NY Times discovers power of prayer

Duerer PrayerHold on to your hats, folks. We’re in for a wild ride. Or, rather, we’re continuing the wild ride of Gov. Sarah Palin media coverage. And Palin’s religious views are dominating the stories for the weekend. Let’s begin by looking at the New York Times piece on Palin’s religious views.

The story isn’t horrible, but it is hilarious. I don’t know if that’s because the reporters are trying to make the article seem more interesting than it is or if the reporters are completely clueless about how a ton of Christians view and talk about their faith. Either way, the story sort of breathlessly explains that Palin believes in the power of prayer and seeks to understand God’s will for her life. I know! Be afraid! It also uses scare quotes rather selectively, which made me giggle throughout the piece. The headline? “In Palin’s Life and Politics, Goal to Follow God’s Will.” You don’t say!

Before we analyze it, let’s take a trip back to 2005, when Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, sent a memo to all staff (PDF) that included some mention of the importance of religion coverage:

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation . . .

I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

The whole memo is interesting, including a portion on how to place religious views in context (hint: extremist should not mean, “views we disagree with.”). So let’s look, three years down the road, at how reporters Kirk Johnson and Kim Severson treated Palin’s views. They begin with an anecdote. Palin emailed her former pastor Paul Riley shortly after taking office, asking for Biblical examples of great leaders. Riley wrote back about Queen Esther. Here’s the nut graph:

Interviews with the two pastors she has been most closely associated with here in her hometown — she now attends the Wasilla Bible Church, though she keeps in touch with Mr. Riley and recently spoke at an event at his former church — and with friends and acquaintances who have worshipped with her point to a firm conclusion: her foundation and source of guidance is the Bible, and with it has come a conviction to be God’s servant.

I read this as a very straightforward introduction of Palin and her very popular brand of Christianity to New York Times readers, so I’m not as mortified by the story as some people are. However, the fact that the Times would consider this newsworthy is cringe-inducing. Apparently in the three years that have passed since Keller’s memo, the non-religion beat reporters have apparently failed to incorporate religion into news stories.

There’s a mention that the churches Gov. Palin has attended all believe in a “literal” translation of the Bible. One of the readers who sent this story in noted that the media always make a big deal out of people who take the Bible literally more than people who don’t. It does seem that, per Keller’s memo, one view is considered “extreme” by the media and another “moderate.” There is lots and lots of discussion about the importance of prayer in Gov. Palin’s life. Take this:

She also told the group that her eldest child, Track, would soon be deployed by the Army to Iraq, and that they should pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that’s what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.”

Gov Palin 2006 OfficialThere’s something very interesting about this paragraph. If you are a secularist, I think you read this and say, “Oh no, the theocracy is surely at hand.” And if you are an evangelical or Pentecostal Christian you say, “I, too, pray that God’s will be done in earthly affairs.” This article serves the purpose of freaking out secularists about Palin’s religious views while not fazing evangelicals at all. In that regard, I think it completely failed to explain Palin’s views in the context of mainstream (as opposed to mainline) Protestantism. It also didn’t really explain how a quote such as the one above has very little to do with personal views about the war. Think of it this way, while there are certainly many Christians who think war is always wrong, other Christians view war as an evil, but a sometimes necessary one. The Lord’s Prayer asks that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There are Christians who would personalize that request to everything from personal conflict to global conflict. This is certainly not anything close to how I talk about God’s will or how we pray about war in my Lutheran church, but I do recognize this as within a normal range of American religious behavior.

The reporters also talk to Palin’s current pastor Larry Kroon:

Mr. Kroon (pronounced krone), a soft-spoken, bearded Alaska native, said he was convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning — including scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.

Of all the things to include in a story, this, again, is considered newsworthy? Why not describe the role of a pastor? Or what a beard is? This is such boring information. Again, I don’t think it’s the worst article I’ve read, but it is somewhat funny. I’m sure that the mainstream media will be scouring every sermon, guest pastor and bulletin item in the days to come. And maybe there’s much more to come here that will prove to be a Jeremiah Wright-ish moment for Palin. But whether that happens or not, it would be nice to have a bit more confidence in the media portrayal of Palin’s church.

That a Christian believes that God has a role to play in her life, in the efficacy of prayer, that the Bible is the word of God isn’t noteworthy, per se. By making it seem so, it says more about the New York Times than it does about Palin.

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  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    “Of all the things to include in a story, this, again, is considered newsworthy?”
    Yes, because they really don’t know. It is not just that these “reporters are completely clueless about how a ton of Christians view and talk about their faith.”
    Many readers of the New York Times “are completely clueless about how a ton of Christians view and talk about their faith.”
    The next two months is going to be an educational experience for a lot of secular progressives (and progressives from Mainline churches as well).
    Let’s encourage them all to keep up the hard work of learning this new material.

  • Jerry

    If you are a secularist, I think you read this and say, “Oh no, the theocracy is surely at hand.” And if you are an evangelical or Pentecostal Christian you say, “I, too, pray that God’s will be done in earthly affairs.”

    Other Christians and even non-Christians pray that God’s will is done in earthy affairs. In fact I think your use of secularist is a mistake based on the definition of secularism. What I think you mean is atheist and agnostic. A secularist can think it’s perfectly appropriate for someone to privately pray for for God’s will to be manifest in Earthly affairs as long as that does not intrude into government.

    including scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.

    Of all the things to include in a story, this, again, is considered newsworthy?

    Yes. That is a significant theological point and it was important to include it in the story given the theological difference between those who take the (King James or another version) Bible literally, those that consider that version inerrant and those that consider it to be possibly resulting in part from a flawed translation.

    I want to know more about that point including how he decides what passages have a translation issue and what does not and whether or not he considers it possible to fix the errors and return to the original intent.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    “There’s a mention that the churches Gov. Palin has attended all believe in a “literal” translation of the Bible. One of the readers who sent this story in noted that the media always make a big deal out of people who take the Bible literally more than people who don’t.”

    Am I the only one who thinks the NYTimes piece, or its source, meant to say “‘literal’ interpretation” rather than “‘literal’ translation”?

    Did the reporter copy down a misspoken phrase without knowing enough of the religious lingo to clarify the source’s comments?

    The relevance of “literal translation” to church practice is beyond me. Do the church members spend lots of time learning Biblical languages and disputing over iotas and aorist participles?

  • Jerry

    A small follow-up. I should have read the wikipedia entry on inerrancy before my last post. If I could go back and edit my prior post, I would ask what he believes compared to various forms of inerrancy and infallibility that various Christian groups hold. That’s a more precise statement of what I’d like to have answered.

  • Chris Bolinger

    In response to Terry’s post a week or two ago on what the MSM can do to stem the tide of lost readers and red ink, let’s take a closer look at the NY Times memo:

    Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation…I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

    This approach is misguided and incomplete. Let’s take it point by point:

    * “hiring a more diverse work force”: Diversity apparently doesn’t include believers and conservatives, because he refers to them in “us vs. them” terms later. Even if he were to hire believers and conservatives, they would work in an urban, liberal, secular newsroom that is isolated from what we folks in Flyover Country like to refer to as the real world.

    * being tuned in to religion: Um, how exactly are you going to get urban, liberal, secular reporters tuned in to the role and influence of religion on people who are not urban and liberal? Sensitivity training?

    * national and local: I love the arrogance of the NY Times and other MSM outlets with respect to covering events outside major cities on the coasts. Parachute someone in, have him or her interview a few folks, and then generalize and draw conclusions based on your preconceived notions.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for the MSM to understand Palin, the role of faith in her life, and why so many people in Flyover Country not only like her but identify with her.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    I read the article and it seemed unexceptional, even bland. The article is aimed at an audience that doesn’t share Governor Palin’s evangelical faith. I don’t see the problems Mollie sees with it. The one mistake I saw was literal was used when inerrant was meant, though this came in a direct quote. Certainly it could have been better, but I’ve seen worse.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Mollie- it is not just evangelicals and Pentecostals pray that God’s will be done in earthly affairs–Catholics do also. BUT I agree the wording could set off some secularists or atheists who scream: “THEOCRACY” every time any Christians (except impeccably liberal ones) try to exercise their God-given rights as Americans.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    The funny thing is that since I wrote this piece, I have received this article both from one of my friends on the left who was horrified and one of my Pentecostal friends who loved it.

    Jinzang — I didn’t think the article was horrible either. I just thought it was funny. I know that many folks around the interwebs thought it condescending and horrible. I didn’t. I just thought that the information it shared should not really have been newsworthy.

    And I agree — it certainly could have been worse.

  • FW Ken

    In the New York Times, it certainly could have been much worse. Granted that for the Times, I set a very low bar, still, I thought it was decent. Shallow and obvious, but decent. There was the obligatory dismay from a Jewish group and a gay advocacy group, but the theological points were not dissected and rebutted by unsympathetic “experts” at every turn, and the Wasilla folk got the last word.

    Ms. Morgan, who probably should have imitated the pastoral reticence of her parish leadership, tells us that Gov. Palin moved to Wasilla Bible Church for political reasons, and I would have liked some confirmation or rebuttal on that potentially significant factor. But, of course, since the governor attends an Assembly of God in Juneau, and goes back to her old AG church to speak, the ecclesial dissonance, however, interesting, may simply be irrelevant and none of our business.

  • Julia

    I’ve read elsewhere that Ms Palin no longer considers herself an Assembly of God adherent. The church she now attends is one of those post-denominational megachurches.

    The writer could have said that Ms Palin was noting that we always want to live according to God’s will and that whatever happens with Track in Iraq must be part of God’s plan for Track, too. I’ve read articles already that say she’s was saying God wants the war in Iraq. The article could lend itself to that interpretation.

    These stories in the NYT might also be useful for their many Jewish readers. Not long ago I read in a Catholic magazine that a Catholic priest, newly transferred to Jerusalem, had been surprised at how little Jews understand about Christianity. It’s just little bits and pieces here and there, watching pilgrims, and sometimes baffling artwork. Not even an stripped-down understanding of basics.

    Even here in the US, there’s no reason for a Jew to know much about Christianity unless he or she seeks it out. There are reports now that some Jews who had been for or leaning towards McCain, immediately changed their minds when he named Sarah Palin because there were some erroneous quickie stories that said she was a supporter of Pat Buchanan who they consider anti-Semitic. That year she had actually been a support of Steve Forbes. I’m guessing reporters must be interpreting news photos they find on-line without checking what’s really going on in the photo.

    Back issues of the Anchorage Daily News are very informative.

  • Julia

    CNN a few minutes ago had a report from a Jessica _____. She had travelled to Alaska to check out Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal faith.

    First she visited the church Ms Palin no longer attends – the Wasilla Assembly of God. In June, as governor, Sarah spoke to the graduates of their young ministers program. Part of her talk asked for prayers for the big pipeline project she was working on because she sees it as part of God’s plan for Alaska.

    The folks in that church speak in tongues but the reporter didn’t find out if Sarah had spoken in tongues herself.

    In conjunction with this graduation, the pastor showed a film which included statements that God had a plan for Alaska – at the end of the world it would provide shelter for many people who would be moving there.

    Then they visited Sarah’s current, non-denominational church. The reporters were invited to attend Sunday services but were asked to not take pictures. They observed dancing, singing and spontaneous prayers from the congretation members. The reporter noted that the pastor prayed for all the candidates.

    Considering the time available, it was not bad and probably answered some basic questions people had. I’m guessing that A of G church was heavy on the “Left Behind” scenario.

  • FW Ken

    They observed dancing, singing and spontaneous prayers from the congretation members.

    That is wildly different from “Bible Church” services in Texas. At least the ones I’m aware of. They tend to be heavy on expository preaching and a calvinist sobriety consistent with their calvinist theology.

  • Dave

    I agree with Jinzang and would go a step further: This is not a failure to get religion. It’s reporting a religious story in a stolid way that some religious people find amusing. Not the same thing.

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    Re: the pastor’s beard – I think it could be that the Times (or maybe the slightly balding Kirk Johnson or Kim Severson, with her close cropped locks) is just trying to keep up with the Boston Herald.

    ;-P

    (p.s. – go Raiders!)