Continuing the Useem dialogue

IMG 6378You know what? I have been putting off posting the second part of my dialogue (click here for earlier post) with freelance journalist Andrea Useem for two simple reasons: (1) I was out of town for a week, attempting to survive four days of traffic-challenged driving in greater Los Angeles and (2) we normally fill our 5Q+1 interviews with hyperlinks to all of the publications, schools, think tanks, etc., linked to the journalist's career and, in this case, Useem has just been too busy for me to look up all of those links.

Honest. I'm only going to do about half of them. Or less. So there. Try it yourself.

To flash back, Useem is the veteran religion-beat freelancer and researcher who is behind the ReligionWriter.com blog. There are all kinds of nice details in her personal biography -- read it all -- but here is the section that many will find the most interesting.

After reporting first-hand on the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi, Andrea became intrigued by Islam, a religion she knew little about. She studied informally with Muslim leaders in Kenya, Egypt and Sudan, and what started as a journalistic interest gradually became a personal conviction. Just before leaving Africa for good in the fall of 1999, she formally embraced Islam while in Zimbabwe.

Back in the United States, Andrea earned her Master's of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. She studied Arabic at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Middlebury's renowned summer language institute. She met and married an American convert to Islam in early 2001, before graduating from Harvard that spring. After long consideration, she decided against pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, largely because she preferred the fast pace and wide reach of journalism.

Did you follow all of that? As stated before, she has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I met her when she called me up to talk, as part of research she is doing for some Religion Newswriters Association "webinars" on coverage of Islam. It looks like the dates for those are March 11 and April 22. Check it out.

So here come the standard question:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get the majority of my news, including religion news, via RSS feed on my Google desktop sidebar. Big breaking stories -- like the death of Gordon Hinckley, for example -- usually come to me first from major news outlets on my RSS, like Forbes, CNN, or the Guardian.

Blog-wise, I am trying to create an all-star religion RSS line-up. Currently some of my favorite national-audience religion RSS feeds are: GetReligion, Gary Stern's Blogging Religiously, Dan Gilgoff's God-o-Meter, the First Things blog, Reuter's FaithWorld, the Religion News Service blog, washingtonpost.com's On Faith, BlogRunner's religion category, and CBN's The Brody File, in addition to religion-specific RSS feeds from Slate, NPR and washingtonpost.com. I read ChristianityToday.com, CAIR, Altmuslim.com and the Pew Forum via email and browsing.

I also pay attention to the news feed on my Facebook page, and friends who mass-email on religious topics -- that gives me a sense of what stories have caught the attention of other people. Locally, I read blogs by religious folks in Northern Virginia, including that of Reston Community Church pastor Ben Arment, and consume local publications like The Muslim Link.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here's an important story that simply hasn't been covered: The death of the Salafi movement in America. Maybe it hasn't been covered because a reporter would have to spend so long setting the context for why this neo-traditionalist Muslim movement is important (Answer: It significantly shaped the character of Islam in America for a decade or more, and this very conservative thinking often results in isolationist us-versus-the-West thinking; whether it is associated with violence is a separate question).

This story came to my attention via Northern Virginia Muslim blogger Tariq Nelson, a person I think religion reporters should include in their Rolodex/Blackberry/RSS (particularly if the question at hand is, "Where are the conservative Muslims who condemn violence?" or "What are the debates going on right now among American Muslims?") Tariq pointed me toward a seven-part series -- The rise and fall of the 'salafi dawa' in the US -- published last January by Umar Lee, an American Muslim who, like Tariq, spent time as a Salafi. Anyways, Umar's tale of Salafism is fascinating: It's a story that simply hasn't been told, at least as far as I'm aware, in the mainstream press.

MuslimUSA(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Is the Christian legal movement paving a multicultural superhighway, on which the next generation of minority religions will ride? School prayer isn't a burning issue right now, but it's a perfect example of an issue conservative evangelicals have trumpeted without apparent thought to how non-Christian groups would use such legal precedents to champion their own rights. If there were any sort of state- or federally-mandated prayer in public school, it would open wide the door for, say, Muslim students to ask for time off during class, special foot-baths or other accommodations. The point is not that I'm against Muslims praying in school but that the very people pushing for these rights may be a bit shocked at the eventual results. Yet because the Christian legal movement frames its arguments in terms of religious liberty, which applies to all Americans, I do believe they are setting the stage for further battles over religion-in-the-public-square, as minority religions follow in the litigious footsteps of evangelicals.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Substitute the word "politics" or "economics" for the word "religion" in that question, and the answer is obvious: Religion is a large part of what makes the world go round. Remain ignorant at your own risk.

What we're seeing now in journalism, I believe, might be called a market correction, except that it's really an intellectual correction. Not to get too bookish, but members of the media, like a lot of secular elites, subscribed to the modernist assumption that as the world became more and more technologically advanced, religion would play a smaller and smaller role before finally being extinguished by the march of human progress. Of course, that's not at all how the story has played out, and the media, along with academia, government and business, has finally gotten the memo. For an excellent sociological peek into the special role evangelicals are playing in bringing religion to elite American institutions, I recommend D. Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

While reading Jacqui Salmon's Washington Post article on how the NFL forbid churches from broadcasting the Super Bowl on large screens, I almost laughed out loud when I read the Christian legal movement may yet weigh in on the issue:

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties group that focuses on religious freedom issues, is threatening to sue the NFL on behalf of an Alabama church that wants to host a big-screen Super Bowl party. He is also seeking sponsors for federal legislation to exempt churches from the ban.

On the face of it, this is funny just because I think only evangelicals could conceive of Super Bowl parties as a religious freedom issue. It demonstrates how hard it is find the line sometimes between American culture and evangelical culture, both for outside observers and inside believers. This religion-culture overlap comes up in a number of debates, including: Is entertainment-style megachurch worship still worship? Has Joel Osteen blurred forever the line between faith and self-help? One person who I think is asking some thought-provoking questions on these issues is Skye Jethani, now managing editor of Christianity Today's Leadership Journal and author of the well-read 2006 piece, "All We Like Sheep," which speaks out against the consumerization of evangelical Christianity.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Yes, very much so. While I am as interested as the next religion reporter in questions about the-next-great-religion-story and how to improve religion coverage, I do worry that these discussions are like so many concertos on the Titanic foredeck. The mainstream media faces some very serious business problems, to which it has not yet discovered any simple answers -- so while we're honing our skills on the reporting side, the business side is deciding whether or not to throw us overboard.

What I would like to see much more of are discussions about, for example, how "denominational" bloggers are not only serving as important sources for the mainstream media, but are in some senses replacing the mainstream media. I think religion reporters could also benefit immensely from digital news-gathering strategies, like Jay Rosen's ideas about using social networks to assist in beat reporting. I find traditional print reporters are, for the most part, incredibly resistant to the changes going on. So I'd like to see the religion-in-the-media conversation be more new-media focused.

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