In the wake of the events of 9/11, I had the honor of taking part in a forum on religion and the news at the University of Nebraska that, no surprise here, featured a keynote speech by historian Martin Marty, an omnipresent scholar who has probably done as much as anyone to promote serious work on the Godbeat.
The point of the talk was that it is getting harder and harder to say what is religion news and what is not. To illustrate, he took one day’s worth of paper and ink from The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and then led the audience on a guided tour of some of the headlines he saw in their pages. As I described this in a column for Scripps Howard:
A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up — again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.
Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots.
Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I read newspapers, I see religion all over the place,” said Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School career has led to 50-plus books and countless media appearances. “This has always been the case. I simply think it has been easier for others to see this reality during the past year.”
At one point, Marty noted that the lines were even blurring on beats that editors would be tempted to see as totally secular — like business. We are living in an age, he said, when it’s even hard to talk about oil prices without knowing what is happening with religious trends, tensions and conflicts in the Middle East.
The same thing, I would argue, is true right now in Egypt. Thus, this whole “what is religion news and what isn’t religion news” theme dominated my conversation this week with Todd Wilken for the Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that).
Take, for example, all of those references in the news right now to the role that a failing economy has played in the chaos in Egypt. In particular, a collapse in the tourism industry has drawn some coverage. Consider this from a new Los Angeles Times story: