It seems obvious that two of the most controversial subjects in American government (and thus in journalism) are sex and salvation. The question is whether we now have to add a third "s" word to the list -- science. Once you have asked that question, you then can ask whether the reason science is so controversial is that, when it evolves into philosophy and theology, it is shaping what journalists, politicos, academics, artists and others think about sex and salvation. So maybe we do not need the third "s" word after all. Here are a few snapshots from the front lines in the past day or so:
• Tensions about religion and cultural conservatism were everywhere during a New York City bash to honor an emotional Dan Rather and HBO Documentary and Family president Sheila Nevins, according to a Hollywood Reporter article by Paul J. Gough. And what are the key topics causing the tension? That's easy.
Nevins said that even in the documentary world, there's a certain kind of intimidation brought to bear these days, particularly from the religious right.
"If you made a movie about (evolutionary biologist Charles) Darwin now, it would be revolutionary," Nevins said. "If we did a documentary on Darwin, I'd get a thousand hate e-mails."
That's right, friends. Negative mail. Clearly the republic cannot survive this kind of free speech. (Let me be clear: If people go beyond anger and hate into threats, that's another issue.) And what is the other big issue that she deals with?
Nevins said she didn't shy away from such R-rated topics as "G-String Divas" and "Taxicab Confessions" but noted that sex and passion have been topics of literature since Chaucer's day. "The most R-rated is a body bag, not a naked body," Nevins said.
She was, I would imagine, preaching to the choir in that room. There would seem to be a gap between the leaders of Focus on the Family and HBO Family. You think? (And sorry, Google users, no art from G-String Divas with this post.)
• On the essay front, as opposed to journalism, the powers that be at the Los Angeles Times have been extra busy making sure readers understand their point of view on the science question. Choosing from the various offerings, here is the thought for the day from James D. Watson.
This is not a quote that will be popular with the "theistic evolution" crowd:
We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are -- myths.
One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates.
That's pretty clear.
• Now this is going to seem totally unrelated, but it's not. Associated Press religion-beat writer Rachel Zoll has a nicely detailed report about debates, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, about faith-based groups being allowed to directly receive government grants to do relief work. In other words, if government is going to stall at the switch, then it's time to work with the religious groups that are willing to plunge in.
Now there are serious church-state issues at play here, including whether these dollars should limit the free-speech rights of the groups that get involved. The government loves strings more than doctrine. But that is only one of the ghosts that appear near the end of this report.
James Dunn, who served in Washington for more than two decades with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which works to protect the separation of church and state, said that among the unresolved constitutional issues is Bush's desire to allow church groups to consider religion in hiring, even if they receive federal grants.
Critics say that's discrimination. "I think what's happening is they're trying to dismantle the civil rights program without saying it," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Now, anyone want to guess the hot-button issues affected by the phrase "consider religion in hiring"?
You got it -- sex and salvation.
There's not way for journalists to dodge these issues. We might as well cover them, being careful to accurately quote articulate, informed voices on both sides (as opposed to, well, you know).