5Q+1: Peter Smith on what we believe vs. what we do

We spend a lot of time here arguing for the importance of considering faith in reporting, and journalists on religion beat do this every day.

If you want to know what’s up with religion in the middle of America, look no further than Peter Smith’s excellent reporting for the Louisville Courier-Journal. 2010 marks his 10th year with the newspaper where he covers religion in Kentucky and Indiana, and in the past, he has served as a correspondent for Religion News Service. Smith has received awards from the American Academy of Religion, the Religion Communicators Council and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

He holds a bachelor’s from Oral Roberts University and a master’s of arts in religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Take two seconds to add his blog to your RSS feed, bookmarks, home page, what have you. He describes his blog as one that “covers the relationship between what we believe and what we do.”

We’ve asked Smith to weigh in on GetReligion’s 5 questions (plus one bonus).

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
Everywhere I can. Twitter. Email lists. Religion News Service. CNN. The New York Times. Christianity Today. Christian Century. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Associated Baptist Press. Baptist Press. Local and national denominational news services, particularly those prominent in our region–Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews. Regular visits to certain news sites and blogs (such as GetReligion). Pew Forum, Barna and other polling/research orgs. The challenge is managing all the inflow and not chasing links too far off the beaten path, although one sometimes find interesting story ideas there. Some of my favorite story ideas have come from chance conversations in the park or the coffee shop.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
Demographics. I do think there has been a lot of great coverage of demographic trends in religion, but I think there is a lot to explore, and demographics form a subtext in many stories when it’s not as obvious. The United States is in such a major population shift, and we just need to unpack it as we go, story after story. I don’t believe that demography alone is destiny, but we sure could look at a lot of stories through that lens. These require asking some sensitive questions, but doing so candidly and carefully. What does it mean that a majority of white Christians and Mormons voted for John McCain, but that Barack Obama won a majority of most religious and racial minorities? (And what does mean in 2010, not just 2008.) What does it mean when almost all the major religious groups that are demonstrably growing–the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland)–also have growing cohorts of Hispanics and other immigrants and minorities? Will the mainline Protestant denominations continue to wield influence, even as their membership numbers decline catastrophically? (They sure seem to matter overseas, given the strong reactions to Episcopalians’ policies on homosexuality and Presbyterians’ on the Middle East.) What does it mean that Southern Baptists’ most valued statistical vital sign–baptisms–keeps lagging despite ever-more-fervent evangelistic outreaches? What does it mean that Muslims have a far more youthful population than the national average? What does it mean that the median age of a Presbyterian is 60? Why do certain religious groups have such a hard time hanging onto their kids, while others don’t? When growing ranks of Americans say they’re more spiritual than religious, what exactly do they mean by that?

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
I’ve written about most of the above questions, but there are plenty more where those came from. The challenge is to put human faces on those numbers.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Where to start? People vote, pray, think, love, live, die and kill in large part due to their most deeply held beliefs, whether religious or not. And we all tend to live in our silos of people like us, whether it’s our neighborhoods, our houses of worship or our Facebook friends. There are neighborhoods, schools and houses of worship that I never would have visited if not for my job. It’s my job to share what I know and observe with others. To borrow from sociologist Peter Berger’s much-quoted formula about America’s secular elites and religious rank-and file: Swedes need to understand Indians, and Indians need to understand Swedes. (They could use some better self-understanding, too.)

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
I can’t think of much lately. A couple years ago there was the one about the astrology Web site that closed down due to unforeseen circumstances.

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

I’m in favor of it, as self-serving as it sounds. We’re in media revolution, but regardless of how we tell the news in the future, we know that its content will include plenty of religion. Many of the biggest stories of the past decade were religious–Sept. 11; Afghanistan; Iraq; the Catholic sex-abuse crisis; Terri Schiavo; the role of faith in the presidency. I’m particularly amazed that newspapers in Bible Belt states are cutting their religion staff, since I can’t imagine understanding a place like Kentucky without understanding religion. But it’s important everywhere. I used to cover religion in one of the most secular nations on earth, the Czech Republic, and found plenty of news. We just have to remember what religion news means–the intersection of what we believe and what we do. That’s news everywhere.

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  • Jerry

    Reading this description I was curious why he did not cite any Jain, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist or Islamic media outlets :-)

    Of course, that is more than a full time job, but it’s my quirky way of saying how broad and deep reporting on religion is. And that I did pay attention to the list he provided :-)

  • Joe

    Demographics are the story? How sad? He may as well write for PATROL. How about someone who is zealous for fidelity? Or is that… passe?

  • Mollie

    One of my favorite things about Peter Smith is the way that he takes national stories and localizes them and the way he covers local stories so well that they become national. I’m also a big fan of his blog.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOE:

    This seems to be your standard comment.

    What do you mean?

  • dalea

    From what we have seen of the religious press, they appear to have no apptitude for statistics let alone demographics. So, I found Peter Smith’s emphasis on demographics heartening. The questions he poses do need answers. One that has always interested me is to what extent the growth of Evangelical Churches is a statistical illusion. I look forward to reading more of him.

  • http://www.courier-journal.com/faithblog Peter Smith

    Jerry,

    Good point. I could have added Tricycle and Islamica, which I also read when I can get a hold of them. And outfits like RNS and CNN cover all religions. But generally, it’s the more established religious groups — Christians and Jews — that have a more established press, especially locally. Which has made it more imperative to get to know the newer religious groups through other means — visits to their homes, mosques, temples, etc.

  • Jerry

    Peter, thanks for your reply. I’d even elevate the importance of getting to know groups in person even further. To use a different frame of reference: I can read a book about China, but visiting China brings a much richer and more meaningful experience.

  • Dana

    What is the substantive reason for the Growth in the religious groups mentioned? Which of these religious groups that are growing are doing it via pandering or tickling the ears of congregants and which group is growing by teaching biblical truths and attempting to walk the talk? It would appear that history has taught us one thing that numbers don’t mean anything without a real reason for the growth. A Billion Catholics? Does this group have the right path? 7,200,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses? Do they have it right? Now that is a story worth reading…..