5Q+1: It’s pronounced “Dow-thut”

douthat2One of the advantages of living and working on Capitol Hill is that there are all kinds of interesting people who live in your neighborhood. I mean, there is this house a block or so away from my computer keyboard that, these days, has all kinds of people in black suits in black cars around it these days. I think it has something to do with it being the home of the junior senator from Illinois.

But I digress. Another very interesting thinker, when it comes to religion and public life, also lives in this neighborhood. His name is Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and he is someone who shows up in all kinds of interesting places around this very small town talking about all kinds of interesting things. Check out this interesting Pew Forum session on God and the Democratic Party, with the omnipresent Amy Sullivan and E.J. Dionne.

If you want to know more about Douthat, here is what they say about him at his day job:

Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and Grand New Party, with Reihan Salam, which is forthcoming in 2008 from Doubleday. He is the film critic for National Review, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, GQ, Slate and other publications. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he now lives in Washington. …

Of course, these days, you also need to know that he is the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of the new and much-discussed book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

You also need to read this man’s weblog over at The Atlantic, where there is currently a very lively discussion on this provocative question: Why are modern Evangelical Protestants more pro-life than modern Catholics? Yikes.

And, of course, the name is pronounced “Dow-thut.”

So here we go, with the standard 5Q+1 questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get my news primarily from a combination of the big newspapers that I read every day — the New York Times and Washington Post chief among them, with the Wall Street Journal close behind — and a slew of bloggers who are either interested in religion or writing about it full time, ranging from the crew at GetReligion and Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog to the First Things blog, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, and my colleague Andrew Sullivan. (I consider myself vastly more underinformed than I was in the days when Amy Welborn used her blog as a Catholic-inflected clearinghouse for religion news of all kinds; I don’t blame her for giving that up, but I miss it.)

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It isn’t the sort of story that makes for newspaper headlines, so it’s no surprise they don’t get it, but I think the media’s focus on the culture wars — whether between secularists and believers, or the religious right and the religious left — has led them to underplay the larger theological context in which its occurring: Namely, the collapse of orthodox Christian belief in the United States, and its replacement by a cluster of competing religious narratives that tend to offer variants — some socially-liberal, some socially-conservative — on what Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism.” I think there’s still a core of orthodox Christian belief (broadly defined to include Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed traditions), but there isn’t enough coverage of the extent to which the “conservative evangelical” who gets her religious teaching from Joel Osteen the Prayer of Jabez and the liberal Protestant who cheers for the consecration of V. Gene Robinson actually share a lot of theological premises, most of which are functionally post-Christian.

douthat(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Since this is an election year, Barack Obama’s attempt to broaden the Democratic Party’s support among religious voters, both Catholic and evangelical, strikes me as the biggest national religion story of the next six months. The second-biggest is the cracking-up of the Anglican Communion — the media tends to overhype it, but it’s implications for the future of Christianity, in America and abroad, are large enough deserves at least some of the hype.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I can think of a hundred reasons, but here’s one big one: Because religious belief and practice relate not only to our timebound lives but to eternity — which means that the stakes in religious controversies tend to be higher than in any other aspect of human affairs — which means in turn that the capacity for dramatic, world-changing actions (for good or for ill) is higher in the religious sphere than anywhere else. And if you’re a journalist looking for the story of a lifetime — well, anyone can cover Presidential politics; it’s the writer who discovers the next Mother Teresa, or Osama bin Laden, who’s really going to make a name for himself.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

This was well-covered, especially in the liberal press, but when Larry Craig and David Vitter showed up as two of the 10 co-sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendment was reintroduced in the Senate last month, I don’t care where you stand on the amendment, or on the attention we should pay to hypocrisy … You HAD to chuckle, at the very least.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

This relates more to my own sphere of opinion journalism than to newspaper and magazine reporting, but I would love to live in a world where the media provided more space for arguing about the actual truth claims of religion — where op-ed columnists and bloggers and essayists spent less time on meta debates about the politics and sociology of religion, and more time arguing about whether Christianity or Islam or Judaism is true. These kind of arguments still take place, obviously, but they take place in books rather than in the popular press — and I’d like to live in a world in which the pope’s book about Jesus of Nazareth sparked a lively intellectual debate about Christianity’s truth claims in, say, the Times Book Review and the Post op-ed page, instead of being largely ignored.

But I’m as guilty as everyone else in this regard … In a short-form medium like journalism, it’s easier to write around the central questions raised by religion than to attack them directly.

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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.

  • Anne Sclater

    where op-ed columnists and bloggers and essayists spent less time on meta debates about the politics and sociology of religion, and more time arguing about whether Christianity or Islam or Judaism is true.

    Really?! Not to be contrarian, but that’s the last thing I want from anyone except my minister. No reporter/opiner/blogger will ever know whether Judaism or Christianity or Islam is “true”. I want them to use their smarts and background knowledge to give me some big-picture context.

  • Jerry

    If there was ever a good example of why your 5Q+1 questions were a good idea, it’s this interview. I’m going to be paying more attention to Ross Douthat in the future based on his answers to these questions.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I love Douthat’s blog and the Atlantic site in general. So glad he took the “no comments” plunge.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    I agree with Mollie and Jerry. Douthat has been a writer worth tracking for quite sometime now.

  • GhaleonQ

    I love how neatly packaged his ideas tend to be while still drawing on large pools of information. In #2, for instance, he takes 1 paragraph to accurately portray the divide between denominations based on fundamentally conservative reforms (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed), fundamentally liberal ones, and post-denominational ones. Not many can distill things so well.

  • hoosier

    I have to agree with Anne Sclater, the last thing the media needs to do is wade into whether islam or christianity or any other religion is ‘true.’ Most of the truth claims are completely unfalsifiable. No one is ever going to ‘prove’ that Jesus rose from the dead or that god spoke to Muhammad. Newspaper coverage of these issues would devolve into shouting matches of ‘yes he did’ ‘no he didn’t,’ lots of heat but precious little light.

    Actually, come to think of it, maybe if people were asked to think about, for instance, biblical miracles as natural phenomena, maybe, just maybe, the utter absurdity of those stories as presentations of actual events would sink in. But probably not. That’s why they call it faith, right.

  • Dave2

    Anne Sclater, hoosier:

    As someone who sympathizes with Douthat’s call for an honest engagement with the claims of the great religions, I must ask: why use scare quotes around the term ‘true’? Take the theophany at Mt. Sinai, the resurrection of Jesus, or the authorship of the Qur’an. Surely there are real facts of the matter with those pieces of religious doctrine, facts that either confirm or contradict the doctrine. Of course, it might be very difficult for us to recover the facts. But it by no means follows that there are no facts or that the notion of truth has gone on holiday.

    And hoosier, there are scores of Christian apologists who think that the resurrection of Jesus can be shown with strong historical evidence. And there are scores of Islamic apologists who think that the divine authorship of the Qur’an can be shown with strong historical and scientific evidence. Maybe you think their efforts are misguided, but you cannot dismiss them simply by pretending they don’t exist.


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