DiIulio loses faith in the Gray Lady

450px The new york times building in new york city 01It's hard to deal with life in the faith-based-politics era without running into the work of researcher John J. DiIulio Jr., the Democrat (and Roman Catholic) who briefly headed up President Bush's faith-based outreach to religious groups that try to help their neighbors. DiIulio is famous for his candor and he is, to say the least, not a card-carrying member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. His departure from the Bush team was memorable and he was way ahead of the curve in warning that the White House was more interested in faith-based voting than in faith-based projects to help the poor and the suffering.

All of this is to say, it is significant that it is DiIulio's byline on top of The Weekly Standard's flamethrower article, "The New York Times versus Religion -- So much nonsense in a four-part series."

The series in question, of course, is reporter Diana B. Henriques' sprawling "In God's Name" package attacking some essential elements of America's tradition of church-state separation, including several laws and court decisions hailed by religious leaders on the religious left as well as the right. The GetReligion gang has, of course, already written about this series at quite some length.

DiIulio uses the much-celebrated sermon by Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse as his overture, but that is not what his essay is really about. He is convinced that the "In God's Name" series is evidence that the newspaper agrees with Greenhouse that American public policy has been "hijacked by religious fundamentalism." Of the first article in the series, DiIulio writes:

A Times "computer analysis" of post-1989 federal laws turned up "more than 200 provisions granting accommodations or protections specifically to religious groups." The ostensibly faith-favoring laws covered "topics from taxes to immigration to education." The article's subheading was "From Day Care Centers to Use of Land, Rules Don't Apply to Faith Groups."

The computer analysis turned up 22 "social services" religious exemptions, including one that the story highlighted, "the landmark 'Charitable Choice' provision in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996." Apparently, however, the "analysis" did not extend to actually reading the provision, parsing cognate regulations, or carefully examining how the relevant laws have been implemented or ignored.

Read the article for the details. But here is the heart of the matter, from DiIulio's point of view:

For every court decision and anecdote in the story indicating how "accommodating" government has become in employment and related matters, leaders of religious educational, health care, and other faith-based organizations could rattle off contrary decisions and horror stories indicating how adversarial government has been and remains.

Times readers might be invited to imagine an America in which all of those ostensibly favored faith groups disappeared tomorrow. Who would suffer the most, and who would have to pay to replace the social services that they now provide? For instance, pick ten big cities, and ask how many low-income non-Catholics (Title I students, Medicaid-eligible patients, etc.) are served by Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities, and hospitals? Next, try to figure out who is subsidizing or "accommodating" whom: How much would it cost to provide the same services without religiously mobilized volunteers and institutions in the mix?

nytredesignThat's a good question, and DiIulio notes that there are mainstream researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania -- two institutions rarely called bastions of fundamentalist paranoia -- trying to find out just how much it would cost taxpayers to replace these Catholic "civic assets." He also mentions the amazing work done by urban African-American churches.

Meanwhile, I know, from my own experience as a reporter, that there are suburban Protestant churches on both the left and the right that do very little to minister in lower-income areas. But there are just as many that have major urban and blue-collar suburban outreach ministries that undercut the media stereotypes.

As I said, DiIulio is both a Democrat and a Catholic and, among reporters, he is known as a straight shooter. He is not a media basher.

Thus, the end of this article is rather stunning. To put it bluntly, DiIulio gets mad and wonders out loud if it really is true that many leaders in the Times newsroom are biased against religious believers, as opposed to merely failing to "get religion" on the intellectual, professional level. Perhaps their distrust of religious believers that they consider ignorant and dangerous has warped how the editors view American religion, in general. Thus, he concludes:

Despite survey evidence, case studies aplenty, and personal experiences suggesting that most elite national media outlets are home to people far less religious than most Americans, I have always resisted the conclusion that their reporting is systematically biased against religiously observant people and institutions. The Times, however, has very nearly converted me to that cynical view.

. . . Over the last two decades or so, the federal playing field has become less tilted against community-serving faith-based organizations, and more respectful of citizens' free exercise of religious rights. Over the same period, orthodox Christians have asserted themselves in politics in ways that challenge settled ideas about church-state relations and spark deep disagreements even with faith-friendly fellow citizens like me.

The way forward on church-state issues is with honest exchanges of views, from the secular liberal left to the Christian right, conducted in a spirit of mutual civic forbearance. Sadly, the Times prefers to reinforce biases against "the faithful."

Here at GetReligion, we have praised our share of reporters and stories at the Times, while feeling free to criticize others. We agree with editor Bill Keller that his newsroom needs more intellectual and cultural diversity. I hope that his staff read and meditated on DiIulio's blast against this great newspaper. I know that it sure shocked me.

Please respect our Commenting Policy