5Q+1: Mark Oppenheimer on belief & skepticism

We usually stay away from critiquing columns here since we focus on mainstream coverage of religion news. Occasionally, though, a columnist will use reporting to make claims about the state of religion.

Along with many others at the New York Times, we regularly read Mark Oppeneheimer, who writes a regular biweekly religion column for the Times. For the past few years, we’ve read and discussed his work, so we thought we’d talk to him about where he’s coming from and what he hopes to accomplish in his writing.

Oppenheimer holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale and has written for Books & Culture, The Christian Century, The Forward, and Tablet (the Jewish one, not the Catholic one), among other publications. He also authored three books: Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, and Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.

He, his wife, three daughter and two dogs live in New Haven, Connecticut. You can find him through his columns, on his blog, Twitter and Facebook. Here’s what Oppenheimer had to say about his role in religion coverage.

What kinds of issues do religion columnists navigate that might be different from others kinds of columnists? How can religion columnists cover old ideas in new ways?

First off, I think it’s weird that I am a “columnist.” At the Times, that largely means that I am freer to write stuff that has no obvious news peg. But I still believe in reporting, and in striving to be fair. I have a point of view, but I try not to be polemical or argumentative.

But to answer your question, I think we have one huge problem: we often are describing beliefs for which there is no evidence of the traditional kind. That does not mean those beliefs are stupid or to be scorned, but if they were new beliefs we’d often treat their holders as quite mad. Religions gain respectability with age, for better or worse. Believing in a messiah who died two thousand years ago is okay — so is believing in one who is yet to come — but believing in one who stands outside your building with a sandwich board is ridiculous. Those are the terms of the discussion. Even a religiously observant and devout reporter has to admit there is something queer about that. There are good reasons the discussion is held that way, but it troubles me sometimes.

How would you describe the advocacy or point of view you’re trying to get across in your columns?

Wow! What a loaded question. Advocacy? I advocate for good journalism. I am often writing short profiles of people, and so in 900 words I try to portray them fairly and accurately. I hope they would recognize themselves in my portraits. I also hope people who know them well would recognize them.

When you profile individuals, is there a temptation to portray them too positively?

Of course. I like most people, so I am often seduced into portraying them more positively than I should. Journalists are supposed to be skeptics. If someone says “Christ died on the cross,” we should say, “How do you know?” We should want to know what happens to the money in the collection plates; whether priests who preach against masturbation have ever masturbated; whether rabbis sneak a snack on Yom Kippur. Especially with clergy, there is a temptation to think them better than other people; as one example, we give them honorifics: “Father,” “Rabbi,” “Monsignor.” I’d prefer “Mister” and “Ms.” They are people. Any time a journalist gets too reverent, we have a problem.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media are having a hard time grasping?

I think we are always misunderstanding the connection between professed belief and behavior. I often read surveys that suggest that religious belief has almost no influence on key behaviors: premarital sex, abortion, crime, etc. The one exception seems to be charitable giving (although it’s unclear how the stats would shake out if we excluded church giving and tithing from charitable giving). But basically I don’t really know how coming to Christ, or getting deeply involved in a mosque, or whatever, changes people’s private morality or their citizenship. We haven’t even begun to figure out what questions to ask.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I don’t know. But I have been very interested in divorce lately. Annulments are given quite freely in Catholicism, the stigma is largely gone in evangelicalism, and Orthodox Jews are searching for a way to help women secure divorce rights (only the Orthodox Jewish man can give a religious divorce). Meanwhile, we have gay men and lesbians marrying, and we don’t know at what rates they will divorce. So a lot of interesting questions out there…

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

It’s not skeptical enough. I blame myself, but I blame all of us. We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity — but we rarely treat it as a vice-filled human institution in need of investigative reporting. And we all suffer for that, religious people most of all. Think how much pain we could have spared Roman Catholics if we, as the media, had investigated the behavior of a vicious minority of priests decades earlier. If we could crack Watergate in 1972-1974, maybe we could have cracked some scandals in organized religion, too. And one tragic thing is that many religious people think the mainstream media is too critical of religion, when the truth is that the mainstream media is not critical enough. It misunderstands religion, sure — but is still oddly hands-off and reverent. And again, it’s the people in the pews who suffer. It’s not the children of atheists who were being molested.

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  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I’ve deleted a comment…please add stats or links to claims. Thanks!

  • Jerry

    I think Mark makes an important point about how the media treats religion but I would not state it the way he did. He wants the media to be more skeptical about religion but I want the media to treat religion as a regular part of human life rather than being ignored or deconstructed. So rather than say “vice-filled human institution”, I think we’d be better off saying “human institution with its share of virtue and vice”.

    And “oddly hands-off and reverent” is not how I’d describe the media. We’ve seen too many examples of the media distorting the Pope’s statements, for example, for that phrase to be accurate. And mentioning the Catholic church’s abuse scandal as he did with what reads to me as ‘atheists are superior’ ignores all the other abuse scandals that went on far too long including in football and in the Boy Scouts etc.

  • Kate

    I tend to think that the reason the abuse coverups in the Church went unreported and uninvestigated for so long has a lot to do with how society at large handles sexual abuse and very little to do with any kind of residual respect for religion among the press. As Jerry points out, there are similar issues of abuse and coverup in other institutions that have been under investigated (school boards transferring teachers after complaints is an easy comparison).

    Is it possible that the oddly ‘hands off’ general impression has to do with ignorance – not knowing the beat well enough to be able to tell what is ‘off’ and who is important and what kind of thing might be telling of a deeper issue – rather than a lack of skepticism? I would be useless as a sports journalist because I wouldn’t know when to question the press releases, because I don’t know anything about sports – I would wind up taking everybody at their word. I think that is more often what happens when religion reporting seems insufficiently incisive.

  • Kris D

    I think this is the most self-serving 5Q+1 I’ve ever read on this blog. I see no evidence in his writing that Mr. Oppenheimer has strayed from the NYT party line in his columns http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/the-public-editor-is-the-new-york-times-a-liberal-newspaper.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm unless “columnist” is NYTspeak for “reporter”. I am glad the press covered the abuse found in the Catholic church. It is something that all religious institutions will deal with for a long time. I find it pretentious that Mr. Oppenheimer thinks the press is supposed to be the savior of all those benighted people in the pews who still believe. I echo Kate’s comment regarding abuse in other institutions that the NYT has failed to investigate with the amount of vigor that it did with the Catholic Church.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Just a quick comment to jump in here. I think a comment from Ross Douthat, a NYT columnist who is Roman Catholic, about media scrutiny might add another perspective:
    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/29/the-position-of-the-church/

    But Catholics — and especially Catholic leaders, from the Vatican to the most far-flung diocese — should welcome it, both as a spur to virtue and as a sign that their faith still matters, that their church still looms large over the affairs of men, and that the world still cares enough about Christianity to demand that Catholics live up to their own exacting standards. If the day comes when crimes and cover-ups in the Catholic Church attract the same yawns and per forma stories as, say, scandals in the Anglican Church of Canada or the American public school system, then Catholics will really have something to worry about. Apathy and cynicism, not enmity and persecution, are the greatest threats to the faith.

  • Jeff

    With all due respect, I have to agree with Kris D that this was a ludicrous 5Q+1.

    If I want to read The New York Times and get the left-liberal secularist take on religion, I’ll read the The New York Times and get the left-liberal secularist take on religion.

    I expect Get Religion to … well … *get* religion, and not be yet another mouthpiece for those, like Oppenheimer, who don’t and never will.

  • Jeff

    When he accused you right off the bat of asking “loaded questions,” you should have known that he was going to waste your time and give you nothing more than the left-liberal secularist party-line of the NYT.

  • Jerry

    Sarah, that’s a very good point Ross Douthat makes. Leo Buscaglia echoed that with this quote: I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate — it’s apathy.

  • Kris D

    I am so sorry that my comment is being misconstrued. I did not mean that Sarah’s questions were self-serving, I meant that Mr. Oppenheimer’s answers were. His superior tone is something else.

  • Martha

    It’s interesting to get a look at the view of a journalist for the “New York Times” and his opinions as to mainstream religion.

    He does have a very good point about divorce and those would be a fascinating and worthwhile series of stories; I don’t think anyone can deny that American tribunals were very liberal with annulments (if this site is to be believed, “The United States has six percent of the world’s Catholic population, but U.S. Tribunals annul over three-fourths of all annulments worldwide”) over the past three decades or so; what would be real journalism is to investigate has that changed, given that there is a perception that the last and the current pope have chosen bishops who are more conservative/orthodox/traditional (delete according to personal bias)?

    I am also intrigued that his perception is that religion coverage is too deferential and that the ideal(?) is an attitude of scepticism towards all institutions (presumably with the Fourth Estate being exempt from this attitude, as being the only pure and devoted seekers of unvarnished truth out there) and that the attitude of reporters should be ones of unearthing scandal.

    Well, perhaps. I’d be interested to know if this attitude extends to left-leaning or liberal church organisations; for instance, is there likely to be an excoriating piece about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and how it operates and why do the member churches or groups (in particular, Catholics for Choice) vary so far from their parent denominations on the topic? A profile of the President and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, and her “Abortion is a blessing” speech?

    Or is it a case of “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”?

  • sari

    I think Mark makes an important point about how the media treats religion but I would not state it the way he did. He wants the media to be more skeptical about religion but I want the media to treat religion as a regular part of human life rather than being ignored or deconstructed.

    Jerry,
    I think Oppenheimer speaks to and of organized religion and its institutions rather than religious belief per se. He also, and Sarah addressed this, suggests that because religious institutions claim the moral high ground, the institution and it members, particularly clergy, should be held to higher standards of behavior.

  • Chris

    Gosh, please don’t send Mr. Oppenheimer to my church. I’m afraid we would only confirm his overarching conviction that we are sinful and are therefore to be exposed and ridiculed.

  • Martha

    sari, it might be worthwhile to get further thoughts from Mr. Oppenheimer on this. Now, if he’s talking about the media in general not getting religion and liking fuzzy, feel-good stories about human interest angles like a church group providing toys for sick children in the local hospital or Reverend “Just call me Joe” who sinks a beer in the bar with the rest of the ordinary guys on Saturdays and doesn’t preach hellfire and damnation sermons but goes ‘where the people are’, and for that reason avoid doing any deeper or substantive digging, then I’d agree with him.

    But if his attitude is that journalists should report on religion stories with the view that ‘this is a corrupt organisation’ and that they should go in looking for scandal – well, if they go in looking for scandal, sure, they’re going to find it. Just as they would in any human organisation, and I submit, just as he’d find scandal in his own newspaper (there are probably people drinking too much, doing drugs, having affairs, fiddling their expenses, doing favours for pals, indulging in cronyism or ‘the old school tie’, quietly spiking stories critical of good old Tom or Sally-Anne who’s a great woman and does so much work for charity – you name it).

    I would like to know how he thinks investigative reporting should be handled in some stories – for instance, the stand-off between the U.S. Catholic bishops and the HHS on the insurance mandate. Is this a religion story, a political story, or both, or neither? Is it about religious liberty or taking away women’s reproductive rights? Is the government in the right and the church in the wrong? If the rumours that there was pressure put on by female Democratic senators and White House advisers and women’s groups to ensure President Obama didn’t back down, would we see this angle covered or would it be all about bishops conniving at covering up abuse but eager to be active when it comes to oppressing women?

  • Martha

    Okay, I can’t resist a Chesterton quote: from the 1930s essay collection “The Thing”, the essay “Who Are the Conspirators?”:

    “I came across, more or less indirectly, the other day, a lady of educated and even elegant pretensions, of the sort whom her foes would call luxurious and her friends cultured, who happened to mention a certain small West Country town, and added with a sort of hiss that it contained “a nest of Roman Catholics.” This apparently referred to a family with which I happen to be acquainted. The lady then said, her voice changing to a deep note of doom, “God alone knows what is said and done behind those closed doors.”

    On hearing this stimulating speculation, my mind went back to what I remembered of the household in question, which was largely concerned with macaroons, and a little girl who rightly persuaded herself that I could eat an almost unlimited number of them. But when I contrasted that memory with that vision it was brought suddenly and stunningly to my mind what a vast abyss still yawns between us and many of our countrymen, and what extraordinary ideas are still entertained about us, by people who walk about the world without keepers or strait-waistcoats and are apparently, on all other subjects, sane. It is doubtless true, and theologically sound, to say that God alone knows what goes on in Catholic homes; as it is to say that God alone knows what goes on in Protestant heads. I do not know why a Catholic’s doors should be any more closed than anybody else’s doors; the habit is not unusual in persons of all philosophical beliefs when retiring for the night; and on other occasions depends on the weather and the individual taste. But even those who would find it difficult to believe that an ordinary Catholic is so eccentric as to bolt and padlock himself in the drawing-room or the smoking-room, whenever he strolls into those apartments, do really have a haunting idea that it is more conceivable of a Catholic than of a Calvinistic Methodist or a Plymouth Brother. There does remain the stale savour of a sort of sensational romance about us; as if we were all foreign counts and conspirators. And the really interesting fact is that this absurd melodrama can be found among educated people; though now rather in an educated individual than in an educated class.”

  • R9

    well, if they go in looking for scandal, sure, they’re going to find it. Just as they would in any human organisation,

    There’s a difference when a particular organisation is claiming to be a source of some sort of ultimate unquestionable morals, tho.

    Anyway rooting out corruption in big organisations is I think part of what journalism is all about, although you could argue they’re not as objective about their targets as they could be.

    Similarly skepticism is a worthy pursuit, and I see no reason why organised religion should escape its harsh glare. But anyone preaching skepticism risks leaving themselves open to accusations of not applying it equally to all worldviews and political stances.

  • sari

    Martha,

    It certainly would be interesting to pose the question to him, but I think there’s an area in-between the two extremes. No institution should be exempt from scrutiny, including (and, perhaps, especially) those that claim a morality defined by G-d. In those instances where religious leaders’, clergy’s, and institutions’ behavior deviates substantially from their stated morality, it is the reporters’ job to make the public aware.

  • Jeff

    Kris D,

    I didn’t have a problem either with Sarah’s questions either. She did a fine job. I just don’t think Oppenheimer was worth talking to, owing precisely to the same “superior attitude” you note, which manifested itself right away with is defensive and partisan reaction to Sarah’s “loaded question,” then didn’t let up for the rest of the interview. Oppenheimer protested too much and thereby confirmed what we already knew — that he is an advocate not a journalist, towing the NYT’s left-liberal secularist party-line. But that confirmation wasn’t worth out having to subject ourself to his “superior attitude,” which is *inferior* as a way of “getting religion,” as opposed to advocating an anti-religious party line.

  • Jeff

    Some of you here are making it seem as if religious institutions are the only institutions that claim the moral high ground.

    But that is manifestly untrue.

    Are there any more self-righteous or morally absolutist institutions than political parties?

    Let’s take, for example, the political party of which I think it’s safe to assume Mr. Oppenheimer is a partisan.

    The Democratic Party claims for itself not just the right to say who can sleep with whom and who can marry whom like, say, The Catholic Church, but who can live and who must die — what unborn children are worthy of life and what unborn children are “life unworthy of life” and fit to be exterminated, as if they were vermin, in their mothers’ wombs.

    The current leader of The Democratic Party also claims for himself the right to execute American citizens without charges or trial and the right to mandate to religious institutions like The Catholic Church what their religious practice must be.

    So, I think it is the institutions of secular and atheistic religions like Mr. Oppenheimer’s and The New York Times’s own left-liberalism that is really most deserving among contemporary institutions of skepticism and critical scrutiny, and not the fawning idealization it usually receives from Mr. Oppenheimer’s ilk, in the pages of The New York Times.

  • Ann Malone

    [Reporting about religion is] not skeptical enough. I blame myself, but I blame all of us. We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity — but we rarely treat it as a vice-filled human institution in need of investigative reporting.

    What planet is this guy from? Does he actually read newspapers?

  • Julia

    religious institutions claim the moral high ground

    I never understand this, having never heard a minister or rabbi or priest claim he or she is morally superior to other people. What does this even mean? That because a particular religious group urges moral standards that it believes it is perfect?

    What I’ve always heard is that churches are hospitals for sinners. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Same with moral standards to strive for.

  • Julia

    Re: reverential treatment of a subject by the press – Yesterday I heard an interview on KMOX radio in St. Louis with Jim Bouton, the author of Ball Four, the 1970 book that exposed the underbelly of major league baseball.

    Despite its controversy at the time, with baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s attempts to discredit it and label it as detrimental to the sport, it is considered to be one of the most important sports books ever written[1] and the only sports-themed book to make the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books of the Century. It also is listed in Time Magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_Four

    In the interview, Mr. Bouton was describing how the media dealt with sports back in the day before his book. Sports writers flew on the team plane, their transportation, hotel rooms and food were provided by the team franchise. The writers considered themselves as part of the PR dept. of the team. No mentions of the heavy drinking, womanizing and swearing that was part and parcel of sports in those days.
    If steroids had been around at the time, no reporter would have dared write about it.

  • sari

    Julia,
    It’s because most religious entities promote moral standards that they claim to be timeless, immutable, and Divinely commanded or inspired. Clergy claim that their belief system is inherently superior. How many Christian denominations label themselves The One True Church? Orthodox Judaism self-references as Torah-true Judaism. So, when religious leaders rail against popular culture, against homosexuality and abortion and pre-marital sex and birth control, and then fail to live up to their own standards, that’s news. When a child dies after his parents, at his pastor’s urging, spared not the rod, that’s news. When the sin becomes institutionalized, that’s bigger news, because the sacred has been profaned.

    More simply, we are taught to trust our clergy because they are men and women of G-d. When they betray that trust, that’s news, and, I believe, Oppenheimer’s point. When the religious advocate in the political arena, that is also news.

    What I’ve always heard is that churches are hospitals for sinners.

    Interesting and illustrative of how different religious groups view sin. You’d never hear such a statement in a synagogue.

  • sari

    Julia,
    The hands off policy extended to politicians, too. Had Clinton lived in the JFK era, Monica would have remained an unknown.

    Politics, sports or religion–all considered sacred and untouchable by the media. Now they’re not–media is doing its job.

  • Julia

    Sari:

    Actually, one of the oldest Christian heresies is Donatism – the belief that a priest is ineffective if in a state of sin. It started in North Africa in the 300s when some Christians would not accept priests who had agreed to worship false Roman gods or turn over copies of Scripture or turned in Christian names instead of accepting martyrdom. These priests had confessed and been forgiven, but some people, including a bishop named Donatus, wouldn’t have them back, doubting that they could properly administer the sacraments.

    Donatism was the error taught by Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious enough sin were to baptize a person, that baptism would be considered invalid

    .

    http://carm.org/donatism

  • sari

    You miss the point, Julia. Individuals may sin, a problem common to all human beings, but when the religious institution refuses to acknowledge or actually contributes to the problem, it is newsworthy. Likewise religious persons in positions of authority who preach one thing and do another, be it homosexual affairs, adultery, pedophilia or gross financial misconduct.

    Any time an institution defines itself as a moral arbiter and deviates from the standards it seeks to impose on its followers or the larger society, it risks being called hypocritical. That gap is what’s reported and what should be reported, not out of malice or lack of belief, but because it is news–news which will allow the public to make informed decisions. Religious institutions should not be exempt from scrutiny any more than the government (another really closed system), businesses, schools, politics, sports or other institutions.

  • Jeff

    sari,

    Government institutions have a lot more power than religious institutions — the power to kill you and me if they choose, the power to kill anybody at all, and, in some cases, the power to kill every man, woman, and child in the whole, wide world.

    So, call me crazy, but I think they deserve a lot more skepticism and critical scrutiny than religious institutions do.

    It is government institutions not religious institutions that have killed hundreds of millions of people all over the world in the past hundred bloody, bloody years — probably the bloodiest in all of human history.

    And it ought to be noted that the government institutions with by far the most blood on their hands in our bloody century are precisely the ones that have sought most aggressively to subordinate the Church to the State and/or to destroy the Church and/or to exterminate its membership.

  • sari

    Jeff, we speak here of whether or not the press should give religious institutions a pass. This is not a race; two wrongs don`t make a right. I can`t think of any major religion that has no blood on its hands. Can you?

  • MJBubba

    sari, I did not think anyone wanted the press to “give religious institutions a pass.” What prompts this whole discussion is the extra-skeptical attitude of the press towards those religions that make truth claims. The press ignores these religions except when they have an opportunity to highlight some failing. Their dismissive and patronizing attitude comes across loud and clear in their articles and transcripts. This is what puts us on the defensive with respect to the press.

  • sari

    MJB,
    I wouldn’t say the press ignores religions to the extent you (and others) suggest, but it does investigate stories and allegations that may put religious institutions in a bad light, even when the institutions in question fight mightily to restrict access. Most news, regardless of topic, is negative; for whatever reason, readership seems to prefer it that way.

    My local paper published a very lovely Easter piece on Sunday’s OpEd page.

    http://www.statesman.com/opinion/today-is-a-day-for-christian-faithful-to-2289559.html

    The area is very diverse, but no other religion merits similar acknowledgement.

  • Julia

    when the religious institution refuses to acknowledge or actually contributes to the problem, it is newsworthy.

    I never said that scandals are not newsworthy. My problem is with the common insinuation that because an institution urges certain moral standards that the institution is claiming perfection for itself and its members, particularly its leaders.

    Any time an institution defines itself as a moral arbiter and deviates from the standards it seeks to impose on its followers or the larger society, it risks being called hypocritical.

    You are assuming that individuals are thinking up these standards on their own authority – that’s not the case at all in the Catholic religion. Ever hear of the Ten Commandments? There may be different interpretations of them and other ancient teachings, but it’s not individuals who just thought these things up yesterday.

    Similarly, one crooked judge does not discredit the entire legal system. And a divorced judge can preside over divorce court; he or she does not invent the rules that govern the proceedings. Misbehavior is still newsworthy, but doesn’t invalidate the whole system.

    Because people aren’t perfect, then the system they work for is invalid? Then there should be no standards at all.

  • sari

    You are assuming that individuals are thinking up these standards on their own authority – that’s not the case at all in the Catholic religion. Ever hear of the Ten Commandments? There may be different interpretations of them and other ancient teachings, but it’s not individuals who just thought these things up yesterday.

    Ten Commandments? Hmm….

    Well, now that you mention it, they were given to a nomadic group of ex-slaves on a little mountain called Sinai. In fact, tradition states that all Jews of all times, past, present and future, witnessed the big event.

    Yes, Julia. I’ve heard of them. They are ten of the 613 commandments given in Torah, all of which are binding.

    Seriously, I’d expect the media to examine the behavior of crooked judges or those whose life experiences compromise their ability to perform their jobs. In fact, that’s happening right here, right now–a sitting judge is being investigated for probable misconduct for his behavior as a D.A. And, like certain religious institutions, the local and state judiciary worried more about him than they did about his victim, who spent years and years in jail for a murder he did not commit. Gross malfeasance, and it was the media that brought the case to light, that harped on the county, the state, and the judiciary to release documents and to rehear the case.

    One crooked judge is a problem. Many crooked judges protected by their cronies suggests an institutionalized, systemic problem–one worthy of media investigation.


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