For years, I have heard religious leaders -- yes, most of them conservative types -- ask reporters whether or not they go to church. It's not a nice question and, I would argue, it's not the right question to ask if the goal is to understand why the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.
The goal of this question, essentially, is to show that an unusually high percentage of the scribes and editors in newsrooms are godless heathens who hate religious people. Now, I have met a few of those heathens in newsrooms, but not as many as you would think. I've met my share of "spiritual, but not religious" journalists and quite a few religious progressives. I once heard a colleague quip that the only place that the Episcopal Church's "Decade of Evangelism," in the 1990s, was a success was in newsrooms.
As I have said before on this blog, there are plenty of non-believers who do a fine job covering religion news. Then again, I have met believers who could not report their way out of a paper bag.
No, the question religious folks should be asking journalists -- when reporters are sent to cover religion events -- is this: How long have you covered religion news and what did you do, professionally and/or academically, to prepare for this work? In other words, stop asking journalists religious questions and start asking them journalism questions.
If you want to see a "Do you go to church?" train wreck, then check out the following commentary (and then some) from Hamilton Nolan at Gawker that has been making the rounds. Let me stress that this is not a news piece, so no one should expect balance, fairness and other journalistic virtues. The headline: "Donald Trump Gay Marries Jesus: At the Family Leadership Summit."
Here's the overture:
AMES, IOWA -- Abortion. Abominable gays. And god’s abiding dislike of the current Democratic administration. Hey 90s kids: remember 1996? Remember the Culture Wars? They’re back.
On Saturday morning, under the sweltering Iowa sun, all four corners of the street outside of Iowa State University’s auditorium were held by ideological armies. On one corner were the Iowa atheists; on the next, people protesting the prison-industrial complex; on the next, people calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood; and on the next, the pro-life crowd. Men waved signs urging god out of public schools just yards away from an anti-abortion group’s mobile health clinic.
Inside, thousands of Iowans and hundreds of members of the press corps had come out to see rumpled Republican language whisperer Frank Luntz, sporting garish red and white sneakers with his suit, quiz ten of the major Republican presidential candidates. He quizzed them not just on policy, but on something more meaty: their faith. “Have you ever asked god for forgiveness?” he asked Donald Trump. “Is there ever a time you cursed god?” he asked Rick Santorum. “How many of you think the collapse of the family and culture is the most important issue?” he asked the audience. There was opportunity for much solemn head-nodding.
And now the "Do you go to church?" disaster:
The only group who might have felt less welcome at the Family Leadership Summit than black people or abortionists was the media. We were given the first three rows in the auditorium, the best seats of the house. This was less a gesture of magnanimity from the organizers than a move to ensure that the press was conveniently placed for insults from the stage.
At one point, Frank Luntz stopped the proceedings to ask the press corps how many of us went to church regularly. For reasons I cannot fathom, a smattering of reporters raised their hands. “That’s nine out of what, sixty or seventy there?” Luntz said, in a tone of sadness. The crowd was appropriately disgusted. “Wow.” “Jeez.” A few hisses even rained down. Later, the single biggest standing ovation of the entire day -- bigger than any ovation for Jesus himself—came when Luntz pointed to press row and asked Bobby Jindal, “What are you critical of?”
“They don’t hold this president to the same standards they do the rest of us,” Jindal said. At this, the crowd rose en masse and thundered on clapping for a solid half minute. I could only thank my lucky stars that America has successfully fought off Sharia law thus far, or we surely would have all been stoned to death.
For a non-churchgoer, it is rather disconcerting to hear powerful public officials campaigning for such an important job plainly lay out their belief that a magic man in the sky will be the key to all of their efforts. Ted Cruz, who looks like a crooked mortician in cowboy boots, voiced the opinion that the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage “will awaken the body of Christ and lift us up to say: we will take our country back for our values.” I don’t know what awakening the body of Christ entails exactly, but it sounds terrifying for non-Christians. (Cruz went on to criticize Iran for being “theocratic.”)
Does anyone out there have a JOURNALISTIC comment about this? Come on, give it a try.