GetReligionistas with burning ears

As superstar reporter John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter recently noted, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver refuses to remain the quiet shepherd of a flock in an obscure time zone. Instead, he keeps raising his voice on crucial issues, as you would expect from a man who keeps repeating these marching orders: "There's no more room in American life for easy or tepid faith." Here's Allen's main point, focusing on Chaput's work as an "an evangelist, an opinion-maker, a writer and speaker."

Usually seen as a strong conservative, Chaput can be polarizing because he takes clear positions and defends them with relish. He's consequential in somewhat the same way as politicians and pundits with bold views and the nerve not to pull their rhetorical punches: Love 'em or hate 'em, they're hard to ignore.

Sometimes accused of being a traditionalist, Chaput is actually a very 21st century bishop in at least one sense: Whatever national influence he wields has almost nothing to do with formal ecclesiastical power. ... In an era in which institutional authority of all sorts has collapsed, a religious leader who wants to move opinion has to compete in a secular marketplace of ideas.

Anyone who wants to talk seriously about the "secular marketplace of ideas" has to talk about journalism. Anyone who wants to talk seriously about religion in the "secular marketplace of ideas" has to talk about how the mainstream news media struggle to cover events and trends linked to religion.

A mere click here will show that the archbishop's voice has, indeed, made it's way into these national debates -- including conversations about mainstream coverage of religion news. On one memorable occasion Chaput boldly went where few religious leaders have dared to go, simply by publishing the verbatim transcript of an interview with a New York Times reporter. The goal was to show the actual context of his remarks about a hot question -- whether Catholics should think twice about voting for Catholic politicians who consistently and publicly oppose the teachings of their church.

Then, last year, the archbishop faced a room full of reporters here in Washington and, while the heart of his talk focused on faith, politics and public life, he also made extended remarks about what happens when the mainstream press fails, well, to "get religion." The transcript of that event at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life can be found right here.

In his latest Denver Catholic Register column, the archbishop has returned to this issue, opening with a deep and disturbing quotation from a 20th Century Lutheran who was not known for his timidity:

"Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved -- indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive."

-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The rest of the column is -- there is no way around this (shameless plug alert) -- about and what we do here. You can read that for yourself, but here is a slice or two of Chaput's text to open the discussion.

Sometimes the sad quality of today's religion news coverage stems from honest reporter ignorance and the pressure of thin resources and tight deadlines. But too often, reporters and editors frame their stories with their own shallow assumptions about the irrelevance of religion, the hypocrisy of religious believers and leaders, and the dangers of fundamentalism. ...

This ignorance, when transmitted to readers and viewers, creates an audience stupefied by abbreviated facts, inadequate context and secular prejudices. In other words, in a democracy that depends for its survival on a well-informed and carefully reasoning electorate, our news media too often feed us folly.

It is important to note that the archbishop, as he has in the past, focuses his remarks on issues of accuracy, context and knowledge. In other words, we are dealing with a journalism problem here and the only possible solutions are rooted in better journalism.

We can debate whether the central issue is one of ignorance (see the classic Freedom Forum document) or worldview (click here and here for my views). Nevertheless, the bottom line remains the same: Journalism problems require journalistic solutions.

People who love journalism, and care about the role that religion plays in the reality that is life in the real world, will want to see the mainstream press do a more accurate, informed job of covering news that is shaped or, yes, haunted, by religion.

That's the end of that sermon.

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