Well, DUH!?!? (updated)

voting boothWell, gosh, where have we heard this thought before?

Well, Leah Daughtry is the chief of staff for the Democratic Party and the head of the upcoming Democratic National Convention that will be held out in Denver. So this is an op-ed in the Washington Post that might get some attention (as opposed to week after week of GetReligionistas yelping about this same topic).

So, I hereby bring you: “Hey, Pollsters: Democrats Care About Religion, Too.” This is a sample, but you should read it all:

Religion will play an important role in today’s South Carolina Democratic primary, just as it did in last week’s South Carolina Republican primary. The difference is that we’ll learn less about how religion affects today’s vote than we learned about how it influenced last week’s contest.

Last week, thanks to exit polls, we understood the religious breakdown, how often voters attended religious services, whether they considered themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, whether they said the candidates’ religious beliefs mattered and what they thought about abortion. And the polls helped to shape the news coverage, so we saw headlines such as: “Evangelical Republicans Drive S.C. Primary” and Ideology, Religion Important in “S.C.”

If previous exit polls this cycle are any indicator, religion will be much less central to the exit polls today. At most, Democrats have been asked which religion they identify with and how often they go to church. In Iowa and Michigan, Democrats weren’t asked about religion at all. And that, in turn, has shaped the news coverage, making it appear that one party has a monopoly on religion in this race.

Daughtry goes on to say some logical things and some things that will make some people say, “Yeah, right.”

But the logical is clear and journalists should cheer for it. Pollsters need to be asking the same basic political and social issues questions on both sides of this race. I think it would help if people at, oh, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life even asked some doctrinal questions, too, to probe how basic religious beliefs actually affect political beliefs and actions.

But this op-ed is a start. Hopefully someone out there in pollster land will listen.

Help us watch the exit materials in the major newspapers tomorrow, post-South Carolina. Did anyone see anything interesting on the cable networks tonight on these issues? Did anyone ask the Democrats about God and/or social issues?

UPDATE: CNN does have some data
, but not much, and it does appear that Obama cleaned up in the pews. Click here to see some of the numbers. I’m a bit confused about the two church-attendance questions. One says “vote by church attendance” and the other says, well, “vote by church attendance.” Huh? Why do we need the second set of numbers, which simply seem to be some categories mashed together?

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A scream inside public-radio world (updated)

the screamThere are many, many quotable passages in that famous letter by New York Times editor Bill Keller, in which he responded to a blue-ribbon panel that produced a study document entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust.”

But here is the section that GetReligion readers will, I imagine, recall most vividly:

… (Diversifying) the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. …

I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

Amen. Preach it.

Here’s why I bring this up again. If you were to list national-level news organizations — other than the Times — that provoke firestorms of criticism as well as almost reverent statements of praise, you would have to put National Public Radio, and the wider world of public radio in general, at the very top. And we had a lively discussion at this blog recently about bias in the wider NPR universe after an especially nasty skit about Catholicism and Mike Huckabee aired on the Fair Game with Faith Salie program from Public Radio International.

Some readers thought that, by airing any criticism of NPR & Co., I had joined the chorus of ultra-religious wackos who love to bash the network. Of course, my post had included statements from moi like the following:

Personally, I think that NPR does some of the best religion-news coverage that is being done today — period.

And:

Seriously, it’s hard to question NPR’s commitment to excellence.

Thus, some readers were convinced that I had gone too far in defending both NPR and some of the other organizations that cooperate with it in the whole web of public-radio affiliates and program providers.

None of these letters surprised me all that much.

But then there was this letter, from a person safely outside the Beltway, but in a public-radio newsroom. Needless to say, I cannot use this person’s name, but I have corresponded with him or her enough to know that this person is for real.

the screamSo here is a slightly edited version of this letter — I have removed some passages containing names — which opens with another pro-NPR quote from my earlier post:

“It’s way too simplistic to say that NPR people are all liberals and who are out to mock people like Mike Huckabee and the people who are voting for him.”

Speaking as somebody who’s been a public-radio producer for decades, it’s actually NOT too simplistic to say this. NPR is easily the most monolithically liberal institution I know of in the media. Unless they’ve hired somebody recently I don’t know about, they have zero conservatives or religious traditionalists. …

They talk a good game about all views being represented, but the fact is that NPR really has no room for any worldview except that of liberals. To say that they don’t understand believers is a huge understatement. And they have no interest in changing.

Not that they’re bad across the board on religion. … But I must stipulate that this by itself is not necessarily a sign of balance. NPR attracts a certain percentage of listeners who will fire off a scorching letter about any religion reporting that doesn’t pass the Hitchins or Dennett test of doctrinal purity. …

They do OK with “non-dogmatic” religion. If it doesn’t make them feel as if they’ve done the things they should not have done, or left undone the things they should have done, and there is no good in them — it’ll probably get a pass. Consequently, Episcopalians and Unitarians and other tame Christians whose creed is the Washington Post Style section ring no alarm bells. If your religion strikes an NPR reporter as a harmless idiosyncratic hobby along the lines of doing macrame or collecting tin-can labels, you’re safe. It’s the serious Christians who make their hackles rise.

Even then, certain varieties of dogmatic religion are OK, as long as they’re not perceived to represent a threat to the latte lifestyle. A Manichee in Macon, Georgia would be “colorful.” A Baptist in Macon by contrast often seems to strike NPR as the kind of person who might be making fertilizer bombs in his basement.

I have wondered for a long time what might make NPR wake up to what’s going on with the religious lives of most American Christians. I have concluded that nothing will make them change except the threat of irrelevance. The Internet has dead-tree newspapers quaking in fear. This and other new technologies may well smack NPR with the baseball bat of reality at some point in the future. But for now, they believe they know it all. And when you know it all, what can you learn from a Baptist in Macon? Or a Catholic in Baton Rouge?

In my original post, I had noted that many GetReligion readers seem to believe that “the whole NPR universe is somehow (a) anti-religion, (b) anti-traditional forms of religion, (c) anti-evangelicals or (d) some combination of the above.” This journalist falls into the (b) camp, it seems to me.

Again, I think that this position is too simplistic, applied to such a large news operation.

the screamStill, I wanted to share the letter. Why? Because there is an issue at the heart of it that was also raised by Keller in response to the Times credibility study. It’s an issue that we have discussed dozens of times here at this weblog.

The big question: What should mainstream newsrooms do to add intellectual and cultural diversity?

Conservatives can complain and complain, but do they really want to see some kind of affirmative action program for journalists who hold ancient, traditional, beliefs (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, you name it) when it comes to matters of doctrine and moral theology? Does anyone really think that is what editors should do?

I should mention, at this point, that conservative educational institutions have — for several decades — hardly set the woods on fire when it comes to preparing young journalists who are ready to work in these kinds of newsrooms, as opposed to the “safer” arena of religious magazines and denominational wire services.

In other words, we need more traditional believers who love journalism and fewer who act as if they hate journalism. That’s the flip side of the coin, the yin to the yang expressed in the painful letter that is at the heart of this post.

Let me end with a warning. Do not click “comment” if your intent is merely to bash the wider world of NPR or to bash the people who tend to criticize all things public radio. Click “comment” if you want to discuss the diversity challenge faced by the leaders of major newsrooms, such as the Times or NPR. I will try to spike all comments that offer more heat than light. So keep it clean, out there.

UPDATE: In addition to the comments building up on our site, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has written a lengthy post at his Crunchy Cons blog offering his take on this topic. Read it all.

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Wanted: Beliefnet.com religion scribe

ScribesWindowsIt is, of course, one of the most infamous job postings in the history of religion writing in the mainstream press. I refer to that 1995 notice at the Washington Post letting the staff know that there was an opening on the beat.

Here is a passage on that subject from a chapter that I have written for an Oxford Centre book of essays on religion news trends that is coming out in the not so distant future. I believe the tentative title for this collection, by a number of different authors, is “Blind Spot.” I imagine that the words “get” and “religion” will be somewhere in the subtitle. You think?

Here is the key question, one frequently discussed here at GetReligion: What are the ideal qualifications that a journalist needs to be a professional religion-beat reporter?

Debates about this issue often return to a highly symbolic event in 1994, when Washington Post editors posted a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. The “ideal candidate,” it said, is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Notice the word “ideal.” Professional religion writers often argue about the pluses and minuses of religious believers working on this beat and I don’t expect these arguments to end any time soon. However, I have seen believers and non-believers do excellent work covering religion news, including fair and accurate cover of faiths radically different than their own. Thus, there is no need to debate the appropriateness of the Post editors stating that the “ideal candidate” is “not religious. What is controversial, however, is the statement that the “ideal candidate” is not necessarily “an expert in religion.”

The editors were, in effect, arguing that a lack of expertise and experience can be a plus — a virtue — when covering religion news.

Imagine, for a moment, this standard being applied to other news beats. Try to imagine Post editors seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying that the “ideal candidate” is one who is “not interested in the law nor an expert on legal issues.” Try to imagine elite editors seeking an opera critic and arguing that the “ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera.” How about similar notices seeking reporters to cover professional sports, science, film and politics?

Why would editors seeking excellence on the religion beat use a different approach than they would use on other complex news beats?

Feather and InkHere is why I bring this up.

GetReligion.org is a member of the “Blog Heaven” site over at Beliefnet.com and, as a rule, the GetReligionistas have been strong advocates of that massive site including more and more religion news as well as commentary.

Thus, it is interesting to us that the Beliefnet.com crew have posted the following notice for its “Senior Editor — Religion” slot. It sounds like this person will play a pivotal role in the site’s news content (and other forms of content, to say the least).

The post is described as follows:

This position is responsible for helping to craft the company’s offerings related to faith and organized religion. Requires expert knowledge of Christianity and in depth knowledge of the religious landscape and various people of faith. Interest and knowledge of a wide range of content types strongly preferred; from journalistically neutral coverage of breaking faith news to faith-specific devotional tools, to audio, video, eCards, quizzes, galleries, and other new forms as they are created.

And here is the formal list of requirements:

Requirements * Expert knowledge of Christianity; interest and in depth knowledge of the various belief systems of the major faiths. * Familiarity and contacts with the leaders of the major faith communities * Superb verbal and written communication skills * Familiarity with content management systems and online editing/production experience * Proven ability to meet deadlines, with accuracy and attention to detail required * Ability to multitask and work effectively in a dynamic, constantly changing, team oriented environment.

Comments anyone?

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5Q+1 visits with new Tennessean

SmietanapicThat would be GetReligion reader Bob Smietana, of course, along with the rest of his family.

You see, Smietana has just made a very interesting and rare leap from the world of the denominational press back into a mainstream newsroom. He has joined the Tennessean as the new religion reporter in the very symbolic city of Nashville — which is known as guitar town, the Baptist Vatican and lots of other names. (I interviewed for that same job a long, long, long time ago and the statistics on religion in that zip code are amazing.)

Smietana has been a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a correspondent for Religion News Service, and for eight years he served as features editor for the Covenant Companion, a Chicago-based publication of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received more than a dozen national awards from the Associated Church Press for his work there.

A native of Attleboro, Mass., Smietana has a degree in religion from North Park University in Chicago, and he earned a master’s degree in communication from National-Louis University in Chicago. In 2001, he completed a summer program in reporting on religion news at Northwestern University’s the Medill School of Journalism. His freelance credits are extensive and he will soon begin blogging at GoodIntentionsBook.com, in support of what he calls a “Freakonomics-style” book on poverty, immigration, global warming and other related issues.

So here are his answers to the usual 5Q+1 questions from your GetReligionistas:

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

These days I’ve been missing Ted Olsen’s mighty, mighty weblog at Christianitytoday.com, which seems to have been phased out these days. It was a great spot to get a ton of coverage, all in one place, and it’s sorely missed.

RNS remains a great source — Kevin Eckstrom and Adelle Banks do great work. And the denominational press — Baptist Press, Presbyterian News Service, United Methodist News Service, etc. — give an insider’s view of what’s happening in those groups I just did a story on the effect of the weak dollar on missionaries and international relief groups, and got the inspiration from something the Baptist Press ran.

The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, all do great coverage when they take religion. And usually there’s something in those publications that will spark a God-beat story. Religion is one of the world’s largest industries, and the trends, like the weak dollar, that effect big for-profit companies also effect churches.

Probably the most important sources are religious folks themselves, especially the clergy and lay leader who know what’s going on below the surface.

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

Here’s one story that I, as newly minted member of the mainstream media didn’t get — the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year, Southern Baptist hope to raise $165 million, or more than half their annual budget, in that one offering, taken in December. In effect, every year they wager the future of their world-wide missionary enterprise, which is 5,300 missionaries strong, on this one offering. This past decade, they’ve raised more a billion dollars through the Lottie Moon offering. If the money doesn’t come in every year, they are sunk. It’s a fascinating story, one that reveals the priority that Southern Baptist place on missions. They have about 15 million members and 5,300 missionaries. The Methodists, with 8 million members, have about 400 missionaries. And Lottie Moon, who was a China missionary in the 1800, is an icon for Southern Baptists, who are the largest Protestant group in America. I’ve covered religion professionally since 1999 and had never heard of her before coming to Nashville.

I’m not sure the major mainstream media — the New York Times, CNN, ABC, etc. — get evangelicals or the faith of believers in general. They don’t get the personal and grassroots nature of religion, and spent too much time looking at religious celebrities and not enough time looking at the day to day the lives of believers.

My younger brother died last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, while in the Philippines to finalize the adoption of his daughter. During that time, our church family, kept the faith for us. They carried us through that time of almost unbearable grief, with acts of kindness great and small. That close knit, grassroots community was our lifeline. (I wrote about it afterwards), and I can’t imagine trying to go through that experience without faith and without the company of ordinary believers.

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

At least three stories come to mind.

One of these days, and it will probably be soon the Southern Baptist are going to stop growing and begin shrinking. That’ll be a huge story for them.

The growth of multi-site megachurches. They are becoming the Wal-Marts of the church world, and it’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on small congregations, some of whom are giving up and reinventing themselves as franchises of the brand-name megachurches.

Gay bishops get all the press when it comes to Mainline churches, and but I’m more curious about demographics and finances of those institutions. The denominational feuds are fueled as much or more by money and fannies in the pews as they are by sex.

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

Journalists are supposed to ask who, what, where, when and why. You can’t get to why without asking about religion.

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

It’s got to be the Rocky boxing glove, which was sent out to pastors in order to promote Rocky Balboa as a faith-based film and attract some of the Passion of the Christ crowd. There was even a website, rockyresources.com/, with preaching tips, banners and even a video message from Sylvester Stallone for church leaders. Stallone was pitched as a true believer, with quotes like, “If you don’t have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end.” He must have been thinking about the new Rambo film.

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

In coming to the Tennessean, I moved from the magazine world, and mostly religious publications, to a daily newsroom. I’ve been amazed by the skill of my colleagues, who day after day produce quality news under unrelenting deadlines. As a magazine editor and writer, I had the luxury of time to dig deep into stories. I don’t have that luxury anymore, and it’s given me a greater respect for longtime daily journalists.

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LeBlanc-ian thoughts on Obama option

barack obama tshirtThis isn’t religion news, really, but there’s a post floating around right now about religion, politics and Barack Obama that is getting some unique attention. It touches on topics that are affecting the political decisions of serious Christian believers, left and right. And journalists, too.

This post is written by one Doug LeBlanc. Since we do not get to feature his work these days, as he enters a book-writing stage of his life, I will be keeping my eyes open for LeBlanc-ian missives to share with readers back here at GetReligion. The full text of the post is up at Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s Crunchy Con site over at Beliefnet. Doug is identified as a “conservative pro-life Evangelical” and a Republican.

That information is crucial, in this case. Doug is struggling with the strong desire he feels to support Obama. Click here for the post containing the full text, which was inspired by an invitation that Doug received to join an “Evangelicals for Obama” Facebook group. Here’s the end of the post:

I cannot escape the reality that personality, tone and even voice qualities are shaping my preferences. I recognize that Obama is to Hillary’s left on some important points, and I find myself not caring. The thought of living with Hillary’s schoolmarm demeanor, her cackle and all the baggage of Clintonism greatly agitates me. I feel no such dread about an Obama presidency. I wish I could be less driven by emotion and intuition on this, but so far sweet reason has not been able to override them.

I’m guessing I should just back away from following the primaries so closely. I think Super Tuesday will resolve both parties’ nomination questions, for the most part, and Virginia doesn’t vote until after then. I sure obsess about this, though. I yearn deeply for an Obama vs. Huck or Obama vs. McCain race. I would be driven to near despair by a Clinton vs. Romney ticket. With a Clinton vs. Giuliani ticket, I probably would hold my nose, vote for Rudy and throw myself on God’s mercy. Can anyone else relate to my struggles?

To which Andrew Sullivan responds:

He cannot get past his feelings about Clinton. He longs for an Obama-McCain race, which right now is my dream as well. Read the whole thing. He asks: Can anyone else relate to my struggles?

Relate? I’m living them.

Now, before you click “comment,” try to focus on this question: How does all of this relate to (a) the decisions that religious leaders will make about Obama (especially in a showdown with the Clintons) and (b) press coverage of Obama, in both the mainstream and religious media?

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Shameless self promotion (Rockies division)

xdenver skyline2bWe are glad that people are reading GetReligion — especially working journalists. Obviously.

It is also good that religious leaders click into the site from time to time, since we think that can help them understand some of the challenges that reporters and editors face. We also try to highlight the good as well as note some of the mistakes that take place on the Godbeat (or godsbeat). I had a priest tell me, back when we started, that it helps if church leaders know who the good reporters are when looking through all of those urgent telephone messages on a busy day.

One of the most media-savvy bishops I have ever covered is Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Actually, I met him when he was the Franciscan campus minister at the downtown branch of the University of Colorado (and several other schools), before he was raised to the episcopate in his late ’30s. He has always been interested in mass media — news and entertainment — with a logical interest in youth culture. Chaput drew some attention when he discussed the film The Matrix, with its meditations on the confusion and unreality of modern life, in the context of the Columbine High School massacre.

Anyway, the archbishop’s interest in journalism is frequently evident in in his newspaper columns and speeches. He is considered a pro-Rome conservative, but rare are the traditionalists who pay this much attention to trends in media and modern life. Many Catholic liberals detest him (think abortion politics), but he also makes a few conservatives nervous from time to time (think death penalty and economic issues). Catholic theology tends to shred labels.

All of this is to note that, in a new column in the Denver Catholic Register, the archbishop has praised GetReligion — for reasons that both needle and praise mainstream journalists. Here is a sample:

Getreligion.org is one of my favorite Web sites, not because it’s Catholic or pious — it’s neither — but because it asks the right questions. … The results aren’t comforting. The evidence gathered by getreligion.org shows again and again that the press doesn’t “get” religion as a story. Denver is unusual in having two major newspapers, both with capable religion coverage. But overall, major news organizations tend to cover religion poorly, predictably and too often with a negative undercurrent.

As we enter yet another election year, Catholics should remember that what we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television is often useful, but it’s always a selective taste of reality. Deciding about a candidate based on the latest headlines, or about an issue based on the latest reported poll, is a recipe for trouble.

431342470  oJournalists, of course, would want to debate with the archbishop about that phrase “predictably and too often” being used to describe negative coverage of religion news. That’s a debate he would welcome and it would be a lively one.

When it comes to GetReligion, Chaput specifically wanted to praise Mark Stricherz for challenging mainstream journalists to dig into religious issues and debates among Democrats as well as Republicans. Click here and then here for the posts in question. As the archbishop notes, “obviously, plenty of very good people, including many religious believers, inhabit both political parties.” Why not cover both stories?

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have all spoken quite publicly about their religious faith in recent months. Yet as Stricherz notes, the recent Iowa caucus poll supported by all four major TV networks, CNN and AP was framed in a way that presumed religion is a major factor for Republicans and not for Democrats. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not — but we won’t ever know from the poll results, because the right questions weren’t asked.

Amen. So check out the archbishop’s column. And we thank him for being a reader and recommending GetReligion to others. Perhaps he should bring this subject up the next time he meets with local editors and television producers?

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Politics wins again (surprise)

This is the time of year, of course, when news organizations post their Top 10 lists for the year. On the religion beat, the list that gets the most attention is the one produced by a poll of the members of the Religion Newswriters Association. Click here to see it’s announcement of the results.

I no longer get to vote in this poll, since my work for the Scripps Howard News Service is not my full-time job. However, I still write about the poll year after year.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to predict the results — since the biggest stories in the world often have a religion angle (thus, GetReligion exists). However, it is also clear that, when in doubt, you can count on politics or the pope placing very high. This year’s results are a perfect example of this reality. So here is how I started my column on this topic last week:

It was a simple commercial, with Mike Huckabee posed in front of a set of scandalously empty white bookshelves that, when framed just right beside a Christmas tree, formed a glowing cross behind the candidate.

And, lo, the former Southern Baptist pastor told the voters: “Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you’ve been seeing, mostly about politics? I don’t blame you. At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is a celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and merry Christmas.”

This caused a firestorm among the political elites that symbolized the year’s biggest trend in religion news — the revenge of the infamous “values voters” who, apparently, remain alive and well in church pews across the heartland.

But will the Republican Party win this “pew gap” contest again? That was the question that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 religion news stories in 2007. There were plenty of new signs that the so-called religious right exists, but that it isn’t a monolith after all.

The key, as GetReligion regulars know, is that this story has two sides. Thus, it was striking to note how the RNA leaders worded the items that were selected as the No. 1 and 2 items in the poll.

The top item: “Evangelical voters ponder whether they will be able to support the eventual Republican candidate, as they did in 2004, because of questions about the leaders’ faith and-or platform. Many say they would be reluctant to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney.”

The runner up: “Leading Democratic presidential candidates make conscious efforts to woo faith-based voters after admitting failure to do so in 2004.”

The key to the whole Huckabee story, in my opinion, is that it offers more evidence that mainstream evangelical and conservative Catholic voters are not, repeat are not, meshing well with the GOP establishment. Huckabee is, after all, essentially a pre-Roe Bible Belt Democrat. Somebody really ought to write a book about this whole topic. Wait! Someone named Mark Stricherz has done that already.

You can read the rest of the RNA poll for yourself, either at the group’s site or in my column. This is also a year when you should check out the radically different poll results over at Christianity Today and at Time magazine.

The top item at CT focused on an issue of great concern to evangelicals, but it was also a global level human rights story:

1. Taliban takes Korean short-term mission team hostage, killing two Afghanistan’s resurgent Taliban used the team of 23 short-term workers from Saemmul Presbyterian Church as a bargaining chip, pressuring the South Korean government into a reported ransom payment and a promise to withdraw its 200 troops in the country. Bae Hyeong-gyu and Shim Seongmin were killed before the negotiation was completed.

Time, surprise, led with, well, the Time magazine cover about the spiritual struggles of Mother Teresa.

So, please consider this an open thread for commentary on these three Top 10 religion-news lists or any others that you have seen in mainstream or religious media.

Fire away. Contrast. Compare.

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Knowing when to hold my peace

WikiBookshelfThe winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review features an essay by blogger RJ Eskow (a regular at The Huffington Post) about the challenge of balancing blog-inspired activism with Buddhist disciplines. Both the promise and the limits of Eskow’s vision appear in his lede:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides

In the years since Diane di Prima wrote those words in a poem called “Rant,” the United States has become a rantocracy of screaming politicians, pundits, and talk radio hosts. They shout, even when they whisper. Some of us try to make ourselves heard above the shouting, and that raises Buddhist questions: Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.

In today’s political dialogue, what’s left?

Eskow acknowledges his pugnacious style — such as referring to “Cheney’s Chappaquiddick” or threatening to “respond physically” to a Joe Klein column (“I was joking, but the feeling was real”) — but suggests that pundits Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are worse ranters still.

Eskow achieves two breakthroughs: he refrains from responding when one of his readers criticizes him for writing about JonBenet Ramsey rather than Darfur, and he chooses not to exploit aggressive email from a New York Times reporter that would have diminished the reporter’s image. These feel like rather small steps in the rantocracy that Eskow sees in American politics, but it’s something. Eskow has a clear grasp of the long-term goal:

“First, do no harm.” The physician’s precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: “No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words.” No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

I mention Eskow’s essay by way of confession. Blogging is not my default setting as a writer, and I’m not sure I’ve ever found a relaxed, unguarded voice in this medium. Blogging has sometimes made it too easy to lapse from noting irony to indulging unkind sarcasm.

Eskow makes his peace with sarcasm by consulting Dharmavidya David Brazier:

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. “The Buddha was attracted to irony,” he said. “He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, ‘There must be a lot of holy fish.’ And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering — on its followers.”

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn’t necessarily un-Buddhist? “Not necessarily,” said Dharmavidya. “The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker’s intent is.”

I’m more inclined to agree with my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long argued that sarcasm is of the spirit of murder.

As Eskow confronts the Buddhist notion of right speech, I struggle with Scripture’s teachings that an abundance words can lead to foolishness (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or that the tongue is a most destructive force (James 3).

GetReligion has welcomed me during two tenures, and I’m grateful for that, but it is now time to devote myself to other callings. One year from now, I owe an editor friend a book about tithing. That book will be the primary focus of my writing in 2008.

I will continue writing a column for Episcopal Life and contributing to a blog called Covenant, which strives for irenic reflection on the Anglican Communion’s conflicts.

I think Eskow asks, in so many words: How do I blog without losing something important in my soul? For now, this is my answer: I must blog less, and do more long-view writing that generates joy — both in my life and, I hope, in the lives of my readers.

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