What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

A hearty "Amen!" in this corner for the key points in Mark Silk's Religion News Service take down of a really, really strange Time magazine interpretation of a poll on the Bible and religion.

Let's let the man preach:

This week the American Bible Society (Protestant) released its annual survey ranking the “Bible-Mindedness” of America’s 100 largest cities (well, actually, America’s 100 largest media markets). Conducted by the Barna Group (evangelical), the ranking is based on “the highest combined levels of regular Bible reading and expressed belief in the Bible’s accuracy.” This year, Birmingham/Anniston/Tuscaloosa AL won the top spot while Providence RI/New Bedford MA came in dead last for the third year in a row.
OK, so far so good. However, Time, in its story, transformed the results into, in the words of the headline, “These Are the Most Godless Cities in America.” Holy Misconception, Batman! Since when does non-Bible-mindedness equal Godlessness?

Silk, with justification, notes that this interpretation slants everything away from cultural Catholicism and in the Bible-driven direction of Protestantism and, especially, evangelical Protestantism. That's accurate. However, I would argue that Time missed at least two other crucial points in this tone-deaf piece.

First of all, it misses the larger truth that -- statistically -- the dominant form of faith in American is a kind of watered down, feel good, shopping mall bookstore religion that for 20 years I have called the faith of "Oprah America." The more formal term, with a big hat tip to sociologist Christian Smith, is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" or, for headline writers, "MTD."

All together now, journalists, can we recite the basics of that creed? (Click here for the essential .pdf)

* A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over it.
* God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught in most religions.
* The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
* God gets involved when we have problems we need solved.
* Good people go to heaven.

Now, all of that has little or nothing to do with the Bible (or the Catholic Catechism, either), but can it accurately be called "Godlessness"? No way. That's like the Religious Right people who claim that the dominant spirit of our American age is a true secularism. No way, we live in an age in which there is, from the viewpoint of many elites, good, progressive religion and then bad, orthodox, doctrinal religion. Can you say James Davison Hunter? I knew that you could.

Time also, in a way, did something that GetReligion has been blasting since we opened our cyber-doors nearly 11 years ago -- it ignored the doctrinal and faith elements of liberal forms of major religions. In a strange way, this piece assumed that liberal forms of faith equal Godlessness. That's wrong. Way too often, journalists turn religious liberals into mere political junkies. That's bad journalism too.

Now, one more thing about the Silk piece. There was this:

I suppose we should cut the author of the Time story, Sam Frizell, some slack on this. He’s but a humble business and breaking news reporter. But albeit New York City has made the bottom 10 for the first time, shouldn’t his editors have known better? And for crying out loud, why isn’t GetReligion, cop on the Godbeat, all over this? Surely tmatt & co. don’t equate Bible-mindedness and Godliness!

Amen to that. I wish I had seen the Time piece and I am thankful that he pointed it out. I'm getting ready to move my office from not-so-Godless Washington, D.C., to rather Bible-friendly Oak Ridge, Tenn., in a few months and I am not subscribing to as many tree-pulp magazines as is the norm for me. Time is a magazine I have let go, to be frank about it.

So thanks for this great tip. And readers, we welcome your notes and URL tips (links to good coverage and bad), as always. Keep those tips coming. We need them.

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