Should old Godbeat acquaintance be forgot...

Peter_SteinfelsI suppose all good things must come to an end eventually but, after 20 years, the final New York Times' Beliefs column was printed on New Year's Day. Terry, as usual, had some vital things to say about this development on the Godbeat -- so go read his post below already if you haven't done so now. Still, a major development has room for more than one us here at GR to comment on, even if Tmatt is a tough act to follow. With the demise of Beliefs, it's my hope that the Times comes up with something similar to fill the void in their religious coverage going forward. However, given the direction that the my industry is headed, I'm not terribly optimistic.

Beliefs columnist Peter Steinfels did take the occasion of his final column to discuss some of the challenges of writing about religion for a newspaper, and Terry touched on that. However, I also wanted to note that Steinfels' farewell was actually a two-parter starting with his column on December 18, where he outlined "six convictions" that guided his philosophical approach, e.g.:

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.

Suffice to say, each one of Steinfels' convictions makes a heck of a conversation starter and could probably merit its own GetReligion post. Steinfels has some considerable wisdom to impart here and it's obviously born of experience. Both columns are well worth reading.

However, there was one aspect of Steinfels' final column that I found curious:

During the last two decades, attitudes toward religion have become increasingly contentious and polarized. Not only abortion and older questions of public morality and church-state relations, recently heightened by the political mobilization of conservative believers, but also newer issues like embryonic stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage, have pitted significant elements of traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths against leading voices of political and cultural liberalism.

Those voices, it is no secret, included the editorial columns of this paper and were heard on some of its other pages as well. Beliefs, frankly, was caught in the middle. The column's treatment of traditional religious perspectives and developments was welcomed by many readers who evidently felt that, in the fever of the culture wars and political polemics, those traditions were being given short shrift.

I find it really interesting that Steinfels takes it as a given that the culture war somehow ramped up over the course of his column. I don't know if I necessarily disagree with Steinfels' impression of the last 20 years, but whenever read some variation of "it was so much better/easier/less controversial way back when." This is doubly true when addressing topics such as religion, which are perennially controversial. Were things less tense when religious folks were fighting over slavery, entering into World War I, prohibition or the possibility of a Catholic president?

It's human nature to romanticize the past, and journalists are no exception. Again, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with Steinfels, but I find it curious that he notes a number of political and cultural sources of discord within the religious sphere. He doesn't, however, reconcile this with the tremendous amount of upheaval that contemporaneously happened in the journalism industry. Did "traditional religious perspectives" genuinely became less of an influential cultural force over the last 20 years? Or did it just seem that way because of the way that the news coverage changed? Once fat-and-happy publications such as the New York Times have had to become a lot more competitive. I suspect at the Times they have a lot fewer column inches for thoughtful analyses about mainstream religious developments then they once did, and at the same time the economic incentives skewed toward covering controversy more than they had when Steinfels started writing his column.

Anyway, I would be curious to hear from GR readers in the comments. Do you think that religion is more polarized in the last 20 years? And if so, why?

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