Cronkite: "Journalism prevailed"

Our friends at Episcopal Café may be about the only media people to place Walter Cronkite's faith so high in a story, but there it is, right in the headline: "Walter Cronkite, newsanchor & Episcopalian, dies at 92."

In a 2,700-word report for The New York Times, Douglas Martin mentioned Cronkite's faith only in the context of his funeral: "The family said it was planning a private service at St. Bartholemew's Church in New York."

Mark Moring of Christianity Today quoted from a statement released by evangelist Billy Graham, who called Cronkite "one of the closest friends I had in journalism." Graham added: "He was an icon. I doubt if anybody will replace him in the hearts and minds of Americans. I respected his views on so many subjects."

The most rewarding material about Cronkite's faith comes from an interview he granted to The Christian Century in December 1994, while he was in Chicagoland to visit Willow Creek Community Church. The resulting program, The Cronkite Reports: Christianity Reborn: Prayer and Politics, appeared on the Discovery Channel. (The imbalanced list of talking heads gives some idea of the program's flavor.)

The Century's short, direct questions led to thoughtful responses from Cronkite:

Did you have a connection to the church when you were growing up?

I come from a Lutheran family that turned Presbyterian in my boyhood. That was primarily because of the convenience of the Presbyterian church in our neighborhood in Kansas City. When I was ten we moved to Houston and my father swung all the way from the Lutheranism in which he'd grown up to Unitarianism. He helped found the Unitarian church in Houston in 1927 or 1928. I attended that for a couple years until I got into a Boy Scout troop that met in an Episcopal church. The church had a wonderful minister who was also the scoutmaster. And I suppose you can say he proselytized me. At any rate, I was much involved with the church, and became Episcopalian -- and an acolyte. Later, when I worked for a paper in Houston, I was church editor for a while. The Episcopal House of Bishops met in Houston one year, and I became intrigued by the leaders of the church -- fascinated by their discussions and their erudition. For a short while I though about entering the ministry. But that was a short while. Journalism prevailed.

... What prompted you to devote a television show to religion?

I know from experience that church attendance in England, France and the rest of Western Europe is way down. In the U.S. we have something of a boom. Why? What makes religiosity in this country different from that in the rest of the developed world? That's a matter of curiosity to me as a newsman.

What is it churches offer? Do people attend because of the services that churches offer, or are people actually in search of God? Do evangelical ministries attract people through skillful use of the media? These were the sorts of questions I found interesting.

... Stephen Carter gained a lot of attention with his book The Culture of Disbelief, in which he argues that though Americans are very religious, the media and public life in general tend to trivialize religion. They don't take them seriously. Do you think that's true?

I wouldn't say media trivialize religion; I'd say instead that they don't pay attention to religion at all. Religion has frightened away reporters and editors from time immemorial. They're afraid they'll get involved in a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And they don't think religion is a broad-based interest among readers and viewers.

Cronkite reported on so many crucial 20th-century moments -- including the Nuremberg trials, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the first lunar landing -- that what reporting he did on religion will not feature prominently in his obituaries or, likely, in his legacy. He was no friend of the Religious Right, and was indeed a vocal critic of it, as an honorary chairman of The Interfaith Alliance.

I wish his curiosity about conservatives' faith had run deeper, or that he made the same contributions to religion reporting as ABC's Peter Jennings. Still, I'm thankful for Cronkite's reluctance to become a pundit while in the anchor chair, and for his commitment to an active retirement. May he not be shocked to find some departed members of the Religion Right in heaven, and may he enjoy interviewing them there.

Please respect our Commenting Policy