Ken Woodward colors our world

One of the reasons so many big stories in our mainstream press are "haunted" by religion ghosts is that many reporters are confused about what is and what is not "religious." Is religion a matter of doctrine? Yes.

Is religion a matter of culture? Yes.

Is religion a matter of rites, sacraments (even if they are not always identified as such) and practices? Yes.

Is religion a matter of personal choices and convictions? Yes, again.

I could go on and on.

So when believers commit terrible acts while singing hymns or chanting sacred slogans, their actions may in fact be rooted in their rejection of changes in their cultures that have affected them in terms of economics and the nuts and bolts of their religious lives. But that doesn't mean that their motives are not essentially religious. It's more than culture.

And the decline in the number of priests and nuns in the modern Catholic church? These changes may, in part, be rooted in the 1960s, birth-control pills and wider career options for women. But all of those cultural realities raise moral and religious questions, don't they? So why are young women and men these days less likely to hear a divine call to give their lives in service to God and man? To give their lives to His Church? That's a religious question and a cultural question.

Why am I writing this? In part because these issues come up all the time in this blog's comments pages. And I am also writing this in response to a new essay by the veteran religion-beat scribe Kenneth Woodward, an articulate Catholic who is best known for his decades of work at Newsweek. It is a meditation drawn from an upcoming book. Here is the start of what he describes as the most personal part of the book, as published by First Things:

On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It’s a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion -- more than half the map -- are colored more deeply.

At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.

When colleagues stopped by my office they’d often stare over my head at the map. “Where are my people?” was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation’s capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties—all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation’s Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.

For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection -- to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded -- in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.

Now what jumps into your mind as you read that?

For me? Well, I think of news stories, many of them important, but very hard to cover.

IMAGE: To get closer to the map and others like it, click here.

Please respect our Commenting Policy