Ask any religion-news professional to list the top reporters on the beat in the late 20th Century and Richard Ostling will be right near the top.

That’s why, very early in the history of this blog, your GetReligionistas started suggesting that — when facing tough issues about how to cover religion in an accurate and balanced manner — journalists should ask this not-so-simple question: What Would Richard Ostling Do?

For newcomers to this terrain, Ostling was the religion-beat pro at Time magaizne, back in the days when it was a gold standard in weekly hard-news reporting at the national and especially global levels. From there, he went to the top religion slot at the Associated Press. He is retired now, but still active in religion-news circles as a writer and consultant.

Last fall, Ostling started writing a Patheos blog called “Religion Q and A” and he explained his goals like this:

Most features on Patheos are opinionated, faith-specific (Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan) … whereas mine will be non-partisan and journalistic in approach and cover wide-ranging topics.

We’ll be asking folks in cyberspace to send in questions regarding any and all faiths, any Scriptures, current church-state and religion-politics issues, moral quandaries and other such puzzlements and curiosities. If I’m able, I’ll post an answer with others then welcome others to add comments.

From the beginning, there has been quite a bit of GetReligion-esque material at Ostling’s blog — a trend that he welcomed and we welcomed.

Stop and think about it. It’s understandable that lots of people have lots of questions about topics they keep seeing in religion-news coverage. Thus, we have linked to quite a few Ostling posts here at GetReligion.

And now there will be more.


The other day, in a discussion of events in Egypt, I noted — once again — that there is no one Islam, no monolithic version of the same faith. The same thing is true of Islamic law, even among people who believe that they want to live in a society that is ruled in accordance with sharia. Click here to go back and catch up on that.

This is a very complex subject and, even as I wrote that piece, I looked around a link or two that offered more information on this topic. And, yes, I wondered if former Time and Associated Press religion pro Richard Ostling (now semi-retired) had taken a look at this puzzle, writing at his “Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers Your Questions” site elsewhere in the Patheos universe.

As it turns out, he has. Thus, here is another GetReligion post under the banner of WWROD?

Let us attend.

As always, one of his readers posed the start-off question for the mini-essay:


What would sharia [Muslim law] look like if implemented? Would there be differences by country or region?

I immediately thought, “Implemented WHERE? In Egypt or in Tennessee?”

But I digress:


Fundamental starting point: In principle, Islam draws no distinction between the spiritual and the secular such as Jesus’ famous biblical dictum “render therefore to Caesasr the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It’s often said that Christianity centers on theology while Islam centers on law. Sharia (or “shariah”) covers personal morals (e.g. truth-telling), behavior (abstinence from alcohol), and religious duties (charity gifts, fasting, prayers, the pilgrimage) but also encompasses the entirety of existence.

If you have spent some time in the Muslim world, you can already see some of the issues that some Muslims want to carve into civic stone and others do not. The Guy has been around the religion-beat block multiple times in multiple decades and knows that.

That leads to the crunch section of the piece and an especially provocative not to debates within Christianity:


Long ago, I asked the Rev. Billy Graham a question that I really thought he, of all people, would be able to answer.

The question: What does the word “evangelical” mean?

As I have reported several times, the world’s most famous evangelist tossed the question right back at me:

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

So, a few months ago, I asked the Rev. Rick Warren — one of today’s most high-profile evangelicals — the same question. And his response?

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren. …

(Cue: audible sigh)

Needless to say, this is an issue that has been discussed many times here at GetReligion, where we continue to argue that — damn the postmodernism, full speed ahead — journalists should attempt to use words precisely. On the religion beat, words with links to history and doctrine really matter. Words have meanings.

So, how are journalists supposed to know what “evangelical” means, since it is almost impossible to avoid using it these days?

This is a battle and, lucky for us, the other day someone asked this question to Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling, over at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”


It’s time for another GetReligion visit to the online domain of the Ridgewood Religion Guy, as in the weblog of former Time and Associated Press religion-beat maestro Richard Ostling.

This time around, he’s digging into a classic question from the church-state wars of the past few decades, care of a reader named Tyler:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?

The minute I read that question I thought of a scene in one of my all-time favorite episodes of “Northern Exposure,” called “Seoul Mates (check out the “may your dog talk” clip).”

That was the Christmas story in year three that focused on the cultural and personal roots of faith. At one point, the town’s crusty old storekeeper informs the Jewish Dr. Joel Fleischman that, while everyone else in town seems to really dig the Native American Raven pageant at Christmas time, she remains an atheist (though she retains a belief in a female divine force of some kind that has never taken human form). The doctor replies, as I recall the quote: I’ve always admired people who are atheists. I think it takes a lot of faith.

There’s a similar line, if I recall, in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the part where the Woody Allen character faces his own mortality and begins to doubt his doubts. Right?

Anyway, Ostling replies that the key question is:

… What is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that. …

Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. … Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.”

The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.

But there are some interesting complications, notes Ostling.


Warning to readers: The following post is blatantly self-serving and includes flattering remarks about the work of your GetReligionistas.

More on that in a minute.

A long, long time ago, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I did a bunch of pre-World World Wide web research into the forces that shaped a big problem in American newsrooms.

The problem I explored in a lengthy 1983 cover story for The Quill was, of course, the failure of many editors and reporters to grasp that religion plays a major role in shaping many of the biggest news stories of our age.

The thesis:

The role religion plays in America and the world has been a well-kept secret in most of the nation’s newsrooms. While reporters chase the latest stories in politics, sports, business, education and other subjects, the billions of dollars and hours Americans invest in religious activities receive minimal attention. Religion news is usually pushed into a tiny Saturday ghetto labeled “church news.”

When news events escape the church page they are often covered by reporters with little interest in religion and little education in the style and language of religious leaders and organizations. Religion has almost been ignored by radio and television. …

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

In the original thesis manuscript, I quoted at length from studies showing this sequence of facts about life in modern America, as in all of modern American — as opposed to the elite Northeast. Here we go. The more people are committed to their local communities, the longer they live and work in them, the more likely they are to be heavily invested in them.

Well, DUH. At that time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the studies also showed that these highly committed members of the community were more likely to (a) take the local newspaper, (b) support local causes as volunteers and (c) participate as members of local religious institutions. In other words, there was a good chance that newspapers that consistently ignored or, worse, botched religion-news coverage could be running off core newspaper readers.

Well, DUH. What should newsroom managers do? The way to improve news coverage of religion was to take the same actions required to improve work on other complex, important beats. Editors needed to hire talented, trained, experienced reporters committed to professionalism on the beat and then give them the time and ink to do their jobs.

To cut to the chase: It’s journalism, stupid.

Here is why I bring this up. Over at the blog run by veteran religion-beat sage Richard Ostling (Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions), a reader asked a very important question:

PATRICK (no location posted) ASKS:

From a newspaper marketing perspective, is it good business to publish bad, one-sided journalism on religion? … When somebody writes something full of egregious errors are they disciplined? Accountable?…


And how did one of the top religion-news scribes of the 20th Century respond?

Well, you’re going to want to read it all, but here is a taste. This was written as the media ramped up for the papal conclave:


To my shock, no one out in cyberspace filed a pope-retirement question over at veteran religion-reporter Richard Ostling’s handy new website, “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

Come on folks! The retired Time and Associated Press scribe is out there willing to give you input on the kinds of news-related questions that often pop up here in the GetReligion comments pages. Ostling wants to provide basic info. Take him up on it!

Lacking a question from a reader, Ostling provided his own topic.

The obvious topic for the day: The decision by the elderly Pope Benedict XVI to abdicate — not resign — the Throne of St. Peter.

Yes, “resign” is easier to fit into news headlines. The problem is that a pope has no one to resign to, other than God. The correct word is “abdicate.”

This passage struck me as especially interesting. Take it away, Ostling:

The Guy leaves it to expert Vaticanologists to assess this Pope’s accomplishments during a reign of just under eight years. But the resignation will surely be regarded as his most significant act. A highly traditional priest has taken a highly radical step. He may be implicitly questioning his close colleague and predecessor John Paul II, who felt a duty during decline to hang on till death.

Regardless, Benedict has forever changed his sacred office. All future popes will face the question of abdication when they reach a phase of physical or mental limitations. The resignation signals to the world Benedict’s awareness that John Paul permanently altered expectations for the ancient office. Popes are now globe-trotters and media stars, not the mysterious and remote figures of old. And in the age of the Internet and cable news, important policy moves (e.g. how to handle those unending and dispiriting priestly molestation scandals) can no longer to delayed for months — or years.

In short, a revolutionary act by a very traditional Catholic leader.

How long ago was it that he went live on Twitter?


That “religion guy” — Richard Ostling, formerly of Time and AP — has a post up right now that will be of interest to anyone who has ever followed mainstream religion-news coverage in North America for, oh, more than a week. Here’s the link to the full post over at “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”

The question, from a reader named Mark, is pretty blunt and a bit snarky:

Why do so many journalists seem to think that the small (and dwindling) Episcopal Church is the most important of the “mainline” churches?

Well now, I have heard lots of theories on that one myself through the decades — including the viewpoint that the only place The Episcopal Church’s quiet “Decade of Evangelism” was a success, back in the 1990s, was in elite newsrooms. I think there is more to this phenomenon than that, and once wrote an essay on the topic myself. More on that in a moment.

The former leader of the Diocese of Colorado, the charismatic and Charismatic Bishop William C. Frey (a former media professional), kept hearing variations on the same question and he could never understand where it was coming from. Those who envied most of the coverage visited on the combatants in the Episcopal/Anglican wars were like “men who envied another man because of his frequent root canals.”

Nevertheless, Ostling offered his reader some solid insights. Here’s a sample:

Small? In the current “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” the Episcopal Church reports annual proceeds of $2 billion and an “inclusive” membership of 1,951,907, or #14 in size among U.S. religious bodies. Dwindling? For sure. It boasted 3,647,297 members in the peak year of 1966 (using a somewhat inflated headcount method). After decline, average Sunday attendance bottomed out in the 1990s through 2002 at around 850,000, but has fallen to 658,000 after the 2003 installation of its first partnered gay bishop, followed by schism and turmoil.

The headquarters research director asserted that through 2002 the Episcopal Church was the “healthiest” of the so-called mainline churches (defined as long-established, Protestant, predominantly white, ecumenical, and rather pluralistic in doctrine). All such groups have experienced ongoing net membership losses since the mid-1960s, including the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and lately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Many think fuzziness or liberalism in belief explain this unprecedented mainline slide, considering that most biblically conservative groups continued to grow (though these may also face a troublesome future). But it’s more complicated. Mainline statistics are affected by lowering birth and marriage rates, increasing death rates and average ages, and losses of youngsters raised in these churches.

Important? In journalists’ defense, Mark has gotta admit the Episcopal Church makes news.

By all means, read it all. Ostling also thinks this ongoing news phenomenon may have something to do with (wait for it) the American fascination with the royal family.

By the way, the scribe also included this:


It’s been a few weeks — with Christmas season travel and all — since your GetReligionistas checked in with veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling and his new Patheos weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”

Time to fix that.

Our goal here is to feature at least one post from over there, especially when Ostling — with his years and years of experience at Time and the Associated Press — deals with religion questions that are directly related to religion news and/or coverage of the same.

Well, we’ve gone another one of those posts to spotlight.

In this case, a reader named Joshua — no mention of a home base for this person — asked this question:

What would you say is the biggest political theology story that has gone relatively untold in the last few decades?

That’s an interesting choice of words there — “political theology.” As opposed to “dogmatic theology” or “moral theology”?

Anyway, Ostling decided to focus his answer on religious life in the United States, as opposing to taking on all of Planet Earth.

Nobody missed the rise of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition etc. Media analysts have expressed continual fascination or dismay over “religious right” activism, often missing the obvious fact that these conservatives merely imitated prior mobilizations by religious liberals.

Which brings to mind the great civil rights movement that began in the mid-1950s.

The Guy proposes that one of the big untold stories if not the biggest was the response by white southern evangelicals. The well-known courage of African-American Protestants in ridding the South of repellent racial bigotry is enshrined in the magnificent “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 1988). There’s also memorable treatment by University of Arkansas historian David Chappell in “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

But what about whites?

On that, Chappell, an atheist, has added fresh, sophisticated analysis. Alas, we can assume some few Klan-style terrorists were churchgoers. But consider the main body of southern evangelical Protestants. Their performance certainly fell short of northern white liberals’ valor and is open to considerable criticism. And yet, as a reviewer in “The Atlantic” summarized, Chappell has shown that “nearly every important southern white conservative clergyman and theologian averred that there was no biblical sanction for segregation or for white supremacy.” This lack of moral grounding is what finally doomed Jim Crow in that notably pious and theologically conservative region – despite seemingly all-powerful racial traditions backed by many of South’s Democratic Party titans.

Yes, there is more to read. Go check it out.

But, most of all, get on the digital stick and ask The Answer Guy some good news-based questions.

He’s out there. What Would Richard Ostling Do? Use him, folks.

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