Religiously scientific, or not?

The Templeton Foundation gave its annual million-Euro prize this week, and The Guardian‘s science correspondent Ian Sample focused on the religion and science combo more than anything else, even though its recipient says “I’ve got no religious beliefs at all.”

I would recommend reading the interview first and then read the reporter’s interpretation of what took place, as one will inform the other. The interview starts off on a strange note focusing on the financial side of the award.

Ian Sample: Congratulations on the award.
Martin Rees: Thank you.
IS: Were you already a millionaire?
MR: Sorry?
IS: Were you already a millionaire?
MR: No comment.

Once he got that out of the way, he launched into a series of questions about religion and science, and you can tell he had a tough time getting much out of his interviewee. It’s interesting to read the interview and see how the reporter translated it in his news story. For instance, he asked a question about Stephen Hawking that eventually fit in the story.

IS: There was an extraordinary fuss last year over Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that the creation of the universe did not require a God. What did you make of that?
MR: What I said at the time is that I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don’t think his views should be taken with any special weight.
IS: You have read on those subjects. What’s your view?
MR: What’s my view? Well, I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do so.

And here’s what the reporter took away:

Rees launched another attack on his Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking, who in the week his latest book hit the shelves last year declared there was no need for a creator God. “I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don’t think his views should be taken with any special weight,” Rees said. “I’m not prepared to pronounce on these things. I think it’s rather foolish when scientists do.”

Looking back at the interview, it doesn’t seem like Rees was launching “an attack”–he answered the reporter’s question. Towards the end of the interview, Rees actually criticized the interviewer for focusing so much on religion.

IS: Do you want to share any thoughts on your work?
MR: I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do. Which is trying to understand how structures form in the universe and the extent to which the laws of physics are universal. I’m trying to understand extreme phenomena in the cosmos and pushing back to the highest redshifts and things like that.

Ha. Unfortunately for Rees, journalists will go where journalists please: I was personally thrilled to see so much on religion. Seeing the interview in the Q & A format was really informative and helped us understand the context.

It’s interesting to see the final news story after reading the interview, because you can tell where the reporter was headed with his questions. The headline prepares you for an article full of tension: “Martin Rees wins controversial £1m Templeton prize.” Except that the tension actually just offers one-sided remarks about how lots of scientists don’t like the foundation.

The award has drawn criticism from some scientists, including the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who claim that the Templeton Foundation–which funds the prize–blurs the boundary between science and religion and makes a virtue of belief without evidence.

For instance, the reporter gathers quite passionate quotes from scientists who don’t think science and religion should mix.

Sir Harry Kroto, a British scientist who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996 and works at Florida State University, told the Guardian that the “congenital wishful thinking” embodied by religion made it incompatible with science. “There is no problem, with a million-quid lure to hook a few eminent scientists, to say that they personally see no conflict between science and religion, but they are suffering from a form of intellectual schizophrenia,” he said.

The quotes are very interesting and revealing, but it was interesting to see zero quotes from anyone who might think science and religion could be compatible, even from the award-winning scientist. Perhaps there are none, or something?

Finally, I wondered whether the story should have devoted a little more space to the award’s intentions and how Rees fit the qualifications.

John Templeton Jnr, president of the Templeton Foundation, said: “The questions Lord Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could.

“By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence.”

The photo cutline says it honors ‘exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.’ But the quotes from the foundation’s president don’t offer much about why Rees’ contributions affirm life’s spiritual dimension.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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A palatable, comfortable Christianity?

I don’t watch MSNBC much but quite a few readers and friends sent along this video of host Martin Bashir interviewing Pastor Rob Bell. This one interview has turned into a kind of media event in and of itself.

Bell, of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, recently wrote Love Wins. The marketing campaign for the book led some folks to believe it might espouse universalism. That led to some of the hottest pre-publication date discussions we’ve seen for a religious book. The debate among competing camps of evangelicals even made the New York Times.

Once the book was published, criticisms intensified. Since the critique was coming from those who retained more traditional beliefs, you might figure that media coverage might be favorable toward the author and his book. And much of it was.

But not the short video embedded above. (A loose transcript available here.) Bashir is known for his tough interviews. Here’s an example of a brutal chat with P. Diddy from Nightline. If you think celebrities should be handled with kid gloves, you would hate the interview. If you don’t, you might like it better.

As soon as I saw the interview with Bell, I realized it was one of the more interesting interviews I’d seen of a religious figure. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, some of the questions indicated an understanding of theology that is unmatched among many journalists, much less broadcast journalists. On the other, the tone was very aggressive, perhaps unfairly so. If you didn’t know that this was Bashir’s style, you’d definitely think it’s unfair.

One reader who submitted it to us wrote:

Yeah, I was pretty impressed by how Bashir did his homework in this interview with Rob Bell. It was a confrontational interview, which gives me pause. On the other hand, I doubt any other mainstream journalist would have asked the pointed questions Bashir does.

Bell’s media tour went from stories using the typical template (general support for anything disagreeing with traditional Christianity, a livechat with Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller that takes Bell to task for not being inclusive enough, etc.) to discussion of how much he flailed during the Bashir interview. And then that became a discussion of whether Bashir’s questions (or Bashir himself, in some cases) should be the focal point of discussion.

One Christian radio program interviewed Bashir about his questions, and you can listen to that here. If you’re a typical GetReligion reader, you’ll likely find the interview interesting. Bashir begins, for instance, by pointing out that most people who do interviews such as this haven’t even read the book. He says he did read the book, also went to two academic libraries, and interviewed three scholars (including two with no religious affiliation) and found the book to be evasive, disingenuous and ahistorical. Much of the interview gets into discussions of theology, history, the challenges with the type of evangelicalism Bell was raised in, etc. The questions aren’t the most interesting but Bashir’s answers do give lots to think about journalism and how it is practiced.

It also brings to mind the questions in that old tmatt trio (three questions that can help reporters explore the differences between competing versions of Christianity), with an obvious emphasis on question No. 2:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Tmatt has written extensively about how much information can be gleaned from someone by how they answer these questions. In that light, it’s interesting to compare Bashir’s interview and his own radio interview with Lisa Miller’s chat. Bashir was Muslim but is now married to a Christian and is himself a Christian. Miller is Jewish and says she finds the idea that Jesus is central to salvation offensive.

Perhaps we’re used to seeing so many softball interviews of Harry Emerson Fosdick-like figures because of how reporters themselves answer these questions. And perhaps we’re completely unused to seeing more skeptical interviews such as Bashir’s.

So what type of interview would you like to see more of? What are your criticisms of the various styles? What would be a better way to discuss these issues journalistically?

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Ambassador of atheism?

I’ve been paying a little bit of attention to the media hullabaloo over the Alabama Governor’s altar call and it got me thinking of how I wish another high profile figure’s comments on religion had gotten a bit more mainstream media treatment. I speak, of course, about the powerful Ricky Gervais. My husband and I are fans of Gervais, who’s probably best known as the creator of The Office. The British version of the show is brilliant. Now, little of his work since then has been worth any of your time, but that’s another story.

On Sunday night, Gervais hosted the 68th annual Golden Globes. He was shocking and funny. He was also horribly rude. He mocked Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp’s recent film performances, mocked the sad sex life of Hugh Hefner, reminded everyone of their past drug use, sexual peccadilloes, and embarrassing box office receipts. But it was a sight to see this man brutally busting everyone’s chops while they had cameras on them. Lots of clenched teeth and half grins in that crowd. Some began taking potshots back at him. Much more entertaining than the typical awards show.

There were at least a couple bits related to religion. From his opening monologue:

Also not nominated ‘I Love You Phillip Morris.’ Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay. So the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists then.”

The audience gasps in horror. In fact, his hosting went over so poorly with the crowd that at some point we wondered if he’d been fired mid-show. We couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen him on stage. But he came back on stage at the end and sent everyone off with final words. Here’s how the Boston Herald put it:

Closing the show, Gervais said, “Thank you to God for making me an atheist.”

Robert Downey Jr. summed up the night best: “Aside from the fact that it’s been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I’d say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn’t you?”

The next day, all the TV critics in TV critic land opined on the hosting. Most of the American ones wrote pieces disparaging his rudeness. I waited a few days to see if any got into the content, discussed the religious aspects, or used the whole episode as a hook to discuss ethics. For the most part, they did not — even though there were tons of coverage of the hosting. Why not? I have no idea. Is it fear of covering Scientology? Is it the Hollywood journalist version of the somewhat typical tone deafness we see on religion? It’s certainly not restraint, is it?

What I was really hoping for was a quick look at how atheists view Gervais. I was thinking, as I finished watching him, about what a “hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones” ambassador for atheism he is. It’s probably wrong that I find his humor so funny, but there’s no escaping the hatred and negativity there. How comfortable are various atheists with this high-profile atheist being such a hater? What do the “Why Believe in a God? Just Be Good for Goodness’ Sake” campaigners think about this fellow nonbeliever? I have no idea and I think it would make for an interesting piece. And it could be tied into Gervais’ film, a less-than-subtle argument for atheism that didn’t go over well with viewers.

Instead we got approaches such as this one taken by CNN’s Larry King replacement Piers Morgan: “Ricky Gervais says atheism shouldn’t offend.” Morgan seems to think the big takeaway is that Gervais offended Christians — something that indicates a lack of creative questioning and Christianity. When Gervais says you don’t need to be Christian to be moral and that he himself is a good person who treats people well, I was expecting the host to ask whether good people who treat others well should remind others of their worst sins, mock their abilities or judge their motivations. Instead he just moves on to another question.

Here’s the thing. It’s not hard to understand why Gov. Bentley’s altar call raised eyebrows among journalists. It most definitely should be covered (even if it would be nice if such coverage reflected more familiarity with Baptist theology and practice), but how many people in this country were watching Bentley’s address? Probably not that many. Many more, surely, became familiar with it after all that coverage. Even so, I bet more people were familiar with Ricky Gervais’ remarks than the remarks of the Alabama governor. Alabama has a population of 4.7 million. The Golden Globes had an average viewership of 17 million, making it the number one show of the week.

I’m terribly interested in what the governor said, but people can say interesting things about religion outside the political realm, too. Gervais’ suggestion about Scientology and its role in Hollywood is fascinating. His atheist shout-out as well. And these celebrity statements on religion influence the culture just as much — in some cases more — than politicians’ discussion of religion. Media coverage should reflect that reality.

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Pod people: No religion for abortion providers

Can I test a theory?

My sense is that reporters often look to religion when covering people who are against abortion. It might seem obvious, since people do often cite their underlying religious beliefs as their reason for opposition. Though when reporters explore why people do provide abortions, religion suddenly disappears from consideration.

Take the story about a gay abortion doctor who wants to adopt. The reporter showed that the doctor clearly felt there was some gray in the ethics of providing abortions, especially late-term ones. We were left wondering whether his faith (or lack of faith) had anything to do with why being an abortion doctor is so complex for him.

Earlier we saw the story about the 2,000 dead fetuses found at a Buddhist temple’s morgue. We learned about an abortion provider who adopted eight children that survived abortions. “I commit sin every day,” she said, “so if the kids won’t die, there’s no need to kill them.” We talked about her reaction, especially in the context of a primarily Buddhist country, but we still don’t know much about her religion.

We talk about these stories on the latest GetReligion’s podcast, so click here to listen to the most recent one.

By the way, when do you listen to podcasts? Have you listened to anything especially good recently? I know NPR isn’t terribly popular right now after the Juan Williams business, but I still listen to many of their shows. Are there good religion podcasts that I’m missing? Whether you’re on your computer, mp3 player, smart phone, whatever, thanks for “tuning in.”

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Getting Colson’s wrongs right

A reader sent us a link to the Slate feature “The Wrong Stuff: What it Means to Make Mistakes.” It’s written by by Kathryn Schulz and features Q&As with notable folks discussing their relationship to being wrong.

It was my first visit to The Wrong Stuff but you can read past interviews with Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, chef Anthony Bourdain, and criminal defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz.

But this recent interview was titled “From the White House to the Jailhouse to the Pulpit: Chuck Colson on Being Wrong.” Many readers of GetReligion are probably familiar with Colson:

Today, Colson is a prominent evangelical leader and founder of the Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. During the Nixon administration, though, he was, by all accounts (including his own) secular, self-obsessed, and scary. Officially, he was special counsel to the president. Unofficially, he was Nixon’s hatchet man and “the White House tough guy.” In 1973, as the waters of Watergate rose around him, Colson simultaneously found God and found himself in prison for obstruction of justice. Below, he and I talk about why he converted, what he regrets most about his involvement with Watergate, and why Christianity is “the religion of second chances.”

You have a fairly dramatic conversion story. What first prompted it?

Even though I am pretty familiar with Colson’s story, I found this interview to be fascinating. And it’s not as if Schulz seems like an expert on moral theology, as the reader who submitted it points out. But her interest in letting a subject tell his own conversion story makes for a great read.

Her questions show that she is listening intently to each word uttered by her subject (e.g. “Was that just social discomfort, or was it an inner discomfort–the first stirrings of your conversion?,” “Can you recollect what you were crying about?,” etc.). She asks him for details on the when of his conversion and is surprised to find out that it wasn’t a jailhouse conversion, as she’d long suspected. Here’s a great section of the interview:

If Watergate didn’t prompt your conversion, do you feel that your conversion affected how you handled Watergate?

Oh, yes. One day I did a show with Mike Wallace. This was when Watergate was absolutely at a fever pitch and the trials were going to begin and by this time I’d been indicted. He asked me how I could be a friend of Richard Nixon, given the things Nixon had said on the tapes. And I said, “Well, he’s my friend and I don’t turn my back on my friend.”

I got home that night and realized that there was no way I could be a good witness for Christ if I compromised on what I could say, or was not as fully honest as I could be. So I decided the best thing I could do was plead guilty. I sent my lawyers into the Watergate prosecutors to say I wouldn’t plea bargain, and that I had not done what they charged me with [conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary], but here was something I had done [obstruction of justice]–and if they wanted to charge me with that, I would plead guilty. And I did.

When you look back on that era, what’s your biggest regret?

My biggest regret is that I saw things going on that I should’ve known were wrong or I knew were wrong but then I rationalized them away. I didn’t say anything. I should’ve spoken up a number of times and said, “Wait a moment, this isn’t right,” and I didn’t. That’s my greatest regret.

The interview continues to dig down — “What do you think stopped you from speaking out?” and other questions that help really flesh out what was going with his conversion and how it changed his life. So the interview naturally goes into prison ministry, to which he’s devoted 35 years of his life, and why he thinks the modern prison system is futile. He mentions that when he got out of prison, there were 239,000 people in prison. Today there are 2.3 million. They discuss the sometimes interesting alliances that are formed when working to reform prisons.

But the interview gets back to religion, where Colson explains the Christian perspective on sin and second chances. They also discuss truth claims and religious tolerance and many other interesting tidbits, too. A nice read and I look forward to future Wrong Stuff Q&As.

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Juan gets cut off short — again

So Juan Williams gave a lecture — on the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall — at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he received a standing ovation from a pack of lawyers from Baltimore. That, my friends, is not a Fox News crowd.

Williams also agreed to an interview with The Baltimore Sun, in which he declined to declare himself a sinner.

What interests your GetReligionistas, of course, is the ongoing issue of what Williams actually said in his now infamous visit with Bill O’Reilly. We are interested in everything he said, especially since Williams was offering a classic “Yes, but” message. I remain convinced that one of the worst sins that journalists can commit is to edit a person’s words so that they end up saying the opposite of what they actually said.

Alas, here is the short Sun summary of the controversy:

NPR announced Williams’ firing last Wednesday for comments made two nights earlier on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show saying that when he sees passengers in traditional Muslim “garb” on an airplane with him, he feels “nervous.” Within hours of the firing, Fox News expanded his duties at the top-rated cable news channel with a three-year, $2 million contract.

Williams said Tuesday that he remained emotionally “roiled” by the abrupt termination that has earned NPR harsh criticism, and which touched off a firestorm over political correctness and whether the public radio network welcomes divergent political views.

Later, the Sun did allow Williams to throw another dose of gasoline on one of the many hot issues linked to his departure from public radio:

“At NPR … they don’t know this: A third of the audience for Bill O’Reilly’s show is made up of people of color,” Williams said. “At NPR, they think, ‘Oh, these people who watch Fox don’t appreciate diversity of opinion, they’re not smart people. They’re not informed people. Oh, yeah? I’ll tell you what: They’re informed. …

Williams said Tuesday that Fox executives were more enlightened than many on the left give them credit for, especially since the network “allows a black guy with a Hispanic name to sit in the in the big chair and host the big show. Do you see it on CNBC? … Do you [see] it at CNN in prime time?”

So, you can watch William’s controversial statement for yourself or you can read the transcript of his statement in which he reminds viewers of what he said the first time, putting his words back into context. Here’s a sample of that:

The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims. This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber — as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals — are Christians, but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed.

Actually, people do — and rightly so — note that the Westboro Baptist protesters are Christians who keep attacking other Christians. Oh, and Timothy McVeigh went out of his way to distance himself from Christianity in any known form.

Nevertheless, what Williams said went something like: This is what I feel, but we cannot allow our feelings to interfere with the rights of others. We cannot blame all Muslims for the actions of a few.

So, if you are looking for an in-depth look at what started this media storm, from a viewpoint just about as far from Fox as possible, check out William Saletan’s “frame game” piece at, which has many useful links for further research. Here’s a look at some of the key analysis:

The damning video clip of Williams … cuts off the speaker just as he’s about to reverse course. According to the full transcript, immediately after saying, “I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams continues: “But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.” That continuation has been conveniently snipped from the excerpt.

A few seconds later, Williams challenges O’Reilly’s suggestion that “the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” … Williams reminds O’Reilly that “there are good Muslims.” A short while later, O’Reilly asks: “Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there, or the Germans?” Williams refuses to play the group blame game. “See, you did it again,” he tells O’Reilly. “It’s extremists.”

The bottom line for Saletan is that it’s wrong when journalists play this game, turning the meaning of a person’s words upside down. It’s wrong when conservative activists do it, too. It’s wrong when liberal activists do it. It’s even wrong when the high priests of NPR do it.

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Time takes an American Journey (kind of)

The headline on the recent Time cover story tried to set an epic tone, summing up a story that was going to courageously explore an election season that has intimidated politicians (mostly on one side of the political aisle) and, thus, has intimidated journalists.

Cue the music. A fanfare please. Please place your right hand over your heart.

An American Journey

6,782 miles. 12 states. 24 days. 576 songs. One road trip reveals the issues people are talking about — but politicians aren’t.

Once again, I cannot link to the complete Joe Klein essay, because Time no longer posts the texts for several weeks. Have I missed an actual pattern? I’m a subscriber, obviously, and I cannot figure this out. Input, need input.

Anyway, here is a link to the thumbnail version, which gives you a bit of the flavor. Here is Klein’s overture to what Time editors clearly see as a kind of sweeping first-person opera of truth telling:

I found the same themes dominant everywhere — a rethinking of basic assumptions, a moment of national introspection. There was a unanimous sense that Washington was broken beyond repair. But the disgraceful behavior of the financial community, and its debilitating effects on the American economy over the past 30 years, was the issue that raised the most passion, by far, in the middle of the country. Many Americans also were confused and frustrated by the constant state of war since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But for every occasion they raised Afghanistan, they mentioned China 25 times; economics completely trumped terrorism as a matter of concern.

Road trips are nourishment for the mind and the soul, if not the body (given the quality of roadside food); from Huckleberry Finn to The Hangover, they have been a classic American pastime. The trip exploded my personal Beltway Bubble, which turns out to be more a state of mind and a set of habits than an actual place. Driving 6,782 miles in four weeks, I was forcibly weaned from my usual engorgement of newspapers, magazines, blogs and books. I watched no more than 15 minutes of cable news per day but listened to music obsessively. I was cleansed and transformed, a news junkie freed from junk news, and able to experience Americans as they are — rowdy and proud, ignorant and wise.

So where is one supposed to go to hear the voice of the true America? I can’t link to the Time map, but you can draw it in your mind as I list the stops Klein made in his pilgrimage.

Our pilgrim starts in New York City, of course.

Next up? Allentown. Philadelphia. State College, Pa. West Middlesex/Youngstown. Columbus. Detroit. Chicago. Madison. Sharon, Wisc. St. Louis. Boontown, Mo. Kansas City. Des Moines. Denver. Colorado Springs. Phoenix. Las Vegas/Pahrump. Sebastopol, Calif. Sacramento/Yuba City. Los Angeles/Pasadena.

Guess what? This election is all about the economy. It isn’t simply that the economy is the main issue, which it clearly is, but it is the only issue. Oh, President Barack Obama is also a major issue, as is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. But it seems that when Americans open their heart, from coast to coast, what they want to talk about is economics — issues that are framed almost precisely the way they will be framed the next time that someone whose last name is Clinton steps to a podium to deliver a campaign address.

Of course, it helps if one goes nowhere near the Bible Belt, other than, of course, a few select corners of the Midwest. It is significant that Klein mainly hits the industrial Midwest, with the exception of the Village of Sharon.

But wait, you say, what about Colorado Springs? Isn’t that the center of theocratic America?

Maybe, although that is a very complex community. And, besides, I cannot find a single word in Klein’s piece that appears to be drawn from encounters in the homeland of Focus on the Family. I guess everyone there was silent.

So here’s the news: The angst and the rampant anger that is making America such a dangerous place right now are completely rooted in secular, faith-free issues. There are no cultural, moral or religious issues at play at the moment. And there will be no wave of post-election data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that demonstrates, once again, that frequent visits to pews or sanctuaries have anything to do with how Americans make their decisions when they pull levers in voting booths.

So those of you who are interested in religion news have no reason whatsoever to read this particular Time cover story. Issues of culture, morality and religion will play no role whatsoever in this election season. The Time team listened to America and America — mostly the blue zip codes — has spoken.

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Learning to pray — in a mine

The late Peter Jennings of ABC World News Tonight was a remarkably candid man, when it came to talking about the perils of asking mainstream journalists to cover religion news and trends.

I only met him once, face to face, during an Oct. 5, 1993, event at Columbia University sponsored by the Freedom Forum. It focused on efforts to improve mainstream religion reporting, of course, and Jennings was on the hunt for a professional that he thought could handle that job at ABC News. That’s the start of a long, long story. We had several telephone conversations about that project.

I will always remember the illustration that Jennings used to illustrate the challenge that he was facing. Here’s how I reported that, in a column at the time of Jennings’ death. The setting is the Columbia conference:

The anchorman tried to blend in, but a circle formed around him during a break. It was easy to explain why he was there, he said. There is a chasm of faith between most journalists and the people they cover day after day. Six months later, I called him and asked to continue to conversation.

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. “Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’ ”

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry — with good cause — about the future of the news.

The key, Jennings told me, is that news events are “real.” Disasters are real. Danger, death and suffering are real. Thus, the reporters want “real” answers, which means they need answers that are centered in the real world. That’s their job. Give us the facts.

Faith, on the other hand, is not “real” to many journalists. When ordinary people talk about faith in these settings, many reporters get uncomfortable. Don’t these victims realize that they are not helping the journalists do their jobs?

I’ve been thinking about Jennings again while watching the amazing YouTube videos of some of the miners reaching the surface after their physical, mental and, yes, spiritual ordeals in that purgatorial mine in Chile.

This is one of the cases in which I really, really, wish I could speak Spanish. In the YouTube at the top of this post, the Sky News anchor at one point, 2:30 or so into the video, says something that sounds like, “Amazing Grace.” Or perhaps it is, “They embrace.” Why? What did the miner say?

This is interesting, to me, because the miner in question is Richard Villarroel, the subject of an exclusive interview in the Washington Post that ran with the headline, “In weeks before rescuers made contact, miners struggled with despair.” This is the passage on which many will focus:

Two miners and relatives said the men had made a pact to keep secret the discord that was a part of their struggle. But Daniel Sanderson, a miner whose shift had ended hours before the disaster, said he later received a letter from one of the trapped men in which he recounted disagreements that led to blows.

“There were fistfights,” Sanderson said in an interview. He would not reveal what the fights were about.

Many of the miners, in comments after the rescue, repeated a message of unity and hope under near-impossible circumstances, the same theme of solidarity offered by President Sebastian Pinera’s government.

Rest assured that more details will be forthcoming and it will not surprise me if there were faith elements to the tensions.

However, this is the passage that stuck with me — especially in light of that Baptist Press story that said there were “conversions” among the men down in the mineshaft.

The men split into groups, each with a special task. Villarroel was in charge of maintaining the electrical system. He also talked about the positive role of older, more experienced and hard-bitten men such as Jose Henriquez, 56, a miner trained to perforate holes who is also an evangelical pastor.

“I had never prayed before,” Villarroel said. Then, 17 days after the mine collapsed, a drill bit chewed a narrow hole from the surface all the way to the roof of the mine.

Yes, the story really does lurch from that short direct quote about prayer into the detail about the drill bit reaching them from the surface. That’s one paragraph. It almost looks like a formatting error took place, because journalists rarely put direct quotes in the same paragraph with paraphrased information, unless there is a direct connect. What gives? Was something removed after the quote?

Anyway, Villarroel talks about the positive influence of this miner/pastor, in an interview about despair and efforts to build unity and hope among the trapped men. Then he says that he learned to pray, for the first time, in the mine.

That’s that. Moving on. Back to reality.

All together: “Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?”

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