Why Journalists Love the Episcopal Church (1994)

Sex, Politics, Vestments, Urban Addresses — We’ve Got It All! 

People phrase the question in many different ways.

Some do not mince words. “Why in the world,” they say, “does the Episcopal Church get so much media coverage?”

In major media, the nation’s 2 million or so Episcopalians often receive just as much, and sometimes much more, attention than the members of major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church or the Assemblies of God.

I’ve heard a few leaders of other churches and religious groups ask variations on this question with a slightly anxious, or even jealous, sound in their voices. What they are really asking is this: Why doesn’t my church get as much press coverage as those Episcopalians?

With good reason, many Episcopalians are amused by this question. It is difficult to conceive of a reason why any sane religious leader would welcome the media attention that is given, year after year, to the Episcopal Church. Who would covet someone else’s root canal?

Thus, when many Episcopalians ask about the waves of coverage that the media give their church, the question that they are actually asking is: Why are the secular media always picking on us?

I will propose several answers for this question.

This is a timely question, since the church’s 71st General Convention will meet Aug. 24-Sept. 2 in Indianapolis. These gatherings have been known to make headlines.

It is also a question that is causing debates, behind the scenes, among the Episcopal Powers That Be. Several different political camps within the Episcopal Church currently have very different attitudes about coverage by the secular news media. When it comes to worrying about ink, video, headlines and sound bites, the Episcopal Church contains some strange bedfellows. Of course, it is always dangerous to discuss Episcopal bedfellows, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

A few liberals continue to embrace any and all media coverage. Read my lips: N-E-W-A-R-K. These voices on the left turn to the media to try to force the church’s leaders to be bolder and more prophetic and to live up to the views that they express in private.

These days, however, most establishment liberals hate national press coverage or at least fear it. This is easy to understand. Most of these media-shy liberals draw their paychecks from institutions that depend on money collected in offering plates in parish pews outside the urban East and West coasts.

Also, there are conservatives who worry about media coverage, for reasons that are very similar to those of the establishment liberals. This is easy to understand. They know that laypeople have been known to read newspapers and then react. If sharp, critical coverage of the Episcopal Church ever makes it into TV news — “60 Minutes,” let’s say — then the gig is up.

Media coverage causes heat. This causes debate. Debate causes pain. The larger the debate, the more pain.

Many establishment conservatives fear that the pain of open debate will hurt the church. They may be right. In some cases, they may also fear the consequences of taking a public stand in defense of their beliefs. Of course, the same is true of some members of the establishment left.

However, some conservatives now welcome media coverage.

Why? Simply stated, they believe they have been locked out of the insider discussions that shape the agenda of their church. They know they are rarely offered a chance to be heard in the church establishment’s media. Thus, they turn to secular media in an attempt to reach people in the pews.

Any journalist will recognize the dynamics that are at work in these four camps, because they exist inside institutions in politics, business, sports, education, religion or whatever.

Establishment people communicate through establishment channels. People who feel they are on the outside, it doesn’t matter if they are on the left or the right, often turn to the secular media to carry their message. That’s how the news game is played.

People on the Episcopal left know how to talk to the media and court journalists whenever they believe it is in their best interests to do so. It is interesting that people on the Episcopal right are beginning to relate to the media in ways that resemble the left. The orthodox and the traditionalists, along with a few indiscrete liberals, are today’s rebels.

But back to our original question: Why do the news media grant the Episcopal Church so much coverage?

I believe there are five reasons for the strange love affair between the Episcopal Church and the press.

I. The first reason is obvious, but is probably the least important. Many of the nation’s most active religion reporters either are or at one point have been Episcopalians. Walk into a meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association and say, “The Lord be with you,” and a large number of the reporters in the room will say, “And also with you.” A few will say, “And with thy spirit.”

II. Numerous studies have shown that people in the media elite are amazingly apathetic when it comes to religion news. In many cases, media coverage of religious events and seasons consists of quick, shallow, easy stories. If at all possible, the media treat religion as a photo opportunity. And when it comes to taking pictures of religion, it helps if people wear religious clothing.

Have you ever tried to take colorful, highly symbolic, news photographs at the Southern Baptist Convention, or even at gatherings of a wool-blend body such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? It doesn’t work. Everyone is wearing suits and ties or some other form of street clothing. How many news photos have you seen of meetings of liberal Jewish rabbis, in comparison with gatherings of Orthodox rabbis?

Episcopalians have been known to dress up. Episcopalians still look religious.

III. It also helps, when you are doing a quick, easy religion story, if the religious group in question is nearby. Close physical proximity also increases the odds that your editor will have heard that this particular religious group exists and that this editor may even consider the group important.

Suffice it to say that America’s media life continues to be dominated by decisions made in institutions in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the major cities of the urban East Coast.

Where is the symbolic heart of the Episcopal Church? If you find a major news headquarters, the odds are very good that you will find an Episcopal cathedral or an historic parish — a wonderful place for taking photos, by the way — just around the corner.

The Episcopalians are nearby.

IV. We all know what subject journalists think is most important: politics.

Once upon a time, ordained leadership of the Episcopal Church may have had real political clout in the United States. Some Episcopal leaders act as if they still do. Also, it is true that a surprisingly high number of the nation’s political leaders continue to worship, to one degree or another, in Episcopal pews.

These historic ties to the political establishment affect media coverage in another way that is less obvious. Episcopalians tend to link church issues to issues of public policy. These religious debates are then staged using highly political language. Journalists like that.

The Episcopal Church has, shall we say, more than its share of politicos.

V. Finally, a number of researchers have shown that most editors, reporters and other leaders of our elite media are social and moral liberals.

Depending on the poll cited, 90-plus percent of journalists are supporters of abortion rights. A large majority endorse the gay-rights agenda. Media corporations and foundations have, in the past, provided financial support to liberal groups linked to these two controversial issues, such as Planned Parenthood and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

At one point, research seemed to show that a high percentage of the “media elite” were intensely secular, or even anti- religious. Today, it is safer and more accurate to say that many if not most journalists consider themselves to be “religious” or at least interested in “spiritual” issues, if these words are loosely defined.

When it comes to religion, the safest statement we can make about generic journalists is that they are apathetic or vaguely spiritual. But the evidence would also show that they support a liberal social and moral agenda.

Before I conclude, I must address another major issue linked to this subject. Readers may have noticed that I have not mentioned the Roman Catholic Church.

Obviously, journalists have to cover Catholic events and trends. After all, there are millions of them. Also, more than a few journalists are Catholics, or were raised in the Roman Church. Catholic leaders are, of course, masters of the photo opportunity. The Romans have a clearly defined hierarchy that lends itself easily to political analysis. Catholicism is a major player in the power structures of the urban East. And so forth and so on.

However, the Roman Catholic Church has been to known to take conservative stands on social and moral issues, while defending politically incorrect concepts known as “absolute truths.” The Catholic Church includes powerful, yet profoundly disturbing, symbolic leaders such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II.

So, media people have to cover the Roman Catholic Church. But this does not mean that they enjoy doing so. It is hard for journalists to cheer for the Catholic establishment.

This leads to the final statement of my thesis.

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.

Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America’s media elite. The Episcopal Church’s buildings will photograph well, even if the only people in them are behind the altars.