A religion-news voice from past

AbsolutJonestownThis is one of those weeks when one of my more personal posts here at GetReligion evolved into a rare first-person column for the Scripps Howard News Service. I am referring to that recent post on Jonestown and the question of why the mainstream press, 30 years ago, struggled to handle the strong religious elements in that story. The bottom line: It was too big, too important a story to be handled by mere religion reporters.

Looking back, this really was a pivotal moment for me as I decided to pursue a career as a religion-news specialist. I was so frustrated by the coverage that, eventually, I started talking to other religion writers about it. That led to a conversation with the late George Cornell of the Associated Press about joining the Religion Newswriters Association. My talks with Cornell ended up in my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which ended up, in condensed form, on the cover of the journal The Quill.

The other factor that shoved this subject over the line into a Scripps column was the discovery, online, of a remarkable issue of DisciplesWorld -- the journal of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You cannot read the issue online (unless I am missing something), but the editors were gracious enough to send me digital copies of key essays.

I would urge reporters and editors who are considering publishing anniversary pieces on the Jonestown tragedy to get a copy of this magazine. The degree of introspection and candor is solid and, frankly, courageous. The editorial at the start of the issue led directly to the opening of my column:

It only takes a few words to call back the memories from 30 years ago, all those nightmare images from the jungle sanctuary in Guyana.

"Revolutionary suicide" may do the trick, especially when combined with that grim quotation from one survivor, "They started with the babies." But it was another Jonestown catch phrase that leapt into the national consciousness.

Sherri Wood Emmons heard it when she accepted a job with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only four years after the massacre.

"Don't drink the Kool-Aid," said a friend, laughing.

"It's understandable, I guess. We use humor to distance ourselves from things we don't understand, things that frighten us," noted Emmons, in her editorial introducing a DisciplesWorld journal issue marking the Jonestown anniversary. "It's easier to poke fun at people than try to understand them. Those crazies, we say, shaking our heads. They must have been nuts."

But there's a problem with America's three decades of sick laughter about 900-plus people drinking cyanide and fake fruit juice in honor of one man's vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Rev. Jim Jones really did flourish in the American heartland and begin his ministry in Indianapolis, of all places. In the early 1960s, his idealistic, multi-ethnic Peoples Temple was embraced with open arms by the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream church at the heart of the Protestant ecumenical establishment. When he moved his flock to California, he forged strong ties to George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and the San Francisco political establishment.

And those Jones disciples? "They were living out their faith in wants that might shame some of us today," according to Emmons. "And they were Disciples of Christ. As much as we might like to forget that."

Thus, the ultimate question for journalists: Why the laughter? Why was it so easy to laugh or to look away or to ignore the ultimate religious questions? Why was this big religion story so haunted by religion ghosts that were, especially in early coverage, handled in such a shallow or twisted way?

This was an important religion story. Wasn't it? This was a story -- for better and for worse -- about the shocking demise of a pastor and his flock.

BlindSpot 01That led to my call to Cornell, the dean of the nation's religion reporters:

"I think that a lot of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion, at least the substance of religion, was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned," he told me. "They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter. They don't want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion."

That's why it was hard to take Jones seriously during his rise. That's why it was hard to take him seriously after he died and took his followers with him. That's why it's easier to laugh or to look away.

Jonestown was not an isolated case, explained Cornell. Anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take religion seriously. But many journalists just didn't get it. This blind spot is real.

That was true 30 years ago and it's true today.

"I mean, look at every major flash point in the world," said Cornell. "There's almost always a religious element involved -- and it's almost always a powerful one. ... People just don't see where the hammer is falling -- where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it."

There's that image again: A blind spot. Someone ought to do a book on that.

Photo: Satirical art created at media.ebaumsworld.com/

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