Want high-level religion journalism? Then back high-level religion literacy education -- period

If you read GetReligion, chances are great you attach major importance to the need for religious literacy among those who practice journalism. And not just to excel as a designated religion writer.

Given the role religion plays today in global affairs, you probably also feel strongly that a basic competency about religion is necessary in the coverage of just about any journalistic subject -- domestic politics, business, entertainment, and sports, among them.

Additionally, if you've been a university-level religion journalism professor (or an adjunct professor, as in my case), I'll bet you also think that the level of religious literacy exhibited by your students was disappointing, which was my experience.

(If your experience was better, I'd be delighted to hear about it. Might even lift some of my cynicism and lower my blood pressure. Use the comment section below.)

Religious literacy is on my mind this week for a couple of reasons.

One, was the media's confusion in trying to label the faith of San Bernardino terror attack victim Nicholas Thalasinos. This episode made clear the gaps in journalists' understanding of religious terminology -- and probably the public's as well, though that's much harder to gauge because of the public's dependence on what the press tells them. (I'll get back to this below.)

The second, was an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It urged colleges and universities to put more emphasis on explaining the intricacies of religious beliefs and the influence they have on human actions -- despite the fact that introducing religion into classroom discussions at public and private secular institutions can be dangerous to academic careers.

Click here to read the entire essay. And here's the nut of what writer Ulrich Rosenhagen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison had to say.

...[C]olleges need to stay ahead of the violence caused by religious extremists in a way that trains their students to better understand religion in the 21st century. In a globalized world increasingly threatened by religious extremism and fanaticism, educators must think about how religious education can play an important role in helping their students become global citizens. They must give students knowledge of the religious backgrounds of the disputes that dominate our world, and to train students to be ready to recognize when religious ideas and motivations are being hijacked by extremists abroad and at home.
Public and secular colleges — where finding and facilitating space for diverse religious expressions is understandably tricky — have a crucial role to play here. The secular, pluralistic campus is the ideal habitat to help students understand how religious ideas and identities work, how religious worldviews both open and constrain (geo-)political interaction, and how people of different core values and convictions can peacefully coexist. Colleges need to invest more in their students’ religious literacy — not proselytizing, not affirming any particular faith — but simply teaching vital competence about religion and its impact on global affairs that will prepare students for their future while enlightening our civic discourse along the way.

Now, I admit that during my student days I also knew almost nothing about the world of religion, including my own, Judaism. I had little interest in the field and I didn't have a clue to the complexity of human beliefs and their role in the trajectory of human history.

I didn't know anything because I had no one in my immediate environment who had any knowledge to impart, or because they simply did not talk about such things with me. That was true for my journalism professors, too. (I'm a graduate of New York University J-school.)

I learned much of whatever it is that I do know about religious practice and religion's extraordinary influence while on the religion beat, over the course of some three decades. And of course I still make mistakes out of ignorance -- and sometimes laziness because it's easier and quicker (but wrong) to assume rather than to do the proper research.

Which brings me back to Thalasinos.

Some initial reports on the tragedy in San Bernardino said Thalasinos was a Jew. Then, as more details of the attack and its victims became known, Thalasinos was widely reported to be a Messianic Jew. He was also called an evangelical Christian, as CNN did, according to GetReligion colleague Terry Mattingly, who happened to catch that particular segment.

Even professionals with leading American Jewish and Israeli media repeatedly called Thalasinos a Messianic Jew -- which I consider a major and embarrassing lapse on their part.

Granted, reporting this breaking story was very difficult and the emphasis during its immediate aftermath was on how San Bernardino was connected, if it was, to international Islamic-spawned terrorism.

But what was the chance of someone named Nicholas Thalasinos being a Jew? Even today, when many Jews no longer have traditional surnames because of intermarriage, assimilation, or the unwitting mistakes made by immigration officials back at Ellis Island.

By last weekend, it became clear that Thalasinos was, as I understand it as of this writing, an evangelical Christian -- a gentile, to use traditional Judaism's terminology -- who was neither an ethnic Jew or a convert to normative Judaism.

Rather, he was a believing Christian with a deep affinity for Jews, Judaism and Israel -- all of which may have contributed to his co-worker Syed Rizwan and Rizwan's wife Tashfeen Malik choosing to act on their jihadi impulses at the time and place that they did. It is clear that he was an active member of a congregation -- Shiloh Messianic Congregation -- in the Christian movement that calls itself Messianic Judaism.

Yet on Saturday I noticed The Washington Post still identified Thalasinos as a Messianic Jew (saying he had "converted" to it) in its print edition, with no explanation of what that meant in his case. By Sunday, the online version of Thalasinos' bio said he "identified" as a Messianic Jew -- which he's certainly free to do, but which is a wholly different circumstance from "being" a Messianic Jew, as Jews define them.

And on Monday, Religion News Service moved a story that also labeled Thalasinos a Messianic Jew, though the piece went to some lengths to explain that he was not, in fact, a Jew.

Think I'm linguistically nitpicking? If so, why then quibble about whether a self-proclaimed women priest can call herself Roman Catholic, or take pains to differentiate between fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants?

So it's not just university students who need to be better educated about the details of religious expression. Experienced journalists need some tutoring as well. Fortunately, there are many fellowships and other educational experiences available to journalists; they are easily found on the Web.

We generally know less than we think we do. Which is why errors such as in the case of Thalasinos' religious identity just keep happening.

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