Got qualms? Religion in the public square

When I saw the headline, I got nervous: "Obama, in shadow of worrisome polls, embraces 'Christian' label." Would this be another piece that approached the loaded issue of our President's religious views without nuance or understanding? Not at all. It's actually a nice slice-of-life look at how President Obama's rhetoric has shifted slightly in the last year:

When President Obama lit the National Christmas Tree behind the White House last year, he spoke of a "child born far from home" and said "while this story may be a Christian one, its lesson is universal."

This year, Obama referenced that same "child born far from home," but added a more personal twist: "It's a story that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians."

Three days later, at a Christmas benefit concert, the president again talked about how the story of Christmas "guides my Christian faith."

What changed? For one, three separate polls in the past year have found that one in four Americans think the president is a Muslim, 43 percent don’t know what faith he follows, and four in 10 Protestant pastors don't consider Obama a Christian.

The piece then goes on to discuss why his more recent language is more open and personal, relying on authors, professors and campaign advisors. It's very brief but a really good idea for a wire report. Reading it made me wish the reporter -- Adelle Banks -- might keep tabs on the rhetoric and write a lengthier piece about what it all means.

In somewhat related news, New York Times religion writer Mark Oppenheimer highlighted a journalistic ethics question about where it's appropriate to query politicians.

Is it okay to interview someone outside his church?

Well, of course it is. It would be rude to interrupt a church service -- it's rude to interrupt anything, even if it's sometimes necessary -- but what the reporter did to Nevada gov-elect Brian Sandoval was to approach him outside his church, after a service. And Sandoval's people cry foul.

Here's an excerpt from the Reno News & Review's side of things.

Governor-elect Brian Sandoval's spokesperson Mary-Sarah Kinner last week called this newspaper to express her indignation that a Reno News & Review reporter would ask the governor-elect questions after a church service. Bothering the soon-to-be governor after church, outside the building--not during the service, mind you--was somehow morally repugnant to her.

Well, how 'bout that?

There's a journalistic axiom that says ethical journalists generally don't talk about someone without talking to them. It's an ethic that public relations experts know well: If a reporter calls to interview your client, you can often avoid uncertain coverage by stalling the reporter. Out of fairness, the reporter may not write a story until he or she gets a quote from the subject of the story. If the public relations professional can stall long enough by not responding to the reporter--often without informing the subject of the reporter’s interest--the reporter will move on because he or she has other deadlines to meet. The public relations gatekeeper considers the job well done if the public is not informed and no story is written.

It seems, from reading on in the Reno paper's account, that the governor-elect may have been unresponsive to an interview request prior to being asked questions as he left church. And I am tempted to say that if he doesn't want to be asked questions outside of church, he should probably work with the media a bit more.

Still, I don't think the issue is as cut and dry as Oppenheimer or the News & Review make it out to be -- at least in general. For many worshipers, church is not just about the one to two hours you spend inside the sanctuary. And it might not just be about worship, Bible Class, meetings and coffee hour. There was a time in our not-so-distant past when people treated the entire day of their worship as a Sabbath rest, uninterrupted by work, commerce and even, if you can believe it, professional football. I think it's possible to respect a public figure's request that he not be ambushed with questions as he steps out of the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Again, this request is more able to be made if he's being appropriately responsive to media requests. Yes, membership and attendance at a house of worship is entirely public. But there is also something very intimate and private about a community of believers gathering together to hear God's Word, fellowship with each other and tend to the needs of the people.

Is the door of the church the bright dividing line? Certainly one can justify putting a photographer and microphone right outside that door, but I'm not sure it's the right thing to do. Perhaps a bit more effort at reaching the politician in his official capacity is in order. What do you think?

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