Weekend think piece: Questions to ask, when reporting on the state of a candidate's soul

Around and around and around we go, with the ongoing chatter about the state of Citizen Donald Trump's soul ("Crossroads" podcast here) and the whole "is he or is he not a you know what kind of Christian" talk.

However, I have good news for all who are frustrated by all of this, including the fact that the Trump drama has offered a chance for journalists to laugh at people who are eternally serious when it comes to discussions of heaven and hell, sin and salvation.

One of the America's most respected scholars on matters of religion and the press has weighed in with some thoughts on this situation. I've known Stewart Hoover ever since our paths crossed soon after his doctoral studies. To make a long story short, he was very kind, at one point, to call some attention to my own University of Illinois graduate project (the short version in The Quill is here) digging into why journalists struggle to cover religion news. Anyone who has taught a college class on this subject knows his work.

Thus, this weekend's religion-news think piece comes from Hoover and can be found at ReligionDispatches.org. The headline: "Hillary's faith, Trump's conversion: Two questions journalists need to ask."

Here is a key part of the overture. It's almost like he's saying that many mainstream journalists, you know, kind of don't "get" religion.

Somewhere in each reporter’s notebook is a tab marked “religion.” The problem is that, unlike most of the other topics they’ll be reporting on, their understanding of religion is a mixture of broad bromides about the nature of religion in American life, mixed perhaps with entirely subjective notions of religion born of their own personal experience with it.
Among journalistic “broad truths:” religion used to be important to Americans, but isn’t anymore, except in rural areas and the Midwest and for those pesky evangelicals and mass-attending Catholics and of course the great and noble tradition of African-American Protestantism. What do you do about a candidate’s religion? She or he must have one, of course, but it doesn’t matter what it is -- except when it does. And when it does it is about Abortion, scandals, or Nuns opposing Obamacare, or the purposely obscure rhetoric of “religious liberty.” Otherwise, religion is an entirely personal matter.

In other words, the press tends to think that religion is important to the degree that it deals with "real" issues -- which means politics. While there are fine religion-beat specialists, these stories are going to be handed to the "boys on the bus" -- Hoover added that -- who cover politics, the true religious faith of most news hounds.

So Trump -- surprise -- took a shot at Hillary's faith, claiming that there is so little there that no one knows anything about.

The press was vaguely offended:

So what did Trump mean, exactly?  The mood in the room indicated he was not alone in his skepticism about her faith, and it is probably the case that most Americans don’t know too much about the subject.  Its not that Clinton has been shy about the subject (other presidents -- notably Reagan -- have been remarkably reticent). She’s a lifelong Methodist, and has attended Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church for years. Her biography is an impressively complete account of how church and faith shaped her values.
So why is it that we don’t know this?  It is because Hillary is a liberal Protestant of the former Protestant Establishment. To journalists, she is a generic Christian and generic believer. That kind of faith is tacit and taken-for-granted in the culture. The religions that stand out are the ones that are active at contesting presumed established power and authority. The old aphorism still holds: dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is news. Protestants or Catholics who pray, talk and think about their faith, and do good things as a result are not news. That is what we expect. Contestations over religious liberty, over abortion, over the right to discriminate: those are news and those constitute the religion beat, at least to the politics reporter.

So what are the questions reporters should ask, when dealing with Clinton and Trump (another oldline Protestant person, truth be told)?

What are the key questions and why is it unlikely that the "boys on the bus" -- male and female -- will ask them?

Read it all.

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