Deborah Howell: She got religion

RNSpageoneThe tributes to the late Deborah Howell continue, while I keep working on a Scripps Howard News Service column for this coming weekend focusing on her contributions — often behind the scenes — to religion-news coverage in mainstream newsrooms.

As the Divine Mrs. MZ mentioned in her post, Howell was best known as a protector and supporter of the work of Religion News Service. But, quite frankly, she pushed and shoved on behalf of serious religion coverage everywhere that she went and, through her many personal connections in other newsrooms, in other zip codes as well.

Consider this warm and candid piece of a reflection by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post:

I met Deborah in 2005 when she came to the Post, and she was a total ball of energy. Tiny and super-fit (keep in mind she was in her 60s), she made clear to the religion staff immediately that she would be watching us and our religion coverage, which she — before so, so many others — had recognized as an essential journalism beat. …

So I admit sometimes I felt she stalked my email in-box. But in truth she was the best advocate as well for us religion reporters. She used her weight and her space in the paper to talk about the Post‘s decision to eliminate one-third of its religion-writing staff a few years ago. … She made sure everyone knew that religion news, and the religion angle of news in general — especially political and foreign affairs news — was ridiculous to ignore or cover superficially.

As you would expect, Religion News Service is also posting commentary about her work, including this post from Kevin Eckstrom, the current editor at the only mainstream wire service that covers religion.

There’s a cartoon hanging in our office kitchen that depicts the late great Deborah Howell, affectionately known as RNS’ Godmother, hovering above the Capitol in angelic splendor as her alter ego, pitchfork in hand, unleashes a spree of vulgarities that would make a sailor blush. Deborah embraced her bifurcated image — Mother Mary Deborah on the one hand, the Dragon Lady on the other — and so did we.

For those curious about her own intellectual and spiritual journey, he adds:

She wasn’t a particularly religious person, although she was a person of faith. Preachers might have blushed to have heard her talk, and she would have been the first to have admitted — even reveled in — her shortcomings. …

Deborah was convinced that a democracy couldn’t function without a free, independent and vibrant press. She also understood that you cannot understand America without understanding religion, and she spent the final months of her life fighting to find a way for religion journalism to thrive in the 21st century. Editors come and go, but there will never be another Deborah Howell.

Deborah was received into the Episcopal Church in the middle of her life, and given her fondness for words, I suspect she’d appreciate and recognize the poetry of the burial rite in the Book of Common Prayer. I suspect she’d also see herself, especially, in the following lines: “Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Deborah. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

Now, please stop and think for a second before you click “comment” to start making glowing or snarky remarks about how many journalists are Episcopalians — a subject I have addressed myself, to tell you the truth.

This weblog has long stressed that all kinds of people do great work on the religion-news beat. I have known atheists or agnostics who did fine, accurate work covering the beliefs or doubts of others and I have known fervent believers who could not, to be blunt, report or write their way out of a paper bag (to twist an old expression from the South). And, besides, on a typical Sunday morning the pews of the Anglican Communion contain — if you look at the world map — thousands of liberal and progressive Christians and millions of traditional or even evangelical Christians.

It would be just as wrong to take pot shots at a mainstream, liberal Episcopalian who covers religion as it would be to fire at conservative Episcopalians who do the same job, because there are some of them in newsrooms, as well. Journalism is journalism and all kinds of people do serious, informed, accurate work on this beat. So focus your comments on journalism, please.

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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.

  • Carl Vehse

    Perhaps the best person to describe Deborah Howell’s religious beliefs (e.g., whether she got religion) is… Deborah Howell, which she did in a series of “Interviews with Deborah Howell”, recorded by Donita Moorhus in 1993-4 for The Washington Press Club Foundation, as part of its oral history project, Women in Journalism.

    The entire six-part series is very informative about the character and personal motivations of Deborah Howell, at least in 1994. Her religious views were expressed particularly in the February 15, 1993, session (pp. 8-10); April 22, 1993, session (pp. 31-33, describing her adulterous affair with Nicolas Coleman, whom she eventually married after a no-fault divorce law was finally passed so that Coleman could divorce his current wife); August 10, 1993 session (p. 45); and January 11, 1994, session (pp. 68-70, discussing Howell’s views on news coverage on religious issues).

    Howell’s discussions are too long to post here, but there are three excerpts that provide a good summary of Howell’s religious views:

    From her February 15, 1993, session:

    Howell: It was just when I got older that I understood what the [Baptist] preacher was saying, and I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like revivals.

    So I went to church for about a year and never went to church after that again. Both my husbands were fallen-away Catholics, and I probably have gone to the Catholic Church more than I’ve gone to any other church in my adult life, especially with my first husband [Nicholas Coleman] and his family. Though I consider myself an extremely spiritual person and religious, even, I draw a line between organized religion and my inner beliefs.

    Moorhus: Between churchgoing and being religious.

    Howell: Yes. I’m a religious person who doesn’t go to church. My husband [C. Peter Magrath] and I talk about joining a church, but we’ve never quite done it.

    From the April 22, 1993, session:

    “I wasn’t then, and am not now, particularly a church-goer, but I began to look at my work in a much more spiritual manner, much more compassion about the community and caring about the community, that kind of spirituality. ‘What can this newspaper do to make this community a better place to live in? Let’s put this paper on the side of what’s right.’ That kind of thing.”

    And from her January 11, 1994, session:

    Moorhus: What do you see as the issues in religion to be covered?

    Howell: We really cover religion, ethics, and morality. So it’s a much broader beat. It’s “what’s good, what’s right, what’s wrong” as well as the value system of this country, the value system of the world, which in—most values are based on religious belief or on value systems that are highly influenced by religious belief. I’m fascinated by that.

  • Jerry

    I wonder how her views changed, if they did, in the years after the interview Carl excerpted here.

  • tmatt

    JERRY and CARL:

    There is no question that her views changed — to the left or the right, I do not know — the longer she worked with people who did this work on the religion beat. Several of her friends noted that she was a person who had to become comfortable learning while in the public eye.

    I know that liberals harshly criticized her for her WPost work. I know that conservatives sometimes criticized her views on religion news, too.

    At the same time, I know people on the left and right who WORKED with her and who loved and appreciated her and her support for them as a mentor and friend.

    I think we are done, talking about the theology and beliefs issue.

    The quote from Kevin at RNS speaks for itself.

    Back to journalism.

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    I can’t pinpoint exactly when Deborah started attending an Episcopal Church, but I can tell you that when Episcopal Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was my “date” to the White House Correspondents Dinner several years back, she and Deborah sat next to each other and had a warm and extended conversation. If I recall correctly, it may have been Bishop Dixon who confirmed Deborah, but I can’t say for sure.

    At any rate, she was a regular worshipper at an Episcopal church in NW DC — we had extended talks about that — and I got the sense that she had finally found a home. To answer your question about whether her beliefs evolved after the early 1990s interviews quoted here, I’d say absolutely.