A page-one item in the March 15 New York Times “Sunday Review” section, headlined “How Business Made Us Christian,” highlighted a couple notable fashions in daily newspapering. Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse drew this article from his new book with the provocative title “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”
In part, Kruse revisited the familiar theme of “piety on the Potomac” in the 1950s when President Eisenhower was baptized a Presbyterian, Billy Graham led a D.C. revival meeting, Catholic lobbyists got “under God” inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance and annual Presidential Prayer Breakfasts began.
Kruse’s new emphasis is how business interests promoted “capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.” It seems a 1930s Congregational pastor to the elite named James Fifield “paired Christianity and capitalism against the New Deal’s ‘pagan statism.’ ” Kruse fuses that with later businessmen backing Graham’s crusades and Abraham Vereide’s prayer breakfasts.
All rather interesting.
Nevertheless, old-fashioned journalism would immediately raise questions. Is the scenario skewed? What’s missing? Was this cynical service to mammon or authentic piety? Did such efforts have any actual effect on America’s politics and policies?
Instead of lavish display for one man’s opinion, an impartial staff reporter could have integrated Kruse’s outlook with perspective from such historians of modern American faith as Randall Balmer, Edith Blumhofer, David Chappell, George Marsden, William Martin, Martin Marty, Mark Noll or Grant Wacker.
Thus, what we are seeing is trend number one: Single-voice opinion articles are a valuable aspect of journalism but have traditionally been the work of magazines like The Atlantic, The Nation, or National Review, not newspapers.
In the March 15 Review another page-one piece also boosted a book, this one by Times guy Frank Bruni: “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” Inside we got more timeless items that now typify the section: “What My Friends Mean to Me,” “Don’t Mess With Auntie Jean,” “Childless by Choice,” “Why we are afraid of getting what we want,” “The Problem With ‘Fat Talk’ ” and the usual self-indulgent memoir.
Religionistas are often soft on “soft news,” but editor Trish Hall (who also runs the Op-Ed pages) overdoes things with instincts you’d expect from a middlebrow social science professor. The Kruse or Bruni pieces could have run last year or next month.
Thus trend number two: The new Review is fleeing the news and what was newspapering. It could have examined, oh, ISIS moves, Putin’s moves, Iran’s nukes, economic turbulence, the Pope’s doings, the Ferguson aftermath, all those Republicans, Netanyahu at the Capitol, immigration maneuvers, the Clinton foundation’s foreign friends or Hillary’s Chappaquagate e-mail server. That was the news in the previous week, right?
Back in 1935 the Times inaugurated the Sunday “News of the Week in Review” section, presumably in response to Time (my old home base) as a “weekly news magazine” (with a pioneering religion section) and the 1933 launch of its two competitors, News-Week magazine the weekly United States News. (Just as Fox News and MSNBC arose simultaneously in 1996 to challenge the entrenched CNN.)
The section later became “Week in Review,” then the “Sunday Review” in 2011 when the Times proclaimed an “evolutionary leap.” Instead of staff journalists analyzing current events beyond weekday hard news, the Review would now practice “a more general timeliness.”
So here is my question for journalists today, one that affects religion news and many other kinds of content: Does the resulting timeless and Newsless Review reflect full surrender to cable news and the Internet?