Queen Elizabeth

Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Once upon a time, newspaper editors thought that religion was the kind of narrow, insider subject that could be locked into a weekly journalism ghetto called the "church page."

No, honest.

That eventually evolved into the "religion" page, but the idea was pretty much the same. This concept began fading about the time I reached the news biz, in the early 1980s.

Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with having a section or a column dedicated to religion-news topics. I had better think that, since I have been writing that kind of column for 30 years or more. It's nice to have a place in the news format in which you KNOW you can get a religion topic into print.

The crucial point, however, is that religion is a subject that wants to roam all over the place, if journalists take it seriously. It should end up on A1, on the education beat, in the business section, in the sports pages, etc., etc. I have had a lot of fun through the decades (and wrote a book about it) following religion ideas, symbols and trends into the world of popular culture and entertainment.

So with that in mind let me (a) highly, highly recommend a new Sarah Pulliam Bailey piece about the Netflix series "The Crown" that included scenes about Queen Elizabeth's faith and her 1955 encounter with a young American evangelist -- as in Billy Graham. At the same time, I would like to (b) ask people out there in dead-tree-pulp land where The Washington Post editors played this story in the actual newspaper, as opposed to its "Acts of Faith" status online. I sure hope that this ran, in print, in the Style or Entertainment sections. That's where it belongs.

The piece is a must-read, if you have the slightest interest in these two towering figures in 20th Century world culture. This is top-flight popular culture writing that also -- as you would expect -- pays serious attention to the religious content.

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Times of London offers classic example of how NOT to do religion survey stories -- at Christmas or ever

Times of London offers classic example of how NOT to do religion survey stories -- at Christmas or ever

There is great religion writing and there is lousy religion writing -- though most of it, like most journalism in general -- falls somewhere between the poles and is not worth endless discussion. But the following Times of London piece is such a missed opportunity that it's worth pulling it apart as a text-book example of how not to do the job.

In short, it's beyond lousy.

It should probably come as no surprise that the piece ran on Christmas Day. I say this because, and this just my conjecture, Christmas Day is probably the day we’re subjected to the year’s very worst religion journalism.

That, I'm guessing, is because of the self-created newsroom belief that something -- anything may be the better word -- relating to the holiday, or religion in general, must be published that day. Or who knows what will happen?

Will people not have received the “news” that it was Christmas? Will people drop their subscriptions and advertisers withhold their Christmas-related sales going forward? Don't really think so.

Oh, the things we do to ourselves out of misguided beliefs and our professional ruts.

OK, now onto the piece itself. (Take note: The Times website requires registration, though it will allow you to read a couple of pieces monthly for free. Also, the newspaper’s website is one of the more inefficient ones I've come across in some time.)

Here’s the top of it:

Politics and religion should not mix, according to the British public, who want politicians to keep their personal faith to themselves.

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The Guardian digs into faith of one of UK's most private, yet public, Christian believers

The Guardian digs into faith of one of UK's most private, yet public, Christian believers

Some things never change and, even when they do, they may change very slowly.

Journalists tend to focus on the quick, the loud, the, well, "newsy" things that happen in public life. Long, slow stories tend to drive editors a bit crazy.

That's one of the many reasons why important stories on the religion beat are hard to sell to editorial power brokers in the big offices in major newsrooms. Important stories about faith are often built on lots of observations about symbolic words and gestures, unfolding over time.

So kudos to The Guardian for its Christmas story about one of the quiet, but symbolic, moments on the calendar in England -- the Queen's annual Christmas address. The double-decker headline spells things out:

How the Queen – the ‘last Christian monarch’ -- has made faith her message
Over the 65 years of her annual Christmas broadcast, the Queen has begun to take a deliberate turn towards religion

Obviously, Elizabeth II is not your ordinary monarch. Her time on the throne has been extraordinarily long and, thus, she has seen stunning changes in her land and her people. It took patience to document how the content of her messages has been changing and what those changes say about her and these times. Here is the overture:

To the royal household, it is known as the QXB -- the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. To millions of people, it is still an essential feature of Christmas Day. To the Queen, her annual broadcast is the time when she speaks to the nation without the government scripting it. But in recent years, it has also become something else: a declaration of her Christian faith. As Britain has become more secular, the Queen’s messages have followed the opposite trajectory.
A survey of the broadcasts made during her 65-year reign reveals that for most of the time the Queen has spoken only in passing of the religious significance of Christmas. There have been references to presents linking contemporary Christmas to the three wise men, for instance, alongside trips to Commonwealth countries, family events such as weddings and funerals, and there were observations about contemporary society.

However, in 2014 she referred to her Christian faith as the "anchor in my life.” Then, last year, she added words that, on some street corners in today's multicultural England, could cause trouble. The Queen said:

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Royal wedding quiz: Must a 'Protestant' be baptized in order to become an Anglican?

Royal wedding quiz: Must a 'Protestant' be baptized in order to become an Anglican?

If you hang out much with Anglicans, you know that many are not fond of references to King Henry VIII, and especially the role that his private affairs played in the history of their church. I have, as a reporter, heard my share of complaints about that -- especially during the decade when I was an Episcopalian.

However, it is kind of hard to talk about the history of the English Reformation without mentioning the guy.

In the end, the Church of England split off from the Church of Rome. For most people, especially low-church Anglicans, this (a) makes it part of the wider world of Protestantism. However, it should be noted that some people argue that (b) the Anglican via media -- a "middle way" between Protestantism and Catholicism -- is its own unique form of faith. The odds are good that some Anglican readers will be offended by my description of (a), (b) or (a) and (b). This is complicated stuff.

This brings us, of course, to the love life of Prince Harry and faith identification of his live-in significant other turned fiance Meghan Markle.

We will start with an Evening Standard piece that caused a bit of Twitter buzz. The double-decker headline proclaimed: 

This is why Meghan Markle will need to be baptised before she marries Prince Harry
Kensington Palace has confirmed that Meghan Markle will be baptised before her wedding next May

It appears that this report has been removed from the newspaper's website, but here is a cached version, allowing readers to know what all the buzz was about. The crucial section said:

Meghan will begin the process of becoming a UK citizen and will also need to be baptised and confirmed before the ceremony as she is currently a Protestant.

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Media blitz follows survey saying Brits have 'no religion,' but enlightenment remains elusive

Media blitz follows survey saying Brits have 'no religion,' but enlightenment remains elusive

Cue the R.E.M. video again.

This time for the United Kingdom, where a survey reveals a stunning number of folks who say they embrace no faith at all. Yep, the nation where Queen Elizabeth is, officially, "By the Grace of God, Queen, and Defender of the Faith," is ... losing its religion.

Of course, there's more to it than the headlines, and more than many reporters and editors seem to have grasped. By reporting the news on the surface data alone, the media are missing key questions, let alone reporting any answers.

Let's begin with the most venerable of British journalistic institutions, the BBC, which reports:

For the first time, more than half of people in the UK do not identify as religious, a survey suggests.
Last year 53% of people described themselves as having "no religion", in a survey of 2,942 adults by the National Centre for Social Research.
Among those aged between 18 and 25, the proportion was higher at 71%.
The Bishop of Liverpool said God and the Church "remains relevant" and that saying "no religion was not the same as considered atheism".

There's a lot to consider here, but one of the key elements missing is any consideration of why this has happened and what it might mean, other than calls for defunding of the state-sanctioned Church of England and of religious schools by the government.

As you read, look for signs that some forms of religions are growing and others are in decline.

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