Sally Quinn's dinner party

Newsweek/Washington Post's "On Faith" religion section has not gone without criticism in these parts. We want newspapers to cover more religion news, and cover it better. The "On Faith" site treats religion as an interesting topic for discussion at a civilized dinner party with mostly liberal guests. Somedays the guests are really interesting and add value to the discussion and other days you wish they'd stop drinking and head on home.

But a funny thing happened when I read the Evgenia Peretz's big Vanity Fair profile of Sally Quinn. The profile, which was very well written, not only helped me see what some people love about Quinn but it also made me wonder if Quinn shouldn't get more credit for what she's trying to do with "On Faith."

The article is by no means a puff piece. I almost cringed when I was reading what her husband's family -- from previous wives -- had to say about her. Or anecdotes such as this:

But along the way to stardom she humiliated a number of subjects--many of whom were harmless, barely public figures--such as a life-of-the-party lawyer named Steve Martindale and wealthy ballet benefactress Teddy Westreich, the running theme being: Everyone in town thinks so-and-so is a tacky social climber. Vicki Bagley, who was the subject of one such profile when she was married to R. J. Reynolds tobacco heir Smith Bagley and working as a fund-raiser for Jimmy Carter, recalls turning Sally down for an interview and then getting phone-stalked by her for weeks. "She was getting more and more threatening," says Bagley, who recalls hearing that Sally was looking into the lives of her children. "She called us all social climbers. Well, a bigger social climber will have never been... Sally was the very person she was writing about... We were all doing things. We were all working. Sally wanted what we had, and she wanted to destroy us because we had it."

But it's balanced by quotes from friends who admire her loyalty and drive. One of the most interesting parts of the article was the discussion of Quinn's son (named Quinn) who has Velo-Cardio-Facial Syndrome, a congenital disorder that affects his heart, facial structure, immune system, and ability to talk and comprehend. By all accounts, she is a fiercely protective mother who put in an amazing amount of work to ensure that Quinn's life was as full as could be. Her tireless efforts also produced a change in her:

With the steadfast encouragement from his mother and the encouragement of a family friend, book publisher Peter Osnos, Quinn embarked on a memoir, A Different Life. It wasn't until age 26 that he really had enough to say. He told his story to Jeff Himmelman; the result was honest, heartbreaking, and inspiring. When it came out, last year, Quinn went on a publicity blitz, with Sally, to be sure, always by his side. She recalls his talking to a group of 600 people at the Learning Disabilities Association of America. "I cried all the way through it … and he was just so proud." To say that she unlocked his potential is an understatement. She refused to take no for an answer when it came to giving him a life he--and she--could be proud of. Her journey with Quinn has led her to new places in her own career, say her friends, namely the On Faith Web site, which features online discussion of hot religious topics. The "life and death" struggle, observes Coffey, "would have a sizable part in her great interest in religion and what it does and what it means to people at the extremes."

In Sally Quinn's case, that has a lot to do with what she frequently calls "the search for the divine." The article notes that her husband Ben Bradlee built her a concrete meditation labyrinth at their St. Mary's County, Maryland, estate. And from her columns and essays, we know her discussion of religion tends toward the personal introspection side of things rather than the systematic theology side of things. You can see an example of that in the video embedded above.

She's only the co-moderator of "On Faith." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is the other moderator. When you look at the contributor list at On Faith, it's sort of what you'd expect someone like Jon Meacham to put together. Heavy on the mainline religious denominations and others active in the interfaith movement, light on confessional Protestants, if there are any -- and a dappling of politically active or otherwise noteworthy conservative religious figures.

But after reading this Vanity Fair profile, I think it's clear that Quinn's approach to religion is what really drives the site's ethos. It reads a bit like a dinner party with religious adherents who exist in the liberal orbit because that's precisely what she's going for.

And while we frequently talk about the downside or limitations of such an approach, it's also worth noting that "On Faith" sprang up at a time that other media outlets were deep-sixing religion coverage as quickly as they could.

All to say, I'm not surprised that Quinn's idea for religion coverage would look like "On Faith." Maybe she should even be commended for it.

That the Post continues to use that vision as a rudder for such a huge symbolic project also speaks to the role Quinn has there. It's telling and probably worth some more consideration about whether the Post wants to continue in that direction.

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