Message from Madison conference: Religion news is struggling, but still surviving

Religion reporting, as you no doubt know, is under even more stress than the news outfits that have been dumping the specialty in recent years. So those who attended the Reporting on Religion Conference this week showed not only an idealism about the Godbeat; they also showed courage and determination.

About 200 people -- students, journalists, religious leaders and speakers including myself -- converged on Madison, Wisc., for a broad variety of topics. Things like the kinds of cuisine from different lands. And the broad scope of social changes in America, highlighted by people's deepest thoughts and feelings. And finding a way to get attention for issues that don’t strike sparks but still speak to our deepest questions.

Madison itself embodies the tensions of religion in American public life. The city is home to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical ministry to college campuses. It's also home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, famous for its opposition to institutional religion.

The conference, however, was at a sacred space: Upper|House, a combination lounge, study center and worship site at the University of Wisconsin. With comfy booths, hanging couches and a crescent-shaped amphitheater, Upper|House served as an apt cosponsor of the conference, along with the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions.

The 15 speakers contributed a variety of understandings of the religion-news craft. Among them:

* Besheer Mohamed, despite his job at the number-crunching Pew Center, said that "Sometimes, a trend is better than a perfect question." For instance, people may mean different things by "evangelical," but fewer want to so label themselves than in 2007.

* "I am freakin' tired of defending the faith," complained Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim Channel on Patheos. "There are a million good stories out there, but how to get them to hit the numbers?"

* Tony Carnes introduced his Journey through New York City Religions -- a thorough, systemic exploration of people of faith in the nation's largest city, even including a Muslim cooking show. He called the exhaustive approach the "Pixar Principle," emphasizing fine details.

* Greg Jao of Intervarsity decried a new threat to campus religious groups: the requirement by administers for clubs so inclusive that they even allow officers who don’t share their beliefs. "Is there a hierarchy of identities to be protected?" he asked. "There should be a goal of tolerance."

* The Rev. Scott Anderson, of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, called for everyone to dial back efforts to demonize opponents. There is, he said, a Christian argument for same-sex marriage as well as one against. "It's not a matter of secularism versus Christianity," he said. "It's about differing beliefs inside and outside religious groups."

* John Huebscher, past head of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said the Vatican stands for freedom "in search of the truth." That's also a journalistic value, he added.

More people added comments on Twitter, thanks to the Wi-Fi access in the room. Here are some of them:

But all of us speakers together couldn't match the drawing power of David Gregory, who gave the plenary talk. Gregory, former host of TV's Meet the Press, held the attention of more than 350 people. (Click here for previous Bobby Ross Jr., post on Gregory.)

Gregory, a Reform Jew with a Christian wife, had a way of cutting through the religious talk to the deepest matters:

* "Religion is about who you are, who you hope to be, and who God expects you to be."

* "Who would you be if you lost it all?" -- a question Gregory himself confronted when he lost his job at Meet the Press in 2014.

For journalists, though, the news has been very mixed.

On the one hand, Jaweed Kaleem -- who recently took a buyout from Huffington Post -- announced that he's been hired for the newly created "race and justice" beat at the Los Angeles Times. Kaleem, another of the conference speakers, said he had insisted -- and the Times accepted -- that he be allowed to include religious groups in his work.

An editorial writer told Tony Carnes that the conference energized and encouraged him. “I had no idea that our talks were going to be healing and encouragement for journalists who felt beaten down," he said.

On the other hand, HuffPo and other media have been severely dialing back their religion coverage in recent years. And funding for the Lubar Institute itself has dried up: The reporting conference was one of its last big events.

After spring, the institution will close its doors and likely change its name. When the institution restarts, it will likely concentrate on students at the university.  But it's now on hiatus and won't reopen until 2017.

Ironic, isn’t it? The institute cosponsored the conference to address the issues facing religion writers -- then found itself mired in some of those issues. I guess that leaves us all in the same position. Whether we're at faltering newspapers or cash-starved institutions, religion writing depends on dedicated, determined individuals.

Photos by Jim Davis.

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