NY Times discovers power of prayer

Duerer PrayerHold on to your hats, folks. We're in for a wild ride. Or, rather, we're continuing the wild ride of Gov. Sarah Palin media coverage. And Palin's religious views are dominating the stories for the weekend. Let's begin by looking at the New York Times piece on Palin's religious views. The story isn't horrible, but it is hilarious. I don't know if that's because the reporters are trying to make the article seem more interesting than it is or if the reporters are completely clueless about how a ton of Christians view and talk about their faith. Either way, the story sort of breathlessly explains that Palin believes in the power of prayer and seeks to understand God's will for her life. I know! Be afraid! It also uses scare quotes rather selectively, which made me giggle throughout the piece. The headline? "In Palin's Life and Politics, Goal to Follow God's Will." You don't say!

Before we analyze it, let's take a trip back to 2005, when Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, sent a memo to all staff (PDF) that included some mention of the importance of religion coverage:

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation . . .

I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

The whole memo is interesting, including a portion on how to place religious views in context (hint: extremist should not mean, "views we disagree with."). So let's look, three years down the road, at how reporters Kirk Johnson and Kim Severson treated Palin's views. They begin with an anecdote. Palin emailed her former pastor Paul Riley shortly after taking office, asking for Biblical examples of great leaders. Riley wrote back about Queen Esther. Here's the nut graph:

Interviews with the two pastors she has been most closely associated with here in her hometown -- she now attends the Wasilla Bible Church, though she keeps in touch with Mr. Riley and recently spoke at an event at his former church -- and with friends and acquaintances who have worshipped with her point to a firm conclusion: her foundation and source of guidance is the Bible, and with it has come a conviction to be God's servant.

I read this as a very straightforward introduction of Palin and her very popular brand of Christianity to New York Times readers, so I'm not as mortified by the story as some people are. However, the fact that the Times would consider this newsworthy is cringe-inducing. Apparently in the three years that have passed since Keller's memo, the non-religion beat reporters have apparently failed to incorporate religion into news stories.

There's a mention that the churches Gov. Palin has attended all believe in a "literal" translation of the Bible. One of the readers who sent this story in noted that the media always make a big deal out of people who take the Bible literally more than people who don't. It does seem that, per Keller's memo, one view is considered "extreme" by the media and another "moderate." There is lots and lots of discussion about the importance of prayer in Gov. Palin's life. Take this:

She also told the group that her eldest child, Track, would soon be deployed by the Army to Iraq, and that they should pray "that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan."

Gov Palin 2006 OfficialThere's something very interesting about this paragraph. If you are a secularist, I think you read this and say, "Oh no, the theocracy is surely at hand." And if you are an evangelical or Pentecostal Christian you say, "I, too, pray that God's will be done in earthly affairs." This article serves the purpose of freaking out secularists about Palin's religious views while not fazing evangelicals at all. In that regard, I think it completely failed to explain Palin's views in the context of mainstream (as opposed to mainline) Protestantism. It also didn't really explain how a quote such as the one above has very little to do with personal views about the war. Think of it this way, while there are certainly many Christians who think war is always wrong, other Christians view war as an evil, but a sometimes necessary one. The Lord's Prayer asks that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There are Christians who would personalize that request to everything from personal conflict to global conflict. This is certainly not anything close to how I talk about God's will or how we pray about war in my Lutheran church, but I do recognize this as within a normal range of American religious behavior.

The reporters also talk to Palin's current pastor Larry Kroon:

Mr. Kroon (pronounced krone), a soft-spoken, bearded Alaska native, said he was convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning -- including scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.

Of all the things to include in a story, this, again, is considered newsworthy? Why not describe the role of a pastor? Or what a beard is? This is such boring information. Again, I don't think it's the worst article I've read, but it is somewhat funny. I'm sure that the mainstream media will be scouring every sermon, guest pastor and bulletin item in the days to come. And maybe there's much more to come here that will prove to be a Jeremiah Wright-ish moment for Palin. But whether that happens or not, it would be nice to have a bit more confidence in the media portrayal of Palin's church.

That a Christian believes that God has a role to play in her life, in the efficacy of prayer, that the Bible is the word of God isn't noteworthy, per se. By making it seem so, it says more about the New York Times than it does about Palin.

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