Ch-ch-ch-changes (and that Polanski ghost)

GhostsNEWI’ve been out on the road for several days — my usual gig with the National College Media conference, among other things — and I let Nov. 1 sneak up on me.

We have some GetReligion business to discuss.

As you can see from the early posts, the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans decided that she needed to go back to her work as a pastor, plus freelance journalism, rather than attempting to continue her work as a pastor, plus freelance journalism and the constant barrage of emails and blogging-related chatter that comes with GetReligionista status. We wish her well and, most of all, I am glad that she has decided to do some more personal form of blogging on her own and here is that “Irreverent” link again. Bookmark it.

I hope that, every now and then, she still veers into GetReligion territory and then lets us know about it. We’ll point you that way when she does.

And Sarah “Yes, I’m his sister and what about it?” Pulliam Bailey is joining us as the Rev. EEE leaves. Sarah will emphasize news in the great mainline heartland, roughly Texas to the Canadian border. We have agreed that she will strive to avoid extended stays in evangelical Protestant territory that might conflict with her online news work at Christianity Today, which has a high profile in the blogging world already.

We will roll on with our work here, thankful as always that there are mainstream journalists who care about religion news who want to help us dish out praise, criticism and the occasional ghost alert.

This brings me to a very interesting — and highly critical letter — that I fielded the other day from a website written by a “Mourner of God” that strives to draw a bright line between discussions of religion and morality. Here’s the letter, which challenges the very concept behind this blog and the whole “ghost” image.

The letter was linked — sort of — to my recent post entitled “America, morality, Polanski, yada, yada.” Here’s the heart of the matter:

The metaphor of a religion ghost is only apt if the story would actually be illuminated by looking at it from a religious angle. For this to be the case, religion must be germane and relevant to what is being reported. When religion is not relevant, then forcing the religious angle does not only fail to illuminate, it actively distorts the story. It does violence to the portrayal of lives that are not importantly motivated by (traditional) religion.

The metaphor thus becomes a license to insert a particular partisan viewpoint into any and all stories. Nothing outside of a conservative-cum-religious orthodoxy should ever be allowed to stand alone, on its own terms. Every story must be referenced back and reinserted into the orthodoxy, even if it fails to be relevant to the particular people and events being reported on. That to me has no longer anything to do with journalistic honesty; it becomes a struggle for cultural hegemony, pure and simple.

In other words, I concerned about your religious ghost metaphor turning into a cynical weapon in the culture war. With a potential to darken and obscure, rather than illuminate.

Needless to say, I disagree, in part because there are plenty of stories out there in which a non-traditional or simply alternative approach to faith needed to be covered and was not. Since the day we opened the door, your GetReligionistas have argued that the religious left deserved much more coverage than it gets, which means there are liberal ghosts and conservative ghosts and pagan ghosts and whatever.

Most of all, there are factual ghosts. There are stories in which, if you do not consider the religion angle, you simply can’t grasp why certain stories are so powerful. It’s like Bill Moyers once told me: Some journalists are simply tone deaf to the power of religion in ordinary life.

Now, the Polanski post centered on a Los Angeles Times feature story that, in gripping style, tried to explore the “why” in the who, what, when, where, why and how of the testimony behind the controversy swirling around movie director Roman Polanski. Why are some people so driven to “scrub” away the horrible details in the testimony of young Samantha Gailey, while others have tried to stress those details in order to punish Polanski? What caused this moral and cultural divide? Why does it linger?

I argued that it is very hard, if not impossible, to address this conflict in the context of American culture — in terms of facts and statistics, in terms of why people do what they do — without some discussion or morality and faith. I also think it is hard to discuss the wider subject of conflicts between Hollywood and middle America without getting into religion.

You can agree with me or disagree with me, if you wish. However, I was not arguing that this story had to include a specific, narrow, doctrinal point of view. I was saying that there is a moral tension in the Polanski story and that it’s hard — in the American context — to explore the nature of that tension without some reference to religion. Are only evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, traditional Catholics, etc., upset about the case? I think not. Yet are people saying that Polanski is being “pursued,” in part, because Americans have moral hang-ups about his actions? Yes. What is the nature of those hang-ups? You decide.

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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.

  • Jerry

    I’m not writing about the Polanski situation here but the general question.

    Your point reminds me of one of my favorite Sufi (Nasruddin) stories:

    Nasruddin is asked to serve as judge to settle a dispute between two families. Upon hearing the first family’s claims and grievances, Nasruddin proclaims, “You’re right!” When the second family tells their version, Nasruddin again declares, “You’re right!” His wife, having overheard the exchange, whispers to him, “They can’t both be right.” Nasruddin replies, “You’re right!”

    I offered that because I see that both “Mourner of God” and your viewpoints are right.

    Since I believe there is a spiritual underpinning to everything, then every story would have, at its core, some intersection with spirituality if not religion. So, in that sense I agree with you.

    I agree with “Mourner of God” in that sometimes looking at a story from a religious angle can cause a problem if it’s not very carefully handled and relevant to the people who are part of the story.

  • tmatt


    I would always insist that there has to be a factual connection to the story, in this case the fact that the reporter is trying to deal with tensions between the camps — the pro-Polanski camp and those trying to bring him to judgment.

    Now, can secular morality lead one to oppose Polanski remaining free? OF COURSE. But in America, is that the most likely explanation, in view of the statistics? Are the tensions in America between Hollywood and, well, middle America rooted in a clash between liberal morals and secular moralism? Again, you call it.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I was trying, as I said, to make a general comment not one about this case. But, not being able to resist the curve ball right in the strike zone:

    But in America, is that the most likely explanation, in view of the statistics?

    I did not realize there were statistics about the Polanski case that shows secular people wanted him set free. I could not find such a poll on google.

    And, of course “liberal morals” as applied to this crime is as stereotypical a comment as I’d expect to see in the MSM. The best presentation I’ve seen so far about liberal morality is from a NY Times article summarizes how liberals and conservatives view morality:

    people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

    Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals.

  • Jerry

    One more point – I ran across this web site where you can take morals tests I was surprised to find that on some topics I’m way to the right of even conservatives while on others I’m typically liberal.

  • Lymis

    Isn’t there a distinction that needs to be carefully made? I know I am essentially restating the ideas above, but I think there is a big difference between a situation when an essential religious component of a story is edited out, glossed over, or misstated, and the other situation where religion or morality informs people’s opinions of it.

    Discussing who owns the church building when a congregation shifts allegiance as though it were purely a real estate transaction, or trying to discuss conflicts in Gaza or Northern Ireland without including religion would be an example of the first.

    But I’ve seen a lot of articles here where the ghost isn’t so much that there is a religious component to the story as that there is a religious reaction in the reader. The recent thread reporting on polyamory was a good example of that.

    I think it is important to make the distinction between stories that get religion wrong and stories that aren’t the ones we wish had been written. No reason not to discuss both, but they really are different situations, and they often seem to be handled the same way here.

    With regards the Polanski story specifically, both situations apply depending on how the journalist handles the report. I think your analysis is valid, and important, but it only counts as the first kind of ghost when the reporter starts into digging into why people think like they do and leaves religion out. The “liberal morality” and “conservative morality” idea is so strewn with ghosts that it deserves a huge analysis.

    One the other hand, if it is essentially a report on the facts of the case (including the facts surrounding Polanski skipping the country and this huge time-delay regarding the legal resolution of the case), it is often the other kind, the “why isn’t anyone writing this other article” kind of ghost.

    If a journalist writes an article about a new super-telescope, they have no obligation to include a nod to believers of Creationism simply because there are people who believe in it. On the other hand, if the journalist tries to make some sloppy claim that the new equipment “disproves outdated religious myths” or such, then they’ve opened that door and need to handle it responsibly.

  • Dave

    I’m in general agreement with Lymis and measured agreement with Mourner of God. “Religious ghosts” is a valid concern but the GetReligionistas run away with that particular ball far too often.

    Are only evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, traditional Catholics, etc., upset about the [Polanski] case? I think not.

    Doonesbury has weighed in on it. I think not, too.

  • tmatt


    Oh, you’re right. Liberal entertainers with a strong moral sense is a massive unexplored demographic. I’ll mention that to the Pew Forum folks for their next poll on social and political issues.

  • Dave


    I’m thinking more of population shifts to the advantage of the South and the Big Square States at the expense of both coasts.

    Ever since I found out that the population percentage of 14- to 24-year-old males is a better predictor of crime than any changes in policing or sentencing, I’ve been focued on demographics.

  • Dave


    I thought your comment was anent a different thread, hence my seemingly irrelevant reply.

    Snark invites misinterpretation. ;-)