Knowing your beat

kool_aidLisa Miller is the religion editor at Newsweek. You may remember her from that very unjournalistic cover story she wrote purporting to advance a religious case for same-sex marriage. Well, Newsweek and the Washington Post are part of the same company and they have that On Faith web site. And one of the many sub-sections of On Faith is Women On Faith: Talk about spirituality, values and our lives with Lisa Miller, Sally Quinn and friends. To be honest, I'd never heard of this subsection until a reader pointed out Lisa Miller's latest contribution to the "talk":

Sarah Palin, God love her, never lets us down. At a dinner in Alaska last Friday, Palin let the crowd in on her search for a prayer partner in the moments before her vice presidential debate: "So I'm looking around for somebody to pray with, I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra, and the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know, there are a lot of normal people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray." Palin said she finally had to resort to praying with her daughter Piper.

I don't know where to begin. My prayers, which are mostly a recognition of gratitude and wonder, are mine alone, whether I'm in a crowd or by myself. Nobody to pray with? What does that mean? Isn't prayer a personal connection between you and your god, whoever or whatever that might be? Did she really need a group to help her pray for her success in the debate? She couldn't do that by herself? Should she have been praying for herself? What about praying alone over a sick child or a dying relative? Praying for those who are starving or for those figh (sic) our wars? Was there no one there worthy enough to speak to God with her? Was her daughter a last alternative?

Someone please explain this sort of thinking to me. I don't get it. Do you?

Okay, I yield to no one in my right to critique the religious practices of anyone. I believe that all beliefs are open to criticism and a free society welcomes such discussion. So I have no problem in theory with a critique of a group (or one of its prominent members) for a particular practice. Whether a journalism professional should be doing that is another question, but let's leave that aside for a minute.

Here's my question: How do you get to be religion editor of Newsweek and not know anything about evangelicals? I mean, does Lisa Miller believe that just because she prays in a particular way that this is the only way people -- throughout time and history -- should pray? Does she really not know that Christians pray individually, in groups and corporately in worship? Has she really never heard of people praying with one another? Really? What cave do you have to be in to know this little about a group you ostensibly cover?

It just seems that if you're going to critique someone, you should take the time to find out where they're coming from. I learned a lot about evangelical prayer life simply by knowing hundreds of evangelicals. Some have asked to pray with me, many haven't. I was probably still in junior high school when I figured out this particular evangelical practice and style of finding prayer partners. If, as a reporter, you don't have the benefit of growing up among evangelicals or having friends who are evangelicals, you can read books about them, interview them, visit their Web sites, or ask a research librarian for help. Hey, read reporter Mark Pinsky's solid, professional, journalistic, A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.

It's probably worth mentioning that even non-evangelical Christians have been known to seek a fellow believer with whom to pray before undergoing a test or difficult situation. It's not really that odd. And it's not about worthiness or last resorts.

Miller wasn't the only journalist to spew hatred toward Palin for her prayer practices. On Hardball last week, Washington Post staff writer Lois Romano also went off on Palin, saying that her comments were "bizarre" and "judgmental":

Why did she need to pray with anyone? Why couldn't she just pray by herself? Prayer and religion are very private things.

That wasn't Lois Romano, Democratic operative. That wasn't Lois Romano, political pundit. That was a staff writer at the Post. That was someone who is paid to write balanced news stories. If you think long-established evangelical prayer practices are bizarre and judgmental; if you think the only good religion is private religion and the only acceptable prayer practice to be strict silence, I wonder if that colors how you cover stories.

As for Miller's bizarre and arrogant screed about what better things Palin should have been praying for . . . I don't recall her bringing out her snark guns on then-campaigning Sen. Barack Obama when he prayed for protection, forgiveness and wisdom and that he be made an instrument of God's will.

I wonder why. At least we know it's not because the folks at Newsweek drank the Obama Kool-Aid.

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