Oh my. How time flies when there is lots of work to do.
Has it really been a decade plus since sociologist Christian Smith published his infamous Books & Culture essay that ran under this grabber headline?
Religiously Ignorant Journalists
In search of Episcopals and evangelists.
As you would imagine, that piece received quick attention from the new-born GetReligion.org and we have pointed readers to it several times, including this 2010 post by GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway which noted an interesting, and sadly not that unusual, grammatical innovation in the following NPR passage:
Some 3,000 evangelical Christian Cubans attend an open-air service in Havana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their public service in 1999. Evangelism is among the fastest-growing religions in communist -- and formerly atheist -- Cuba.
Now, that first reference to "evangelical" is fine. But the second one? Clearly, that was supposed to say "evangelicalism." Thus, as MZ noted:
... It's clear that this is a copy editor or copy-editing problem. And certainly the industry struggles to hire editors who are both technologically savvy and literate. But, as the reader who submitted this notes, this is embarrassing. Evangelism is not a religion. Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity and evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.
What do you know? Four years later and NPR still hasn't fixed the vague headline: "Cubans Flock To Evangelism To Fill Spiritual Vacuum." Uh, that is still "evangelicalism."
Now, I have a new reason to bring this issue up, yet again. We will get to that in a moment. First, here is a flashback to the original Smith essay, which opened like this:
Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.
Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as "evangelists" -- as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau -- or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy [Swaggart]. Hey, aren't all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them -- scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce "evangelicals" at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at "evangelics" and "evangelicalists" they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as "them."
The bottom line question, for Smith: "Why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?” The answer, he argued, was that the “knowledge class” that so often guides mainstream news coverage has assumed “that religion was simply irrelevant to anything that mattered.” Thus, too many journalists tend to "project their own biases into their religion coverage,” automatically associating religion with “fundamentalism, violence, scandals, homophobia, dying churches, repression, exotic rituals, political ambition, cults, trivia.”
As you would imagine, there were those who disagreed, starting with Mark Silk and the team at "Religion in the News." Click here to read that take-down of Smith.
So why bring this up again? Well, there is this really strange passage in a WorldViews piece at The Washington Post that points readers toward a new controversy in India about Mother Teresa, while noting that critics continue to insist that she was not all that saintly. This quickie reported-opinion piece by Adam Taylor begins like this:
Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic missionary who became an international icon for her charitable work, has been dropped into modern India's religious debate after the head of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) criticized the intentions behind her work.
"It's good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa's work had ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity," RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said at the opening of an orphanage in Rajasthan state on Monday, the Times of India reports. "In the name of service, religious conversions were made. This was followed by other institutes, too."
Yes, there is more about her "ulterior motive," and that's where things get a bit strange, grammatically speaking:
This controversy about Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, is far from her first. Her saintly reputation (she is quite literally on the path to sainthood -- she was beatified in 2003) was gained for aiding Calcutta's poorest of the poor, yet it was undercut by persistent allegations of misuse of funds, poor medical treatments and religious evangelicalism in the institutions she founded.
Say what? The world-famous Catholic Mother Teresa was accused of "religious evangelicalism"? Really? What's that?
Maybe that was supposed to say "religious evangelism"? No, wait, that doesn't work either. As opposed to what? Would the opposite of "religious evangelism" be "secular evangelism"? I think WorldViews simply meant to say that she had been accused of "evangelism." Maybe. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.
Let's end with this aside from a Wilson Quarterly commentary on the original Smith piece. I hope we can all agree on this one, right Washington Post editors?
Smith’s remedy for the current situation is entirely sensible: He proposes that editors assign religion stories only to journalists who know something about the subject -- and that the editors invest in competent religion reporters if none are now on staff.
Wisdom. Let us attend.