5Q+1: Welcoming Jaweed Kaleem to the beat

A few weeks ago, The Miami Herald‘s executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal had high praise for one of his many reporters. He noted that–like many religion reporters–as many people were on vacation during Holy Week and Passover, Jaweed Kaleem was at his busiest.

Those holiday stories can be quite tricky, he noted, “offering a fresh view on holidays that are by nature unchanging, built around traditions that date back thousands of years.”

The religion reporter’s role is to keep up with the news at the same time as he watches the hidden currents that tend to carry the most interesting stories.

That means that along with tracking stories like the Father Cutie tale, he spends hours talking with leaders learning where congregations are going. The results are such pieces as Catholic churches’ approach to taking in displaced members, and a revealing story on the increasing numbers of young men going into the priesthood.

Just 25, the youngest of three siblings who grew up in a Muslim household in suburban Washington, D.C., JD found his way to journalism through a Knight-Ridder scholarship back in college.

He is a perfect fit for his topic: thoughtful, studious, a gifted writer, a reporter comfortable in both traditional studies and digital ones. His desk is stacked with religion books that remain one of the flourishing edges of publishing. He has constructed a net of searches to scan for developments in religion, spirituality and institutions.

That’s some lofty praise from on high, so we wanted to find out more about Kaleem, relatively new to his beat at the Herald.

Kaleem arrived at the Herald in 2007 after graduating with a literature/publishing degree from Emerson College in Boston. He was raised in Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. and did reporting internships at the San Jose Mercury News, Detroit Free Press, Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and the McClatchy (then Knight-Ridder) Washington bureau.

He spent his first few years at the Herald covering general assignment in features, writing on health, entertainment, breaking news, some religion. He also also worked on videos for MiamiHerald.com and radio pieces for WLRN MiamiHerald News.

In 2008, he won a Lilly Scholarship from the Religion Newswriters Association for stories on Islam in South Florida, using the scholarship to take a class at the University of Miami on Islam and gender. In early 2009, he became the Herald‘s official religion reporter. We asked Kaleem to answer GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get out there in the community. I attend services at houses of worship, I go to see religion-related panels and I try to speak at religion-related events about my job as religion reporter and about the Miami Herald in general. In May, I’ll speak to a religious studies professors from across Florida at a media workshop at Florida International University, I’ll work with religious studies graduate students on a separate media workshop and I’ll also be part of a panel organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

I’m always available via phone and email to respond to inquiries, critiques and story pitches. I regularly meet with lay people, clergy and leaders of religion-related organizations for coffee, lunch or tours of the Miami Herald to keep the lines of communication open and flowing on news.

I read the major national newspapers every day and listen to NPR. I read religion blogs and web sites such as Whispers in the Loggia, the Washington Post‘s “On Faith,” Faith & Reason at USA Today, and, of course, GetReligion. I get about a dozen Google alerts every day on local and national religion news topics and also follow religion news from reporters around the country on Twitter. I am subscribed to a many e-mail newsletters and email lists (Christianity Today, Religion Press Release Services, Anti-Defamation League, CAIR, Hindu American Foundation, Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Florida International University Center for the Study of Spirituality; most major houses of worship and denominations in South Florida maintain e-mail lists that I’m on, too). I get about a dozen religion-related publications delivered to the newsroom each week, from the Florida Catholic to the Florida Baptist Witness to Al-Hikmat, a local Muslim newsletter.

I am a member of the Religion Newswriters Association and follow ReligionLink, a website and newsletter they run keeping reporters up-to-date on religion news and providing story ideas, context and sources.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
I haven’t singled out the mainstream media for “not getting” a particular story, but I’ll put forth two things people should pay attention to. One is the growing Muslim population in this country and abroad and the incredible diversity that exists among Muslims, from their beliefs to practices and politics. Muslims in America are going through a period of growth, struggle and change, especially with second-generation and third-generation Muslims coming to age and making their marks. The other is the increase in the “nones” – people who don’t identify in particular with any religion (that does not mean they are not spiritual and it does not mean they identify as atheist) and the decrease in denominational affiliation among young people.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
I’ll be watching the changes in the Archdiocese of Miami. It’s one of the most diverse in the country, it’s growing and in June it’s new leader, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, will be installed. Wenski is a well-known figure in South Florida, where he was ordained and where he made a name for himself advocating on behalf of immigrants and ministering to Haitians and Hispanics (he speaks Creole and Spanish). Change at the top is always something to watch and I’ll keep an eye on how it affects the church as a whole and everyday Catholics.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Religion affects everything. Religion is not just about a person going into a building to pray once a week. It’s a current that influences politics, the work place, school – everything – even for those who are not religious. It has always been a strong force in life and will continue to be. Newspapers need to dedicate themselves to religion coverage and I’m glad the Miami Herald does.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
I can’t think of anything at the moment.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Not at this time.

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5Q+1: Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news

Ann Rodgers has earned such a reputation for her thorough reporting that a reader e-mailed us recently describing her as “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion reporting.” What an appropriate title for a journalist who regularly covers local news that deserves national attention and national news from a local perspective.

Rodgers, who serves as vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association, has been the religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1988. She received her degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master of theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter or simply watch for her name after reading her answers to GetReligion’s five questions.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From all sorts of places. I subscribe to several magazines that represent different aspects of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and get a lot of freebies from other religious groups. I have some favorite Web sites, including Whispers in the Loggia and www.ocanews.org. I also am on the Vatican Information Service and Zenit, both of which are invaluable to anyone who covers the Catholic Church. CAIR bombards me with its summaries. The Pew Forum provides a lot of good updates. There are denominational news releases (although I keep getting bumped off their e-mails because my mailbox fills up and sends a dead letter message back to them when I’m on vacation.) Then there are local sources, including attending presbytery meetings and other events that expose me to cool stories happening in congregations. Frankly my biggest problem is that I’m bombarded by too many sources of religion news and consequently can do little more than skim them.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think there are serious problems because reporters don’t understand Catholic canon law and the church bureaucracies that surround it. If they want to get the story about the Vatican and sex abuse right, they really need to talk to canon lawyers about what the church judicial process was set up to do, how its law operates and what laws these cases were prosecuted under at various times. They also need to understand the relationship, or lack thereof, between canon law and the various civil law systems worldwide. Not every legal system operates like the American system, in fact most of Europe doesn’t.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There are a bunch of them. I’m very interested in the dynamics of evangelical Protestantism right now. There’s a lot of sorting out over how that movement relates to politics and how it will seek to interact with the wider public in the future. Longtime leaders are retiring or dying, and younger evangelicals have somewhat different priorities than their elders, particularly on gay rights. Although I don’t write a lot about politics (we have theologically literate political reporters at my paper) I do expect to keep a close eye on these dynamics.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because religious faith is the number one motivator of how people conduct themselves in the wider community and it determines their view of the larger world. Some people might say that economics has that role, but I think that’s only true for those who worship money. People do incredibly self-sacrificial things in the name of God, whether that means providing medical care to the poor, peacefully resisting brutal dictators or, unfortunately, becoming a suicide bomber. But, overall, the delivery of social services to the poorest regions of the world would disappear if religious groups withdrew from it. Even atheists would say that their behavior is motivated by their lack of belief in God, which is a sort of shadow faith. You can’t understand human behavior, locally or globally, without understanding religious faith.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
I’ve seen some gaffes, but they don’t meet that description. Something that I do see very few years, but didn’t spot anywhere this year, is a holiday food story that will begin something like, “Ham is the perfect, easy main course for all of your special spring holiday meals.” Last year I even heard an announcement very similar to that in my local supermarket, which I thought especially bizarre because the chain is owned by a prominent Jewish family. I do find it the height of irony that these writers are straining to be “inclusive,” while insulting the very group that they’re trying to include. And I think it shows the problems that arise when we try to homogenize references to religious or cultural holidays. We need to let each faith group speak for itself about its specific beliefs and practices.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
It’s important to understand the limits of what we can do. We don’t write about God, who hasn’t given any interviews lately. We write about what human beings believe about God. Our job is to describe those beliefs as accurately as we can. But we can’t solve the great theological mysteries, such as whether God is transcendent or immanent–or plural or gendered or loving or silent or whatever. That is the job of pastors and theologians. As journalists, we can only write about human efforts to understand and interpret those things.

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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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Brad Greenberg on God, news, blogs

BradGreenberg.jpgIf you are interested in God and also in blogs that are about religion and God, then you are probably familiar with The God Blog, which is operated by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. And if you are familiar with The God Blog, that means you are familiar with the work of the young religion-beat specialist Brad A. Greenberg.

Now, I have been interested in having Greenberg do a 5Q+1 post for us for quite some time now. However, there is now another reason to introduce him to GetReligion readers. During our latest reorganization — with Ari Goldman’s decision not to wade into the blogosphere — we’ve been looking for another member of the GetReligionistas and Greenberg has answered the call.

Now, I will let young master Greenberg fill in even more details about where he is in his career when he does an introduction post later this week. But briefly, let me tell you where he has been.

Greenberg is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and has done some adjunct teaching at UCLA, as well, working with journalism interns. He has worked as the religion-beat reporter at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, Calif., The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif., and the Los Angeles Daily News. However, he is best known for his work as the senior writer at The Jewish Journal. You may have also seen his byline as a contributing writer at Christianity Today.

When it comes to awards, he placed second in the Religion Newswriters Association’s Cornell Religion Writer of the Year contest in 2006, picked up a third-place award from the American Academy of Religion contest for mid-sized newspapers and, in 2008, the Los Angeles Press Club gave The God Blog its “best individual blog” nod. One of his recent Facebook updates noted: “Thank God for the religion beat. At the Press Club dinner; won Journalist of the Year in under 100k category. Amen.” That would be the LA Press Club, again.

Greenberg is especially interested in religion and popular culture and, thank goodness, that also includes an interest in faith and sports. We will let him offer some more insights into his unique background later on. Meanwhile, here’s the standard 5Q+1 questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I started in print journalism as a purist, so it’s a bit embarrassing that I get almost all of my religion news online — and not just from the online versions of The New York Times and The Washington Post. In addition to the religion feeds of mainstream media staples, my Google Reader overflows with content from 90-something blogs written by religion reporters; journalists at sectarian outlets; pastors, rabbis and imams; scientists and skeptics; lefties and rightists.

The nice thing about filtering religion news through sectarian publications and personal blogs is that you immediately know the perspective the author is bringing to the story (though I don’t want to confuse that with the term “agenda”) and the authors often communicate a better understanding of why something is occurring and what is at stake. There is more of a mixed bag with religion blogs at mainstream papers, in large part, I think, because traditional journalists remain uncomfortable with having an online identity that differs from the person they need to be in the paper. I know I did. Sadly too, some of my favorite newspaper religion blogs have fallen by the wayside or been drawn back dramatically due to decimated and discouraged staff.

My three most trusted sources — both for keeping up on religion news and for those lazy Monday mornings when I desperately need a quick blog post — are Christianity Today, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and, for a quick view of what the MSM is writing about, GetReligion. I really couldn’t survive without those three. I’m also a big fan of Friendly Atheist, FaithWorld, The Forward and Religion Clause. At the national news level, I think The New York Times and NPR do the best job. I get very little these days out of my local paper, the Los Angeles Times. But I also get a healthy dose of quirky religion news on Twitter from Holy Weblog! and through my at-home subscriptions, which include The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired, but not Newsweek and Time. Really, you’d be surprised how many religion currents run through an issue of Wired.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

blog_header_thegodblogDefinitely the Miss California mess.

Actually, though that was designed as a joke, there was plenty wrong with the way media reacted to Carrie Prejean’s belief that homosexuality is a sin. And that hints at a bigger religion story that the MSM continues to miss, or at least oversimplify: homosexuality and the church. The Episcopal schism and California’s Proposition 8 come with their own pre-packaged stories. But it’s too easy to settle for a storyline that pits gay rights activists against Christian soldiers. When is the last time you saw a reporter really try to explain why most Christians believe homosexuality is a sin? Considering the great range of opinions on this topic, from everyone’s-welcome theology to fire and brimstone for those who stray, shouldn’t journalists being trying a bit harder to understand why even members of the same denomination, the same church, the same family could understand the same few biblical passages so differently?

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

The arc of the atheist evangelists. A few years ago, there was all this hoopla over atheists and agnostics “coming out of the closet.” But aside from a few bestsellers and getting a lobbyist in Washington, I’ve seen a lot more news ink dedicated to this movement than seems warranted. Some polls have found an uptick in the percent of Americans who identify as unreligious, which is different than being atheist or even agnostic, but other polls continue to find that nontheists are viewed more negatively by others than just about any other group. No, they aren’t baby eaters, but Americans would still be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is female, African American, Latino, Catholic, Jew, Muslim or Mormon than for an atheist.

I think journalists have made the mistake of over-hyping this story because they feel like atheists have been underrepresented and under respected for years. Their perspective, though, is likely skewed. Based on the random samplings of the dailies I’ve worked at in Southern California, newsrooms have a disproportionately high percentage of unbelievers among their ranks.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Because that role cannot be understated. This is a point I have made for years. In fact, I emphasized it in a blog post last year titled “The dangerous world of religion reporting.” I wrote:

Once considered a backwater of journalism, the Godbeat feels to me quite chosen, home to immensely important and interesting news. Religion, after all, is the rubric through which each person uniquely sees the world. Science, education, politics, entertainment — it regularly serves as an undercurrent in these fields. (That was, in fact, part of my pitch at The Sun three years ago when they were looking for a reporter for the newly created position and I was eager to get out of Rialto.) The religion angle also is occasionally relevant when trying to understand peoples’ beliefs in God, their perspectives on the life hereafter and that which gives every day meaning.

Think of the God beat as the Jerusalem of journalism. Seriously.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

You mean besides learning that a reporter at a Jewish newspaper, who looks and acts and even spells his name like a Jew, is in fact a Christian?

Well, I wouldn’t call the general phenomenon funny — it’s the reason I’m going to law school — but as newspapers have been cut to the bone and, in some cases, gone belly up, the religion beat has suffered. The Los Angeles Times, which only a few years ago had three-plus religion reporters, has had periods with none. Picking up the slack have been reporters with other specialties, which has led to the funny part of this sad story. For instance, an article about soaring fuel prices last summer included this paragraph:

The problem is affecting even the holy business, driving down attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques. Religious leaders are struggling to help their members cope, spinning new themes about a society that has become almost sinfully reliant on motorized transport. Others are viewing the energy-price squeeze as a test of the way they serve God and their communities.

Now, any Jew, and most gentiles, could tell you that Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. They haven’t since the Model-T went into mass production, regardless of the price of gasoline. But the reporter, who quoted a Muslim and a few pastors in his article but no Jews, must not have known this; surprisingly, neither did his editors. It’s difficult to imagine Russell Chandler making that mistake.

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

It sure ain’t what it used to be, and I worry about how much more it will slip as more and more metropolitan papers drop their religion reporter slot(s).

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5Q+1: Ari Goldman is in the house

searchforgodharvardNot to bury the lede or anything, by when it comes to religion writing, Prof. Ari L. Goldman of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has been there and done that. During his two decades at the New York Times, he was one of the nation’s most trusted bylines on the religion beat and I have heard that judgment voiced by a stunningly broad range of clergy and Godbeat critics.

In other words, any decent survey of religion writing in the late 20th century would have to include Ari’s work. I sure hope GetReligion.org readers start paying more attention to this weblog’s attempts to deal with religion reporting in a global context, because as soon as we can get the software tweaked that will be the main focus of Goldman’s blogging as the newest member of your GetReligionistas.

But you need to know some more about Ari, first.

In his current academic incarnation, he serves as the director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life, a duty which regularly takes him and a circle of students to religion news hot spots around the world. Before entering journalism, Goldman went to all of the predictable schools, as in Yeshiva University, Columbia University and, of course, Harvard.

Of course, he is also known as the author of the bestseller, “The Search for God at Harvard,” as well as “Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today” and a recent memoir, “Living a Year of Kaddish.”

You can find out more (he plays cello in the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra) by reading his online bio and Ari will write his own note of introduction in a few days. However, since he is a pro with years of experience on the beat, I thought I would also ask for his take on our usual 5Q+1 questions, since it has been way too long since we offered one of those. So here goes:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I mostly get my news from old media and first-hand reporting. By old media, I mean The New York Times and the New York Daily News, which I read on paper every day. I also have subscriptions — yes, on paper — to a host of denominational papers from Jewish, Catholic, Hindu and Muslim sources. Perhaps most important, I get my religion news from synagogues, churches, temples and mosques, which I visit frequently, both in New York where I live and on my travels. I listen to sermons and I talk to people.

So I am decidedly old-fashioned, but not totally dependent on paper and first-hand observation. I read the religion writing of my former students on the Internet. I have been teaching a course at Columbia in religion writing since 1993. My students have gone on to write religion for mainstream papers in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Raleigh, N.C. and La Crosse, Wisc. Many of them, like Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune, even blog. I read her blog, The Seeker, and several academic blogs, including The Revealer out of NYU, Religion Dispatches out of Emory and Diane Winston’s out of USC. And, of course, I read getreligion.org. While I have a special place in my heart for print, I realize that these internet sources are the future of religion journalism.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I want to begin by saying that there is much that the mainstream media gets right. It is easy to bash the work of religion journalists and pick apart their work. But as a former religion writer, I know what a battle it is to report religion intelligently for editors who simply do not “get” religion. And I was at one of the best papers in the country, The New York Times; I can only imagine how hard it is at smaller papers. I am also aware that even if the reporter gets it right, the editors can cut the story and change its focus and meaning.

But that wasn’t your question. What does the mainstream press miss? The role of faith in global conflicts. I just returned from a trip to Northern Ireland and was struck by the efforts of Catholic and Protestant leaders to damp down any return to violence in the aftermath of the recent killing of two British soldiers by a radical IRA group. In what is often portrayed as a religious conflict, religion has actually emerged as the solution and not the problem. Another global hot spot where religion plays a role is the Arab-Israel conflict. Facile comparisons to Northern Ireland are being made in part because of the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as the United States’ special envoy to the Middle East. In Ireland, he is often hailed as a magician because of his work on the Good Friday Accords. But whether he can work his magic in the Holy Land, where the stew of religion and politics is quite different, requires some smart mainstream media analysis.

arigoldman(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Number one is the economy. It is the big story that has already begun to shape our society, from banks to housing to law enforcement to schools. Religion will not be immune. The Catholic Church is already closing schools and parishes. Other religious organizations are laying off workers, cutting back services and shuttering their doors. But most important is how the economy will affect the people in the pews. With unemployment rising and less disposable income at hand, will people turn toward faith or away from it? A lot of that has to do with how the churches, temples and mosques respond to this crisis.

Another story I will be watching is the integration of Muslims in Europe. In addition to Ireland, I recently traveled to Germany. One of the raging controversies there is the building of mosques in certain neighborhoods. The fears of the mosque are rooted in a mix of bigotry, xenophobia and real estate values. The integration of Muslims in Germany, France, England and other European countries is an important bellwether for the West.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Most things go in and out of fashion — politics, economic theories, sports teams, clothes, celebrities — but religion, like it or hate it, remains. And that it because religion is about ultimate questions. How individuals and nations answer those questions motivates them in powerful and practical ways. I mentioned global conflicts earlier, but religion also motivates people’s spending, their values, their associations and the ways they educate their children. If you miss the religion story, you miss a good part of our world.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It’s far from funny, but I guess it is ironic. I’ve seen reference after reference in the mainstream press, including the Wall Street Journal, of Bernie Madoff as an “Orthodox Jew.” That hurt. There is nothing Orthodox about Madoff. He did not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath or do other things that Orthodox Jews do. What he did was ingratiate himself with the Orthodox who trusted him and gave him money by the millions. Those who trusted him included my alma mater, Yeshiva University, and the high school my wife and oldest children attended, the Ramaz Upper School.

In other words, Madoff stole from the Orthodox but he was not one of them. And even when he wasn’t identified as “Orthodox,” the fact that he was Jewish was often cited. As Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Manhattan recently told his congregation, the Madoff scandal broke just as the scandal Blagojevich scandal was breaking in Illinois.”Did you ever see a reference to Blagojevich’s religion?” the rabbi asked. “Yet we kept seeing Madoff described as Jewish.”

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

The mainstream media is already beaten down. It is in a very different place than where it was when getreligion.org started five years ago. There is far less religion coverage and the religion writers who remain are heroic, but not perfect. As a blogger, I hope to point out the good and the bad.

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5Q+1: It’s pronounced “Dow-thut”

douthat2One of the advantages of living and working on Capitol Hill is that there are all kinds of interesting people who live in your neighborhood. I mean, there is this house a block or so away from my computer keyboard that, these days, has all kinds of people in black suits in black cars around it these days. I think it has something to do with it being the home of the junior senator from Illinois.

But I digress. Another very interesting thinker, when it comes to religion and public life, also lives in this neighborhood. His name is Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and he is someone who shows up in all kinds of interesting places around this very small town talking about all kinds of interesting things. Check out this interesting Pew Forum session on God and the Democratic Party, with the omnipresent Amy Sullivan and E.J. Dionne.

If you want to know more about Douthat, here is what they say about him at his day job:

Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and Grand New Party, with Reihan Salam, which is forthcoming in 2008 from Doubleday. He is the film critic for National Review, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, GQ, Slate and other publications. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he now lives in Washington. …

Of course, these days, you also need to know that he is the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of the new and much-discussed book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

You also need to read this man’s weblog over at The Atlantic, where there is currently a very lively discussion on this provocative question: Why are modern Evangelical Protestants more pro-life than modern Catholics? Yikes.

And, of course, the name is pronounced “Dow-thut.”

So here we go, with the standard 5Q+1 questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get my news primarily from a combination of the big newspapers that I read every day — the New York Times and Washington Post chief among them, with the Wall Street Journal close behind — and a slew of bloggers who are either interested in religion or writing about it full time, ranging from the crew at GetReligion and Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog to the First Things blog, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, and my colleague Andrew Sullivan. (I consider myself vastly more underinformed than I was in the days when Amy Welborn used her blog as a Catholic-inflected clearinghouse for religion news of all kinds; I don’t blame her for giving that up, but I miss it.)

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It isn’t the sort of story that makes for newspaper headlines, so it’s no surprise they don’t get it, but I think the media’s focus on the culture wars — whether between secularists and believers, or the religious right and the religious left — has led them to underplay the larger theological context in which its occurring: Namely, the collapse of orthodox Christian belief in the United States, and its replacement by a cluster of competing religious narratives that tend to offer variants — some socially-liberal, some socially-conservative — on what Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism.” I think there’s still a core of orthodox Christian belief (broadly defined to include Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed traditions), but there isn’t enough coverage of the extent to which the “conservative evangelical” who gets her religious teaching from Joel Osteen the Prayer of Jabez and the liberal Protestant who cheers for the consecration of V. Gene Robinson actually share a lot of theological premises, most of which are functionally post-Christian.

douthat(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Since this is an election year, Barack Obama’s attempt to broaden the Democratic Party’s support among religious voters, both Catholic and evangelical, strikes me as the biggest national religion story of the next six months. The second-biggest is the cracking-up of the Anglican Communion — the media tends to overhype it, but it’s implications for the future of Christianity, in America and abroad, are large enough deserves at least some of the hype.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I can think of a hundred reasons, but here’s one big one: Because religious belief and practice relate not only to our timebound lives but to eternity — which means that the stakes in religious controversies tend to be higher than in any other aspect of human affairs — which means in turn that the capacity for dramatic, world-changing actions (for good or for ill) is higher in the religious sphere than anywhere else. And if you’re a journalist looking for the story of a lifetime — well, anyone can cover Presidential politics; it’s the writer who discovers the next Mother Teresa, or Osama bin Laden, who’s really going to make a name for himself.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

This was well-covered, especially in the liberal press, but when Larry Craig and David Vitter showed up as two of the 10 co-sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendment was reintroduced in the Senate last month, I don’t care where you stand on the amendment, or on the attention we should pay to hypocrisy … You HAD to chuckle, at the very least.

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

This relates more to my own sphere of opinion journalism than to newspaper and magazine reporting, but I would love to live in a world where the media provided more space for arguing about the actual truth claims of religion — where op-ed columnists and bloggers and essayists spent less time on meta debates about the politics and sociology of religion, and more time arguing about whether Christianity or Islam or Judaism is true. These kind of arguments still take place, obviously, but they take place in books rather than in the popular press — and I’d like to live in a world in which the pope’s book about Jesus of Nazareth sparked a lively intellectual debate about Christianity’s truth claims in, say, the Times Book Review and the Post op-ed page, instead of being largely ignored.

But I’m as guilty as everyone else in this regard … In a short-form medium like journalism, it’s easier to write around the central questions raised by religion than to attack them directly.

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5Q+1 with Colleen Carroll Campbell

cccColleen Carroll Campbell knows all about the new Christian faithful.

A serious Roman Catholic, she is one of them. In her first book, her last acknowledgment was not to her dog or an inside joke to a friend, but rather to “the God who answered the call of my restless heart. Without him, nothing would be possible or meaningful.”

She has also written extensively about them. Among various accomplishments, Colleen is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola, 2002); the host of EWTN’s Faith and Culture; a weekly columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch; and a fellow at The Ethics and Public Policy Center. She was a presidential speechwriter for President George W. Bush; studied philosophy as a doctoral student at Saint Louis University; is an alumna of Marquette University; and had an essay about Alzheimer’s disease, “Hope in the Ruins,” featured in Take Heart: Catholic Writers In Our Time. Her full bio is here.

I cannot write about Colleen objectively, as I am good acquaintances with her. But I know that in her book, articles, and columns, she manages to find some morsel of information about the intersection of faith and politics — some statistic, quote, or theme — that less talented writers miss.

Here are the six standard questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get most of my religion-related news online, from sources as varied as the Drudge Report, The New York Times, CNN, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Catholic World News, as well as commentary sites like this one (Get Religion), blogs, e-mailed articles from colleagues and friends, and a very helpful daily roundup of religion-related stories compiled by a St. Louis-based blogger and friend of mine, Sherry Tyree. I read my local newspaper, of course, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and I subscribe to various religion publications, from First Things to Catholic World Report. I cruise the religion aisles of bookstores regularly to keep abreast of the latest religion trends. But most of my religion-related columns deal with the way religion influences and intersects with politics and pop culture, so my news tends to come from secular sources.

2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media do not get?

Although I have seen mainstream media coverage of young adults and religion improve in recent years, I still see signs of the same blind spots and untested assumptions that led me to write my book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola, 2002). Most journalists still struggle to understand or even acknowledge the hordes of young Catholics who flock to papal youth rallies, the throngs of young pro-lifers who fill the National Mall to overflowing every January for the March for Life and the trend among many young adults toward a more liturgical and traditional Christian faith and a firmer defense of the dignity of every human life, from conception to natural death.

No matter how many events, rallies, publications, campus clubs and the like turn up year after year attesting to these countercultural trends, they remain largely invisible to many journalists — or they are regarded as evidence only of a “fringe element” with no bearing on the larger culture. Journalists, especially those who came of age during the 1960s, tend to be adept at writing about young adults who reject religious authority and tradition and embrace progressive political causes. But the growing cohort of young adults who are attracted to authority and tradition and see no conflict between traditional moral values and care for the poor and vulnerable tend to be overlooked or dismissed. If they are taken seriously enough to merit the occasional story, the reasons these young adults offer for their life choices often are glossed over and more weight is given to the reasons that their critics offer — rigidity, naivete and nostalgia. The media’s coverage of young adults and religion has seen some improvement in recent years, but there is room for much more.

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

As an op-ed columnist, I’ll be following the presidential election, of course, and the various religious story lines that emerge in the campaign and its aftermath. More broadly, I am increasingly interested in the topic of women, Christianity and American culture — how the challenges and problems posed by contemporary feminism intersect with traditional Judeo-Christian ideas about faith, family and freedom. The divide in our post-feminist culture between women who view religious tradition as an oppressive force and those who regard it as liberating interests me a great deal. I hope to examine the conflicting ideas at the heart of that divide more deeply in the coming years.

4) Why is it important for journalists to grasp the role of religion in the world?

Our most contentious cultural debates and momentous political decisions rest on essentially religious assumptions, whether we acknowledge them or not. What else, after all, is at the core of our disputes on such topics as embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage? Our disagreements arise from competing ideas about the value of human life, the meaning of human sexuality and whether and how we can know moral truth. Journalists need to understand the competing worldviews driving these debates or they cannot cover them with fairness and accuracy. Astute religion coverage can cut to the heart of an issue and help us understand more clearly the assumptions and motivations of those with whom we disagree as well as our own.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Perhaps only a political junkie would find this funny, but I have been amused at how pundits and journalists who spent the past eight years warning us against George W. Bush’s imposition of a theocracy now are tripping over themselves to tell us how wonderful it is that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has gotten religion. Whether Obama is promising to expand Bush’s once-reviled faith-based initiative, assuring voters that his Christian faith will influence him as he strives to “do the Lord’s work” or telling religious crowds that he wants to create a Kingdom of God “right here on Earth,” he wins plaudits from the very same voices that once castigated Bush for weaving in far less pointed references to his own Christian faith. I guess they think faith and politics should mix after all — if you have the right kind of politics.

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

For all of its flaws, the American media establishment still has a much more nuanced and favorable view of religion than most of its European counterparts. And I think religion coverage has improved a great deal even in the past decade.

There are still many American journalists who fail to do their homework when writing religion-related stories and fail to understand the significant role that religion plays in nearly every major news story they cover. I’m glad GetReligion.org exists to keep them on their toes.

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Continuing the Useem dialogue

IMG 6378You know what?

I have been putting off posting the second part of my dialogue (click here for earlier post) with freelance journalist Andrea Useem for two simple reasons: (1) I was out of town for a week, attempting to survive four days of traffic-challenged driving in greater Los Angeles and (2) we normally fill our 5Q+1 interviews with hyperlinks to all of the publications, schools, think tanks, etc., linked to the journalist’s career and, in this case, Useem has just been too busy for me to look up all of those links.

Honest. I’m only going to do about half of them. Or less. So there. Try it yourself.

To flash back, Useem is the veteran religion-beat freelancer and researcher who is behind the ReligionWriter.com blog. There are all kinds of nice details in her personal biography — read it all — but here is the section that many will find the most interesting.

After reporting first-hand on the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi, Andrea became intrigued by Islam, a religion she knew little about. She studied informally with Muslim leaders in Kenya, Egypt and Sudan, and what started as a journalistic interest gradually became a personal conviction. Just before leaving Africa for good in the fall of 1999, she formally embraced Islam while in Zimbabwe.

Back in the United States, Andrea earned her Master’s of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. She studied Arabic at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Middlebury’s renowned summer language institute. She met and married an American convert to Islam in early 2001, before graduating from Harvard that spring. After long consideration, she decided against pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, largely because she preferred the fast pace and wide reach of journalism.

Did you follow all of that? As stated before, she has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I met her when she called me up to talk, as part of research she is doing for some Religion Newswriters Association “webinars” on coverage of Islam. It looks like the dates for those are March 11 and April 22. Check it out.

So here come the standard question:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get the majority of my news, including religion news, via RSS feed on my Google desktop sidebar. Big breaking stories — like the death of Gordon Hinckley, for example — usually come to me first from major news outlets on my RSS, like Forbes, CNN, or the Guardian.

Blog-wise, I am trying to create an all-star religion RSS line-up. Currently some of my favorite national-audience religion RSS feeds are: GetReligion, Gary Stern’s Blogging Religiously, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, the First Things blog, Reuter’s FaithWorld, the Religion News Service blog, washingtonpost.com’s On Faith, BlogRunner’s religion category, and CBN’s The Brody File, in addition to religion-specific RSS feeds from Slate, NPR and washingtonpost.com. I read ChristianityToday.com, CAIR, Altmuslim.com and the Pew Forum via email and browsing.

I also pay attention to the news feed on my Facebook page, and friends who mass-email on religious topics — that gives me a sense of what stories have caught the attention of other people. Locally, I read blogs by religious folks in Northern Virginia, including that of Reston Community Church pastor Ben Arment, and consume local publications like The Muslim Link.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here’s an important story that simply hasn’t been covered: The death of the Salafi movement in America. Maybe it hasn’t been covered because a reporter would have to spend so long setting the context for why this neo-traditionalist Muslim movement is important (Answer: It significantly shaped the character of Islam in America for a decade or more, and this very conservative thinking often results in isolationist us-versus-the-West thinking; whether it is associated with violence is a separate question).

This story came to my attention via Northern Virginia Muslim blogger Tariq Nelson, a person I think religion reporters should include in their Rolodex/Blackberry/RSS (particularly if the question at hand is, “Where are the conservative Muslims who condemn violence?” or “What are the debates going on right now among American Muslims?”) Tariq pointed me toward a seven-part series — The rise and fall of the ‘salafi dawa’ in the US — published last January by Umar Lee, an American Muslim who, like Tariq, spent time as a Salafi. Anyways, Umar’s tale of Salafism is fascinating: It’s a story that simply hasn’t been told, at least as far as I’m aware, in the mainstream press.

MuslimUSA(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Is the Christian legal movement paving a multicultural superhighway, on which the next generation of minority religions will ride? School prayer isn’t a burning issue right now, but it’s a perfect example of an issue conservative evangelicals have trumpeted without apparent thought to how non-Christian groups would use such legal precedents to champion their own rights. If there were any sort of state- or federally-mandated prayer in public school, it would open wide the door for, say, Muslim students to ask for time off during class, special foot-baths or other accommodations. The point is not that I’m against Muslims praying in school but that the very people pushing for these rights may be a bit shocked at the eventual results. Yet because the Christian legal movement frames its arguments in terms of religious liberty, which applies to all Americans, I do believe they are setting the stage for further battles over religion-in-the-public-square, as minority religions follow in the litigious footsteps of evangelicals.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Substitute the word “politics” or “economics” for the word “religion” in that question, and the answer is obvious: Religion is a large part of what makes the world go round. Remain ignorant at your own risk.

What we’re seeing now in journalism, I believe, might be called a market correction, except that it’s really an intellectual correction. Not to get too bookish, but members of the media, like a lot of secular elites, subscribed to the modernist assumption that as the world became more and more technologically advanced, religion would play a smaller and smaller role before finally being extinguished by the march of human progress. Of course, that’s not at all how the story has played out, and the media, along with academia, government and business, has finally gotten the memo. For an excellent sociological peek into the special role evangelicals are playing in bringing religion to elite American institutions, I recommend D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

While reading Jacqui Salmon’s Washington Post article on how the NFL forbid churches from broadcasting the Super Bowl on large screens, I almost laughed out loud when I read the Christian legal movement may yet weigh in on the issue:

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties group that focuses on religious freedom issues, is threatening to sue the NFL on behalf of an Alabama church that wants to host a big-screen Super Bowl party. He is also seeking sponsors for federal legislation to exempt churches from the ban.

On the face of it, this is funny just because I think only evangelicals could conceive of Super Bowl parties as a religious freedom issue. It demonstrates how hard it is find the line sometimes between American culture and evangelical culture, both for outside observers and inside believers. This religion-culture overlap comes up in a number of debates, including: Is entertainment-style megachurch worship still worship? Has Joel Osteen blurred forever the line between faith and self-help? One person who I think is asking some thought-provoking questions on these issues is Skye Jethani, now managing editor of Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal and author of the well-read 2006 piece, “All We Like Sheep,” which speaks out against the consumerization of evangelical Christianity.

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

Yes, very much so. While I am as interested as the next religion reporter in questions about the-next-great-religion-story and how to improve religion coverage, I do worry that these discussions are like so many concertos on the Titanic foredeck. The mainstream media faces some very serious business problems, to which it has not yet discovered any simple answers — so while we’re honing our skills on the reporting side, the business side is deciding whether or not to throw us overboard.

What I would like to see much more of are discussions about, for example, how “denominational” bloggers are not only serving as important sources for the mainstream media, but are in some senses replacing the mainstream media. I think religion reporters could also benefit immensely from digital news-gathering strategies, like Jay Rosen’s ideas about using social networks to assist in beat reporting. I find traditional print reporters are, for the most part, incredibly resistant to the changes going on. So I’d like to see the religion-in-the-media conversation be more new-media focused.

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