Seeking the perfect religion writer

labyrinth2As a rule, I rather like articles that end with statements such as this: "Maybe Sally Quinn has gotten religion." But not this time. In fact, the recent Washingtonian article about the origins of the On Faith weblog run by The Washington Post and Newsweek has been stewing in my mind ever since I read it.

Here's why. Back in the late 1990s, Quinn produced an excellent news feature focusing on the fact (sorry, but I can't find a copy in a place I can link to for free) that religion is one of the few topics that people inside the Beltway are terrified to discuss. It was a solid, insightful news article, in part because it came from a woman who is known as the ultimate insider's insider in this insider-driven town. Clearly, she was curious about the role of faith in public life, even though traditional, conservative forms of faith produce a kind of leper's status in elite circles here.

Now, Quinn (also known as Ben Bradlee's wife) is the co-moderator of this official interfaith blog in the American public square, sharing that role with the Episcopal theologian and essay writer Jon Meacham of Newsweek.

Let me be clear. I do not doubt that Quinn's interest in religion is sincere. I also do not doubt her qualifications to run the On Faith blog, since it seems to have almost nothing to do with religion news, per se. That blog makes Beliefnet (which I read and enjoy) seem like an Associated Press site.

But here is the section of the piece on Quinn -- headline: "Why Ben Bradlee Has Sally Quinn in a Labyrinth" -- that miffed me, which begins with the obvious statement that she "never found religion":

"I've been an atheist all my life," she says. "Jon convinced me not to use that word. He said I was defining myself negatively.

"So I don't call myself anything," she says. "A seeker, perhaps."

Quinn was casting about for her next move when she sought guidance from a higher authority.

"I had been interested for a couple of years in religion and how it affects policy," she says. "I was thinking of writing a book about religion in Washington."

Why not religion online? "I described my idea to Don Graham," Quinn says. "He thought it was a great idea."

She then told Graham: "I don't know anything about religion."

He said: "I want you to do it."

Donald E. Graham is, of course, the chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company and heir to one of the most powerful news roles in this city and, thus, America.

BlueLabyrinthThe reason this passage gets to me so much is that it calls back memories of one of the most famous little notes ever written about religion news, if you are a person like me who keeps files on this topic. Here is a little clip from a previous GetReligion post on the topic:

Long, long ago, back in 1994, The Washington Post raised many eyebrows by posting a newsroom notice for a religion reporter. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion." Well, I still think this is bizarre. Try to imagine a notice in an elite newsroom seeking an opera critic that says the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera." How about notices for reporters who cover professional sports, science, film and politics?

Now let's make sure we focus on the key fact here (before you all start mouse-clicking that Comment link).

I have known great religion writers who were not believers of any kind. I've known great religion writers who were active in the faith of their choice. That's not my point. That's not what gets me steamed.

What gets my dander up is the belief -- yes, belief -- held by many major journalists that training, experience and knowledge of religion are liabilities when it comes to hiring professionals to write about religion. Yes, we have been over this ground several times in the past. I know that and, sorry, but I am sure we'll have to revisit this topic again in the future.

And that's what really gets under my skin.

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