A favorite journalistic perk of mine was getting on think-tank mailing lists for panel discussions and in-depth interviews involving leading thinkers on subjects in which I am interested.
For an hour or more you get to hear acknowledged top experts who are tough, if not near impossible, to get to respond to your calls, emails, texts or whatever. And when they do, all you are likely to get is a brief exchange -- unless you have a special relationship with them or you work for an elite news outlet.
The background information or on-the-record quotes gleaned from such encounters can be invaluable. Plus it often comes with a free sandwich and beverage, or a full meal if you score the right mailing lists.
Thanks to the Web, you no longer have to leave you office, or home, to partake of these events, which are now available to anyone with an Internet connection. That's another big plus, even if I now have to make my own sandwich.
One recent interview, followed by an audience Q&A, I watched online featured Rabbi (and British) Lord Jonathan Sacks, for 22 years the United Kingdom's chief Modern Orthodox rabbi. He left that position in 2013 and now teaches at universities in New York and the UK, when not traveling the world as an esteemed religious leader and philosopher.
The exchange took place before a Council on Foreign Relations audience in New York. Click here to watch the entire 72-minute event.
The subject was 21st Century religious violence -- to my mind the most consequential religion and international story of the moment. It's also the subject of his latest book, "Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence." A recent Religion News Service interview with Sacks on the subject is available here.
One of his observations that struck me was his his evoking Sigmund Freud's thinking about the very nature of human violence. Freud, Sacks said, viewed sibling rivalries as the prime psychological driver of all human violence. The Bible's Book of Genesis is replete with this theme, noted Sacks -- Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.
Bible literalists may read into that what they wish. But Sacks made it clear that he did not mean for his metaphor to be understood literally. Rather, he meant that the violent, religion-infused conflicts today are between religious and geographical "siblings" -- groups that share theological roots, (the three Abrahamic faiths) or geographical closeness (Myanmar's Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims).
In short, we're at our worst with the people we're closest to.
A quick look at the world today bears witness to this. In India we have geographically linked Hindus and Muslims at odds. In the Middle East, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, we have theologically linked Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Egypt's theological Sunni Muslim-Christian Copts conflict.
In the Philippines we have geographically linked Christians and Muslims and we now can add to this unholy mix Thailand, where Buddhists fear a growing Muslim influence. And in Nigeria and elsewhere in sub-Sahara and central Africa we have theological warfare between Muslims and Christians. Sadly, those are but a few examples.
Note, please, that many of the conflicts are rooted in overlapping geographic proximity and one-upmanship theological claims. I'd also add that we have the Internet to thank for globalizing what were once regional conflicts; Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and others no matter where they live can now easy identify via the Web with conflicts in nations with which they have no personal history.
And as if all that I've detailed above isn't enough, we have more religious conflicts brewing that also warrant journalists' close attention, before they blow up and become major news stories; Bangladesh, for one, as this New York Times opinion column explains.
But perhaps more important, from an admittedly Western-centric perspective, is this brewing story that involves Turkey's Muslim government and perhaps the entirety of the Orthodox Christian world. The latter of course includes the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
This story came to my attention via Lapido Media, the Website of the British-based Centre for Religious Liberty in World Affairs.
An analysis piece on the site noted that Turkey's interim culture and tourism minister, Yalcin Topcu, wants to return Istanbul's magnificent Hagia Sophia to its Ottoman-era status as a mosque. It's now a museum but was once an Orthodox Christian cathedral before being turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, only to be secularized following the Ottoman Empire's demise.
It's too soon to say if the Islamist-leaning government of President Recep Erdogan will allow this. But should it, the potential consequences are enormous. Click here for some previous GetReligion coverage of this tense showdown.
Will Putin -- who has positioned himself as the uber-protector of Middle East Christians, both Orthodox and others, in conjunction with Russia's military foray in Syria -- object, and take some action? Russian-Turkish relations have historically shifted between good and bad as it is. It might not take all that much for them to head south, deeply south, as this CNN analysis underscores.
Russia's has already enraged ISIS and other Muslim jihadists (as the apparently downed Russian tourist jet over Egypt appears to confirm) by its actions in Syria, and it has long-running conflicts in Chechnya and other Muslim regions in the Russian Caucuses. (Read this this AP story for further information.)
Could all of this explode over the Hagia Sophia? What a horribly bloody mess that would be.
Perhaps religion and conflict have always been joined at the hip. I'll let others argue over that for now. More important than the history, however, is our current state of affairs -- the explosion of deadly sibling rivalries that the writers of Genesis, Freud and now Sacks have warned us about.
We are deep, as Sacks noted, in a century of religion-charged conflict. Let us not forget the century is only 15 years old (or 16, if you're a stickler about how you count 'em). News media have a responsibility to be prepared -- and to press the presidential candidates for responses to questions about these threats.