When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

On one level, this past week's "Crossroads" podcast added a few extra layers of information to my recent Universal Syndicate "On Religion" column about the ministry of the late Father Jack Heaslip (video clip above), an Anglican priest who for several decades was the behind-the-scenes pastor to the members of U2.

But there's more to the podcast than that. Click here to tune into the whole discussion.

The key to the discussion is the conflicted feelings that I experienced, back in 2001, when I met Heaslip at a private gathering on Capitol Hill in which Bono address a strategic circle of Hill staffers who shared his convictions about hunger, AIDS and the Third World debt crisis.

The band's pastor asked if I was with the press and I admitted that I was. He said something like, "Well, we're here to hear that man speak," gesturing toward Bono, and slipped away to the back of the room.

I was very disappointed not to "land" a rare interview with this man, yet, at the same time, I admired the degree to which he managed to stay out of the spotlight and do his work without great fanfare. He didn't want to be turned into a "Father Jack Heaslip, secret pastor of U2 superstars!" headline. Instead, he wanted to continue his pastoral support for four men he had known since they were brash young teen-agers in the nondenominational school in which he was their guidance counselor.

So that journalistic tension is what the podcast is about, really. Journalists frequently run into stories about celebrities who, to one degree or another, play the faith card. Whenever this happens it raises question about the degree to which reporters have any right to ask if someone's faith is real or not. It also raises questions about the degree to which journalists have the right to pry into the lives of the ministers -- if these alleged believers really have ministers -- who help them sweat the details of the faith.

There are journalists who seem to think that the whole subject is a joke. There was an interesting little dust-up the other day when some people freaked out, mildly, when Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh attended a press conference with ashes, in the shape of a cross, on his forehead. He had, as a Roman Catholic, just come from an Ash Wednesday service.

It was almost like the coach had violated the separation of church and NFL. It was interesting to note that The Los Angeles Times team edited the main photograph -- mid forehead -- to get rid of the offensive ashes. But they were all over the place in the Twitter-verse.

So, would reporters have a right to interview this man's priest? Again, I am conflicted.

When some celebrity plays the God card, to one degree or another, part of me wants to do the journalism thing and seek some information about the content of their faith. Yet another part of me wants to leave them, and their clergy, alone. But there are news stories in which it might be important to find out if a superstar (think quarterback Michael Vick, for example, after his release from prison) has indeed changed the direction of this life. How to report this?

I tell me students to ask these God-card questions: How do these people spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions (who or what influences them the most)? These questions may lead journalists to religious institutions and their leaders.

Should clergy talk or not? Is it grandstanding if they do talk to the media?

When do we ask these questions? What if this material is relevant to the story?

Consider, for example, the column I wrote about Denzel Washington, just before the release of the apocalyptic thriller "The Book of Eli."

Washington is both a preacher's kid and someone who remains active in a major church.

Thus, this is how the column ends:

The movie ends with a prayer that includes a famous quotation from St. Paul: "I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I kept the faith."
Washington said these are the kinds of messages that linger after the Bible studies that he strives to fit into each day. He has worked his way through the Bible three times, spurred on by the example of Pauletta, his wife of 26 years.
While reading the Book of Proverbs recently, he began looking around his house, marveling over "all this stuff." This led to a sobering question: "What do you want, Denzel?" He focused on "wisdom," which led to the word "understanding."
"I said, 'Hey, there's something to work on. How about wisdom and understanding? How about that? I started praying, I said, 'God, give me a dose of that,' " said Washington. "I mean, I can't get … anymore successful, you know, but I can get better. I can learn to love more. I can learn to be more understanding. I can gain more wisdom.
"So that's where I'm at."

So what questions do you want to ask at that point? To what degree to these people need to answer questions about their lives outside of the spotlight? Would it help to talk to the pastor of someone like Denzel Washington? Do reporters have any right to try to do that?

Enjoy the podcast.

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