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Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. 

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Is Mormonism 'Christian'? (Cue the theme from 'Jaws')

Is Mormonism 'Christian'? (Cue the theme from 'Jaws')

KEVIN ASKS:

Is the Mormon religion considered Christian? There are radical doctrinal differences.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Depends on who’s talking. 

The steadily expanding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “LDS” or “Mormon”) vigorously defends the Christian identity proclaimed in its very name and resents assertions to the contrary. However, the Catholic Church, virtually all evangelical Protestants, and major U.S. “mainline” Protestant denominations all find the label problematic because, as Kevin indicates, the LDS church disputes central beliefs the Christian religion has taught through history.

It’s not The Guy’s journalistic role to settle this, but to note some salient aspects of the debate.

One formula comes from a leading non-Mormon expert, historian Jan Shipps. She says Mormonism is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism, obviously related to the older religion that helped give it birth and yet a distinct new religious community.

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The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

I recall Scientific American as a stodgy but respected journal. It bristled with challenging but intriguing titles like "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies" and "Branching Phylogenies of the Paleozoic and the Fortunes of English Family Names."

But one of the newest titles -- "Did Jesus Save the Klingons?" -- just doesn't have the same ring. Nor, unfortunately, does the article: a Q&A of an astronomer pontificating on how religion -- meaning, of course, traditional Christianity -- would be undone by the discovery of life on other planets.

Says David Weintraub, author of the new book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?:

I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.

As you read this article, keep in mind that it has little to do with science. You'll find nothing of cause and effect or the scientific method or rules of proof. The article is simply a bit of triumphalistic rhetoric, thinly papered over with an appeal to the authority of science. You could hear opinions at least as urbane over beers at a college rathskeller.

One guess on which religions Weintraub says will have the most trouble adjusting to the news of E.T.s:

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Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?

Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?

PAT ASKS:

Why, and how, should Bible be taught in a public, non-religious, school setting? What is its value as part of a secular curriculum?

 THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Surveys show there’s appalling ignorance about the basics of the Bible, especially among younger Americans. Even religious skeptics would have to admit that’s a serious cultural and educational problem, wholly apart from Scripture’s religious role. Bible knowledge is essential to comprehending the art of Giotto and Chagall, Bach cantatas and African-American spirituals, Shakespeare’s plays, countless allusions in novels and poems, historical events like the Protestant Reformation and the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the rhetoric of U.S. presidents, populism and pacifism, and on and on.

This fiasco is not what the U.S. Supreme Court intended when it outlawed mandatory Bible readings in public schools for creating an “establishment of religion” that violated the Constitution’s First Amendment (in Abington v. Schempp, 1963). Though the justices barred ceremonial and devotional use of the Bible, they included this key clarification:

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Does the Old Testament actually speak about Jesus?

Does the Old Testament actually speak about Jesus?

ROBERT ASKS:

Can we read Christ into the Old Testament?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

According to Jewish tradition, no, and understandably so. According to Christian tradition, yes, since the New Testament interprets various passages in the Hebrew Bible (= Old Testament)  as prophecies that foreshadow the future life and message of Jesus. Christians commonly view other Old Testament texts this same way, following Jesus’ own example: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

A classic expression of such linkage is Handel’s beloved oratorio “Messiah,” whose songs hailing Jesus Christ use not only the New Testament but a couple dozen Old Testament texts taken from Isaiah, Job, Lamentations, Malachi, Psalms, and Zechariah.

Many modern-day liberal scholars from Christian backgrounds side with Judaism and doubt that Old Testament writers could have been referring to Jesus. Now, surprisingly, an esoteric dispute on this theme at Pennsylvania’s Westminster Theological Seminary is dividing certain conservative Protestants.

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Federal workers inside DC beltway? Just don't ask The Sun about their souls

Federal workers inside DC beltway? Just don't ask The Sun about their souls

Over the past decade, I have been doing graduate-level studies in the art of commuting into the Washington, D.C., area from the very blue -- in the political sense of that word -- world of greater Baltimore. However, in many ways I remain a stranger on my Beltway-land commuter train for one obvious reason. I am not a federal worker.

I know this species pretty well by now, from the 50 shades of gray in their wardrobes to many of their favorite forms of reading (iPhones have overwhelmed Blackberries as the years have rolled past). However, there is one major difference between the federal workers who fill my train and the ones that dominate our nation's capital.

What, you ask? Most of the people I know are African-Americans. Thus, it is very common to see people on my train who are reading study Bibles.

A simply exercise in crude stereotyping on my part? Kind of.

However, you can see some elements of these stereotypes in a very interesting, and totally haunted in the GetReligion sense of that word, report in yesterday's Baltimore Sun about the lives and some elements of the worldviews of federal workers. The totally shocking headline states: "Hopkins study: Feds are whiter, richer, more liberal than most Americans."

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What kind of religious stuff provoked interest the past 22 months?

What kind of religious stuff provoked interest the past 22 months?

This is the 100th “Religion Q and A” posting. So instead of answering the usual weekly question The Guy pauses to scan what sort of religious stuff provoked interest since December, 2012. That’s when this blog began posting non-sectarian answers to anonymously posted questions on “any old thing about any and all faith options,” after a strategic boost from Terry Mattingly of the estimable www.getreligion.org.

The Guy, as a journalist, naturally wants current topics in the mix, and thus recently dealt with: new movies, the career of Chick-fil-A’s pious founder Truett Cathy, the Supreme Court ruling on birth control under “Obamacare,” suicide and the Robin Williams tragedy, religious conflict in Ukraine, and the disputes about tax exemption, civic prayers, legalized marijuana, and same-sex marriage.

Yet check the handy archives on the blog’s home page and you’ll see less timely topics predominate. A prime principle in education is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and The Guy welcomes queries about basic information. Many others will have asked themselves the same thing. So The Guy examined Catholic intermarriage policy, whether military service is sinful, a deceptively simple query on “what is faith?” and this golden oldie: “When does life begin?” (the blog’s very first question).

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Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Two or three paragraphs into this riveting Wonkblog essay in The Washington Post I began having flashbacks, and not the good kind. 

The key thought: Where is the late, great Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan when we really need him?

The headline opens the door and it's a very important door, if you care about social justice and the urban poor: "What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it." Here is the opening of the report, which has a Baltimore dateline for perfectly logical reasons:

BALTIMORE -- In the beginning, when they knew just where to find everyone, they pulled the children out of their classrooms.
They sat in any quiet corner of the schools they could claim: the sociologists from Johns Hopkins and, one at a time, the excitable first-graders. Monica Jaundoo, whose parents never made it past the eighth grade. Danté Washington, a boy with a temper and a dad who drank too much. Ed Klein, who came from a poor white part of town where his mother sold cocaine.

They talked with the sociologists about teachers and report cards, about growing up to become rock stars or police officers. ... Later, as the children grew and dispersed, some falling out of the school system and others leaving the city behind, the conversations took place in McDonald’s, in public libraries, in living rooms or lock-ups. The children -- 790 of them, representative of the Baltimore public school system’s first-grade class in 1982 -- grew harder to track as the patterns among them became clearer.

What shaped these young and, quickly, troubled lives?

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NYTimes Metro desk probes some of the church-state ties that bind

NYTimes Metro desk probes some of the church-state ties that bind

I continue to field questions about the meaning of the term "Kellerism," which is well on its way to entering the GetReligionista dictionary. To catch up on that debate, surf this collection of links or, in particular, read this earlier post.

The bottom line: "Kellerism," a direct reference to you know who saying you know what, is deliberate advocacy journalism in coverage of hot-button stories linked to religious, moral and cultural issues. The key is that The Times, as an institution, has never formally stated that its commitment to accurate, balanced coverage has been edited in this manner. This is a selective bias.

However, some recent trends at The Times may require a slight tweaking of my definition. It appears that "Kellerism" primarily kicks into play in stories addressing issues linked to the world's most powerful newspapers's defense of sacred doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution. Long-suffering religious believers who continue to follow the newspaper day after day may have noticed that its Metro desk is producing some very interesting and fair-minded coverage of religion.

Consider the recent news feature that ran under the headline, "De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide."

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