a major Indian religion have been frozen out of an upcoming interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict XVI because of the group’s insistence on wearing ceremonial daggers.

The meeting, scheduled for April 17 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center near Catholic University, originally included Sikhs, as well as Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist guests. But a guest list released yesterday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops substituted followers of another India-based religion — the Jains — in place of the Sikhs.

According to Sikh leaders, at issue was the Secret Service forbidding the wearing of the “kirpan,” a dagger that is required dress for all Sikhs. Its followers liken its importance to their faith in the same way Orthodox Jewish men are required to wear a yarmulke.

Anahat Kaur, secretary general of the World Sikh Council/America Region near San Francisco, said Pope John Paul II met with kirpan-bearing Sikhs at the Vatican in January 2002. … Numbered at more than 20 million adherents, Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion. It has about 250,000 members in the United States.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said no weapon, no matter how sanctified its purpose, could be allowed within striking distance of a head of state.

There are other interesting details in this short A1 report, including the fact that Sikhs — for obvious reasons — have trouble getting on public airlines in this day and age.

Just another boring religion story. And, yes, I could not help thinking about Indira Gandhi. We live in a complex and dangerous world and that raises all kinds of questions for which there are no easy answers.

Print Friendly

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://groups.yahoo.com/group/NonDualBibleVerses/ Eric Chaffee

    What? Nobody has ever heard of rubber daggers? Surely a symbol ought to have some flexibility !! The show must go on.

    If you gotta fly commercially, I bet you don’t assert your right to carry a blade. So get flexible. (But I bet all those Secret Service guys assigned to the Pope are carrying pistols, and they ain’t rubber.)


  • carl

    Answer No. 1: Religion news is too controversial.

    Funny, but I thought reporting on controversy was the essence of journalism. In any case, the statement is false on its face. The MSM loves to run with a very particular type of controversial religious story: “Why the Christian Faith is untrue.” Do you remember the big religion story from last March? Simcha Jacobovich and the Discovery channel put on a big production about the Talpiot Tomb. This story wasn’t controversial? A story declaring the Christian faith to be a lie from beginning to end wasn’t controversial? This excuse doesn’t even pass the ‘giggle’ test.

    Answer No. 2: Religion news is too boring.

    I wonder who is bored – the reader or the editor? The underlying assumption seems to be that religion is tangential to life. Or perhaps the governing assumption is that religion should be tangential to life, and covering those who disagree only gives them credibility they don’t deserve. That certainly seem to be direction traveled: “Make ‘em look bad, or don’t let them be seen.”


  • Dennis Colby

    Just curious, what made you think of Indira Gandhi?

  • http://properlyscared.wordpress.com properly scared (but southern!)

    Ho! Religion is only boring when doctrinal don’t’cha know, and supremely interesting when it is controversial enough to whack at for its “divisive” factor.

    Good post.

  • steve

    As I see it, this story raises two questions: (1) under what circumstances is it appropriate for our government to limit our religious freedom? and (2) under what circumstances is it appropriate for believers of any religion to compromise their basic beliefs to be included in an event by their government?

  • Greg

    Dennis I think tmat is refering to the fact that Indra Gandhi was assinated by her Sikh gaurds.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    What Greg said.

    Click the URL I provided for all the info that you need….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I just spiked a comment lashing out at Benedict XVI for allowing this travesty to happen.

    The evidence is that this policy came from the Secret Service. Has anyone seen any sign that the pope banned the Sikhs?

  • Karen Willcox


    If Sikhs fly, they put their kirpans (daggers) in their checked luggage.

    No, rubber won’t do.

    I see the point the Secret Service has, but have a hard time believing Sikh dignitaries would use their kirpans against their host.

  • Dennis Colby

    I see the point the Secret Service has, but have a hard time believing Sikh dignitaries would use their kirpans against their host.

    That’s why the Indira Gandhi reference confused me. She was shot to death, not stabbed with kirpans. She was also assassinated after ordering troops into the holiest site in the Sikh faith, a move that resulted in the slaugther of hundreds of innocent people by Indian troops. I think the pope can rest easy on that score.

  • Clare Krishan

    I’m no expert on Vatican “away-game” etiquette, but as a Catholic who reveres the Eucharist, I have misgivings when the Sihks wish to explain the use of the Kirpan thus

    Used to bless Sikh Holy Communion, called ‘parshaad’, at the end of religious functions.

    from “EXPLAINING WHAT THE KIRPAN IS TO A NON-SIKH” at http://www.oxfordsikhs.com/SikhAwareness/91.aspx

    The Pope is rightly worried when multi-faith events hosted by Catholics cede their transcendental meaning to other interpretations than the central truth – Christ present on the altar, that’s probably why as Cardinal he frowned on the grouo-hug-fest celebrated at Asissi.

    P.S. as a relatively “new” Eastern sect, established contemporaneously to the USA, amidst Mughal oppression of Hindus, I would characterize Sikhism as the Mormonism of Islam. They wear sacred garments, a pair of drawers called Kaccha beneath their traditional South Asian garb, and celebrate masonic-rite-like initiation ceremonies akin to “baptism,” compulsory for their adherents. Their sacred texts recognize verses of Sufi and Hindu mysticism, evoking the Zoroastrian precepts (holy fire, holy water) found in some forms of deistic gnosticism. Their Waheguru divine figure is analogous to the Roman planet/god Jupiter. By Jove all this newage stuff looks less like an affinity for “ancient” wisdom and more like modernity’s paleo-rebellion from Revealed Truth…

  • Dennis Colby

    P.S. as a relatively “new” Eastern sect,

    Sikhism predates both the United States and, indeed, the Protestant Reformation.

  • Philip Deslippe

    It would be hard for you to be more inaccurate. Most religion writers get sloppy when they describe Sikhism and tend to use grossly misleading terms to provide an “easy to understand equivalent.” Parshaad is not thought of as Communion by Sikhs; they don’t believe the body and blood of Guru Nanak is within the wheat, ghee and honey. It is ridiculous to compare the Amrit ceremony (“Baptism”) to something Masonic as the Sikhs in the Punjab would have had no awareness whatsoever of European secret societies or Western occultism. If you had any grasp of Indian religion you would know that the concepts of sacred fire and ritually cleansing water were a Hindu concept and would have been a part of common understanding in the time. (And Sikhs to do not evoke holy fire, it is commonly used in Sikh scripture as a counterpoint to Sikh belief. “Instead of mindlessly walking around a sacred fire or bathing in the Ganges, cleanse yourself in remembrance of your Creator…”) And WaheGuru is NOT a figure; it is the name for the formless and eternal Creator. Sikhism does not personify God nor worships its Gurus. To call it “New” Age is ridiculous; Guru Nanak was preaching before Columbus’ ships left Spain.

  • Philip Deslippe


    The Indira Ghandi link is misleading and certainly not “all the info you need,” as the context of her assassination is much more complex. I. Ghandi used Sikh separatists, especially Brindewale, to her own ends until they grew out of her control. When she launched Operation Blue Star in 1984 she knowingly sent the military into a holy site on a crowded festival day and the result was thousands, not hundreds, of deaths, including women and children. This was after years of harsh police and military presence in the area resulting in the beating and “disappearing” of thousands of Sikhs in the Punjab.

    It is absurd to think that devoid of any of that context, Sikh dignitaries would lunge to stab the Pope at an interfaith meeting.

    And the photo you posted by the entry is misleading. Kirpans are usually much shorter than the swords you have up, usually no more than a blade length of 3 to 4 inches. But hey, long, scary swords play it up better, right?

  • Singh


    You got it right on the spot! I can’t believe people like Clare want to write something abot a religion without even knowing the very basic ideas and terms!

    Back to the story, you can’t have interfaith dialogue without respecting other religions and their articles of faith! it’s absurd..

  • Clare Krishan

    Philip and Singh,

    the “holy communion” quote isn’t mine, its the Oxford Sihks, so don’t know why I’m at fault there.

    my sarcasm quotes around “new” were perhaps underhanded and not obvious to a new-worlder expecially if unlike me you’re a fan of the innovations of the Reformation and chose to skip the millenium that separates Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin from Christ and the Apostles who took the Divine liturgy in Syriac to the merchants of the Persian Gulf to establish the Malankara Rite Churches in India and the Nestorian Rite Churches in Bahrain at about the time the first images of Gautama Buddha appear in the historical record, 600 years before the Prophet PBUH penned his Magnus Opus and the Hindus distill their Pantheon from mythology imported from the Scythian Steppe and leave it to congeals over a millenia into the amorphous Greco-Vedic Wikepedia of ethics called the Upanishads a careful reader can study and become “learned” enough to be worthy of dialoging with folks like yourselves right?

    My comments may appear inhospitable even uncharitable to the unfortunate Sihks who missed a chance to chat with the Pope, but understand that the once-in-a-lifetime privilege to celebrate the Eucharist with our Holy Father has been denied millions of his co-religionists by the very same Secret Service, and not because we insist on carry weapons! We just insist on being so fruitful that there’s no place big enough for all of us to congregate and guarantee his safety (each parish got a small number of tickets, to get one you had to fill in an application form and wait to see if you’d be one of the lucky ones and pray your family isn’t so spiteful as to stop you going ‘cos they’re jealous they weren’t invited too)

    As a consolation, they’ve added a drive-by to the itinerary so those like me who live close by can drive the 2 hours to wait for the millisecond he might be in the camera viewfinders we’ll all be using to record the historic event (and involuntarilly reinforce all those mistake impressions non-Catholics have of us personality-cult Papists,,, )

    So please accept my regrets if my comments offended any Sikhs (or Mormons for that matter). The point, I obviously failed to make, is that the religious plurality common to the American and Indian continents roiled by rapid social upheaval, in the proverbial “melting pot” there will likely be a number of small, new sects that may feel “dissed” to not get to sit with the grown ups at the social functions. That’s life. What concerns me is if the party responsible, the Host of the event, leaves the journalists with the impression that they’re obliged to treat all religions equally. That, as an article of faith, is an untruth, so get over it!

    Rejoice and be glad that the Pope has time to study any of the details of the wild chaos of what chooses to call itself religion in the US (haven’t heard any press reports of Tom Cruise complaining about Scientology not receiving an invite, have you?). Then invite your local Bishop to a cup of chai and chat about your own local interfaith initiatives. Most parish priests aren’t that lucky to meet their Bishop one-on-one during their whole career, so count yourself one of the elect if he generously accepts your invitation.

    God Bless

  • Clare Krishan

    We’d likely could have avoided some of this discomfort if St. Mark’s flock, the Copts on that other great continent roiled and racked by chaos, Africa:


    hadn’t crossed paths with the Religion of Peace (TM) and forfeited their library at Alexandria. But gladly the Truth wasn’t lost to the sands of time, Eternal Wisdom is with us here waiting to be encountered… and embraced.

    Anything left to discuss?