Should old Godbeat acquaintance be forgot…

Peter_SteinfelsI suppose all good things must come to an end eventually but, after 20 years, the final New York Times‘ Beliefs column was printed on New Year’s Day. Terry, as usual, had some vital things to say about this development on the Godbeat — so go read his post below already if you haven’t done so now. Still, a major development has room for more than one us here at GR to comment on, even if Tmatt is a tough act to follow.

With the demise of Beliefs, it’s my hope that the Times comes up with something similar to fill the void in their religious coverage going forward. However, given the direction that the my industry is headed, I’m not terribly optimistic.

Beliefs columnist Peter Steinfels did take the occasion of his final column to discuss some of the challenges of writing about religion for a newspaper, and Terry touched on that. However, I also wanted to note that Steinfels’ farewell was actually a two-parter starting with his column on December 18, where he outlined “six convictions” that guided his philosophical approach, e.g.:

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.

Suffice to say, each one of Steinfels’ convictions makes a heck of a conversation starter and could probably merit its own GetReligion post. Steinfels has some considerable wisdom to impart here and it’s obviously born of experience. Both columns are well worth reading.

However, there was one aspect of Steinfels’ final column that I found curious:

During the last two decades, attitudes toward religion have become increasingly contentious and polarized. Not only abortion and older questions of public morality and church-state relations, recently heightened by the political mobilization of conservative believers, but also newer issues like embryonic stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage, have pitted significant elements of traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths against leading voices of political and cultural liberalism.

Those voices, it is no secret, included the editorial columns of this paper and were heard on some of its other pages as well. Beliefs, frankly, was caught in the middle. The column’s treatment of traditional religious perspectives and developments was welcomed by many readers who evidently felt that, in the fever of the culture wars and political polemics, those traditions were being given short shrift.

I find it really interesting that Steinfels takes it as a given that the culture war somehow ramped up over the course of his column. I don’t know if I necessarily disagree with Steinfels’ impression of the last 20 years, but whenever read some variation of “it was so much better/easier/less controversial way back when.” This is doubly true when addressing topics such as religion, which are perennially controversial. Were things less tense when religious folks were fighting over slavery, entering into World War I, prohibition or the possibility of a Catholic president?

It’s human nature to romanticize the past, and journalists are no exception. Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Steinfels, but I find it curious that he notes a number of political and cultural sources of discord within the religious sphere. He doesn’t, however, reconcile this with the tremendous amount of upheaval that contemporaneously happened in the journalism industry. Did “traditional religious perspectives” genuinely became less of an influential cultural force over the last 20 years? Or did it just seem that way because of the way that the news coverage changed? Once fat-and-happy publications such as the New York Times have had to become a lot more competitive. I suspect at the Times they have a lot fewer column inches for thoughtful analyses about mainstream religious developments then they once did, and at the same time the economic incentives skewed toward covering controversy more than they had when Steinfels started writing his column.

Anyway, I would be curious to hear from GR readers in the comments. Do you think that religion is more polarized in the last 20 years? And if so, why?

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  • Herb Brasher

    Hard for me to say, since I lived in Germany from ’73 to ’01. I suppose it’s hard for anyone to say, given this tendency to romanticize the past, as you so correctly pointed out.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Germans tend to be more sharp and forthright in their criticism of opposing views than Americans are. One should probably explore the cultural element in “polarisation” a bit more–one people’s way of debating may seem extremely distasteful to people of another culture. Still, I guess the question here is the change in the American discussion climate.

    What I did notice in Germany, and again this is my perception, which may be totally wrong, was that the two-party “system” in religion, in other words, either Catholic or Protestant(whether Lutheran, Reformed, or United) which dominated the religious reporting scheme, seems to be crumbling in favor of more religious pluralistic tolerance of everyone except what they perceive as “fundamentalists,” whether of the Christian or Muslim variety.

    The religious climate has changed dramatically in that country, nonetheless in recent months because of the deaths of German missionaries in Yemen. That story hardly surfaced here at all (I don’t think), but it really has stirred sentiment in Deutschland. Christian mission work, or even Christian aid programs, don’t have any business operating in other parts of the world. The interesting thing is that the established churches have thrown some surprising support to the evangelicals on that story, because they can perceive the anti-Christian bias in a lot of reporting.

    I say all that in the guess that the same tendencies in Europe will probably, in time, develop here.

    Well, I guess I’m mostly off topic. I’d delete this instead of posting it, if I hadn’t spent so much time writing and editing it.

  • Jerry

    Do you think that religion is more polarized in the last 20 years? And if so, why?

    Yes I think so. This polarization partly derives from the polarization in politics since, to some, politics and religion are married. A couple of examples:

    20 years ago a Catholic could run for president and attract votes from both liberals and conservatives. Today abortion would overrule one side or the others willingness to vote for such a candidate.

    20 years ago it was considered totally acceptable to be a libertarian republican, but today if you’re not in favor of a big, intrusive government on social issues, you’re beyond the pale. At this point the Democratic party has not gone down the purge path but there are people in the party who want to do just that.

    I’m not sure I’d call pure religion issues polarized although in some cases that’s certainly true. Religion in general is undergoing tremendous upheaval some of which manifests in polarization but not all.

  • Dave

    Public religious issues have become more polarizing in part because of the new issues cited. Embryonic stem-cell therapy was barely on the horizon 20 years ago, and gay marriage and physician-assisted suicide are new demands.

    I would also say that religious polarization has increased as part of an overall tendency to polarization. The spectacle of the health-care bills’ treatment is just the latest example of the latter.

  • Evanston2

    I left normal society for 22 years as a Marine. When I returned in 2005, I found society had drifted so far toward “tolerance” that any traditional judgement (religious or not) caused controversy. So I agree that there is a greater polarization.

    I’m looking forward to a further post regarding Steinfels. As Mark observed, his convictions an make “a heck of a conversation starter.”
    I thought that this in particular was revealing: “The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.”
    Fundamentalists, of course, believe they are returning to the original beliefs and that their great religion spawned counterfeits/heresies.

  • Nathan

    Jerry has a bit backwards I think. Southern conservatives abandoned the Democrats in the 60s/70s and the Republicans (eagerly) accepted them. As more and more Southern conservatives became Republican, libertarian voices in the party became weaker and weaker into the 1990s. Some of these libertarians (the ones more oriented toward cultural freedoms) switched sides during this time and now what we really have is an urban/rural divide with elites in both parties more ideologically “pure” than they were 50-60 years ago.

    It isn’t really right to say one party or the other “purged” certain persons. (Usually folks now say the Republicans have done the purging of “moderates” but in some parts of the internet you will hear of the Democrats “purging” the Southerners). Individuals vote with their feet and they choose which party to support. Over time, elites come to mirror the supporters but there is also a feedback mechanism where the supporters take cues from the elites (c.f. shifts in opinion on the Vietnam War in both parties — it was top down, not bottom up).

    But this is where I think Jerry and I agree: because this is fundamentally a rural/urban fight the same forces purifying the parties are also at work in the religions. I know there are exceptions but generally: rural religion is fundamentalist, urban is modernist. Just as urban politics is socially libertarian/economically interventionist and rural politics is the reverse…

    … or something like that.

  • Herb Brasher

    Not sure I follow Nathan, but I think Dave is on to something when he mentions the general trend to polarization. One blog I like here in SC is Brad Warthen’s, who mentioned the recent death of former Tennessee Lt. Governor John Wilder. Warthen was struck by an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that characterized Wilder as being controversial, since Warthen didn’t remember him that way. But he got to the essence of it in these lines:


    He was elected speaker at the same time that Winfield Dunn, Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years, was inaugurated. Wilder’s refusal to adopt an overtly partisan style evolved into intraparty leadership struggles during the 1980s.

    The Senate Democratic Caucus refused to renominate him for speaker in both 1987 and 1989. But Wilder outmaneuvered them — he and some Democratic supporters forged a coalition with Republicans for him to maintain the speakership. He was elected speaker at the same time that Winfield Dunn, Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years, was inaugurated. Wilder’s refusal to adopt an overtly partisan style evolved into intraparty leadership struggles during the 1980s.

    The Senate Democratic Caucus refused to renominate him for speaker in both 1987 and 1989. But Wilder outmaneuvered them — he and some Democratic supporters forged a coalition with Republicans for him to maintain the speakership.

    So there we have it. He was controversial because he didn’t polarize.

    Maybe the polarization on the political scene has spilled over into our religious discussion?