Every reader of GetReligion should hurry over to the Columbia Journalism Review and read Tim Townsend’s comprehensive essay about the religion beat titled “Love Thy Neighbor.” I can think of no better window into the world of journalism in general and religion reporting in particular than this article.
Townsend is one of those religion reporters we write about frequently here. He covers big issues using local hooks and adds tremendous value to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For instance, he has covered (and covered well) the issue of scandal during most of his tenure at the Post-Dispatch because Archbishop Raymond Burke is deeply concerned about the matter.
The piece for CJR is very smart and incredibly well-written. Here is how Townsend begins:
In the Gospel of Matthew, it doesn’t take long for the author to show his readers two different sides of Jesus Christ. One minute Jesus is sitting on a mountain, delivering a powerful sermon to a presumably rapt audience: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But just five chapters later, Jesus, again preaching to his apostles, changes his tune. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he says. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” That’s quite a change from the sandal-wearing, peace-loving hippie we’ve come to expect.
If even Jesus could be divisive, what can be expected of the sinners who call themselves his followers?
Just a great beginning. The piece looks at two founding visions for the United States: Puritan intolerance of heresy versus the religious tolerance enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Townsend argues that the first stream of thought has surprising staying power and that it makes for some tense times on the religion beat. To make the point, he gives several examples including Lauri Lebo’s book The Devil in Dover, which Townsend describes as “an unapologetic indictment of intelligent design, fundamentalist Christianity, and American journalism’s insistence on objectivity in the face of clear untruths.”
Much of Townsend’s piece reviews the book, written by the education reporter for the York Daily Record. Townsend says that the things you hear on the religion beat would make a veteran political reporter blush. I agree. But education reporting is probably the most vicious of all the beats. Townsend praises Lebo’s reporting in the book but says her subplots, such as her relationship with her evangelical father and her acquisition of a tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to symbolize her newfound stand against organized religion, are unnecessary:
Worse, they distract from Lebo’s more important story about the ugly rift that religion has created in America, and the responsibility of journalists covering that rift to write truthfully rather than just provide equal time to both sides (as if there are only two) in a misguided quest for objectivity.
Lebo’s point is one that newsrooms across the country struggle with when it comes to the religion beat. It’s impossible to say that one faith is right and that another–or no faith at all–is wrong. But it is possible, in the case of intelligent design, to decide between the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence in favor of evolution and a particular brand of Christianity whose fundamental belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is threatened by Darwin’s findings. For journalists covering this story, there are no sides to balance, writes Lebo. Like gravity, lightning, or tomato soup, evolution just is.
To give equal time to the creationist agenda, which challenges the foundation of all biological science, is to betray the journalist’s pledge to bring readers truth, however imperfect that truth may sometimes be.
So much here to chew on. Is it religion that has created an ugly rift in America? Is the quest for objectivity misguided? Particularly more than somehow ascertaining from the journalistic perch on high what is true and what is not? And what broad brush are we using to say that creationism equals Intelligent Design? That’s certainly what ID’s most ardent opponents say, but I don’t like my reporters to shill for anything. Someone who thinks that evolution is equivalent to tomato soup is probably not the right reporter to write about challenges to evolutionary theory. More than anything, though, this idea that journalists must not tolerate the heresy of Intelligent Design is straight out of the Puritan playbook, no?
Townsend notes that people who opposed the Dover decision had sent nasty emails or otherwise threatened the judge. Later in the piece he recounts how he himself has been threatened by people who didn’t appreciate what he’d written. it is true that writing about religion seems to anger people. That is why I’m so impressed by the wonderful community we have here at GetReligion. We may not agree on everything but we treat each other well.
Anyway, Townsend says that the religious battlegrounds are heating up, citing divisions in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches. And then there are the culture wars. He gets quotes from Cathleen Falsani, a religion columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the beat as a reporter for several years; Neela Banerjee, who covers religion for The New York Times; and Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom. Townsend also goes into great detail about an incident of his own with displeased readers.
Here’s how the piece ends:
Many of us like to think that the principles embraced by James Madison and the rest of the founders are the bedrock upon which succeeding generations of Americans have built this nation. The fact remains that a large percentage of our countrymen prefer the message that Winthrop delivered to the passengers of the Arbella. At the conclusion of his sermon, Winthrop warned that if the Puritans failed to found New Jerusalem in the New World–if they didn’t remain true to their covenant–God would reject them in turn. “If our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them,” Winthrop said, “it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it; therefore let us choose life, that we, and our seed, may live by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life, and our prosperity.”
Reporters who cover the fractured, volatile, weighty world of religion have a responsibility to be equally respectful of all beliefs. Whether someone is a Roman Catholic, a Jew, or a Raelian, we are privileged to ask such people personal questions about their most profound thoughts and hopes. “As corny as this sounds,” says the Times’s Neela Banerjee, “I think I grow by talking to folks whose worldviews are deeply different from mine. My job is not to grab the quote that makes them sound silly, but the one that sheds light, perhaps new light, on what they believe.”
But again, journalists who cover religion also need to weigh that broad respect for belief against a larger truth. If a particular tenet of a particular faith has the potential to influence the public discourse outside the walls of the church, synagogue, or mosque, reporters are responsible for holding it up to the same scrutiny as any other idea tossed into the public square for debate. Which brings us back to The Devil in Dover. Toward the end of the book, Lebo sits down with Judge Jones and expresses her anxieties about the next round of “attacks on this country’s civil liberties.” Jones smiles reassuringly at the author and affirms his faith in the great American experiment. “Democracy is messy,” he tells her. “It’s supposed to be that way.”
It’s not just democracy that’s messy, so is journalism. Townsend’s piece reflects that with much insight and an embrace of the contradictions inherent to the trade.
And remember that not everything about religion and newspapers is hostile. Check out my new favorite site Praying for Papers.