New Year resolutions on the Godbeat

The beginning of a new year is as good a time as any to reflect on whether there are things we'd like to revise our change. As I'm typing this, commenter John M. (on another thread about the disappointing levels of Biblical literacy among media types and others) suggests, for instance:

While Carl helpfully points out above, the Bible is better studied for a lifetime rather than read through once, I’d encourage any journalists who haven’t done so to read through it once. If read 15-20 minutes per day, it can be read through in a year without much trouble. And it is a new year. There are a variety of ways to do it that range from simply picking it up and reading approximately 4 chapters per day to higher-tech versions like downloading the YouVersion Bible app for Android or iOS, which has a number of plans to choose from that will ride around in your pocket with you.

One of my favorite pundits started an annual tradition of highlighting his worst errors or mistakes in the previous year and it's a great idea.

The Washington Post fact checker did a mea culpa of sorts, even admitting that calling noted eugenicist Margaret Sanger a "racial pioneer" might have been a poor choice of words. We looked at that issue here and here.

The Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, billed as the guy who "gives voice to reader concerns" had a fun column on Sunday.

He noted that many readers wrote in about Melinda Henneberger's Dec. 23 story on Newt Gingrich's Catholicism. (Not to be confused with this story on Calista Gingrich that tmatt reviewed here.)

“I propose a New Year's resolution for you, namely to insist that The Washington Post stop using the phrase ‘faith-based’ to describe political events unless they are quoting [someone using the phrase,]” wrote D.C. reader Michael Rosenthal.

He goes on to say that faith-based has largely come to mean Christian-themed events, charities or rallies, largely associated with Republicans and conservatives, and that it implies that adherents of other faiths aren’t included.

“A similar objection might be raised to the use of ‘values’ as a descriptor of political events or candidates,” Rosenthal added. “In any case, they invite invidious comparison with others, suggesting either that they lack faith or lack values or both.”

I think Rosenthal is right. On first glance, the term faith-based seems a neutral descriptor for something that grows out of religion. I went through a host of recent Post stories in which this phrase appeared. In the vast majority of cases, the word “religious” fits as a perfect substitute, is more neutral, shorter, less awkward, and doesn’t’ imply whether The Post, or any journalist, knows the depth of a person’s or organization’s faith.

As a journalist, I can tell when something is religious, or religiously themed, but I can’t determine the depth of anyone’s faith.

A “faith-based” organization is a religious organization. “Gingrich is running an overtly faith-based presidential campaign” is the same as saying Gingrich is running an overtly religious presidential campaign. Faith-based charities running government-funded social programs are the same as religious charities running government-funded social programs. When we mean religion or religious, let’s say so. When it’s Christian, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim, let’s be specific, and use the fuzzy “faith-based.” Okay, sermon over.

I agree with Pexton, even if I don't quite agree with the reader's critique. The use of the term "faith-based" is definitely a recent trend that's caught fire at the expense of efficiency and clarity. However, I haven't seen it used in a partisan sense. It wasn't that long ago that we were talking about President Obama's explicitly faith-based campaigning, after all. And President Obama has a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Yes, that grew out of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. But that grew out of President Clinton's Charitable Choice and Faith-Based Initiatives. This is a term without partisan connotations. Still, I don't really see the usefulness of the neologism, unless you're trying to avoid too much repetition of the term "religious."

I do agree, however, with the reader's point that the term "values" invites invidious comparisons. Reporters never notice religious motivation when it simply means that a candidate has decided he can best serve God by running for office. They do notice religious motivation when the candidate makes sure to mention Jesus or his grandma's Baptist church or whatever. Media types need to be savvier than this.

Anyway, what do you think? Is the "faith-based" trend on its way out? Anything else you'd like to see eased on out during 2012? And speaking of 2012, a friend notified me that she just checked her new calendar and it does, in fact, end in December 2012. The Mayans may have been on to something.

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