Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism. See this new memo on that topic by GetReligion patriarch Richard Ostling.

Here is the key passage in the USA Today story, with Buttigieg on the stump, speaking to an LGBTQ Victory Fund event:

“It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife," he said. "If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water."

Fortunately, there was no knife and no pill, Buttigieg said. Because then he would not have met his husband, Chasten, who has made him a better person, he said — and their marriage has moved him closer to God. The message many gay people get that there’s something wrong with them, he continued, “is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your maker.”

“That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said of the vice president, who has opposed same-sex marriage. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

The key is that this conversation is — #DUH — taking place in a totally political environment. You see, this is a political story, not a religion-and-politics story. Why hunt to find sources to debate the historical and theological issues raised by Buttigieg?

For example, why is this an argument with Pence, other than these two men’s Indiana ties?

Buttigieg is actually arguing, in many cases, with 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy on the subject of marriage and sexuality (click here for a very ancient form of these doctrines). Why not argue with Pope Francis and the Catholic Catechism? Why not argue with most of the world’s Anglicans, since Buttigieg is an enthusiastic member of The Episcopal Church? And this is one of those times when the press needs someone like the Rev. Billy Graham or Mother Teresa to quote.

Why argue with Pence? The answer, of course, is that Pence is currently chained to Donald Trump. The mention of either name draws waves of boos and hisses from the crowds the mayor is trying to please.

However, I will stress, again, that this is an important story. The fastest growing niche in the modern Democratic Party is the coalition of agnostics, atheists and “nones” on the cultural left. Building a bridge to liberal forms of religion — especially the liberal Episcopal brand that is so popular in newsrooms — is important. Back to USA Today:

Jack Jacobson, an openly-gay member of the D.C. State Board of Education who attended the Victory Fund brunch, said Buttigieg’s openness about his faith is part of what makes him an authentic candidate.

“He talked about God in a room that’s probably full of atheists. That’s what I am,” Jacobson said. “He does it unabashedly and in a way that doesn’t come across as threatening, dismissive or negative.”

Heather Trout, 43, who lives with her wife in a rural county in Virginia, said Buttigieg’s faith is one reason she’s contributed to his campaign.

“I’m really very excited about hearing a voice from the Christian left,” she said before Buttigieg spoke. “I think that’s a voice not used in the Democratic Party for too long.”

You can hear the cheerleaders, can’t you? The cheering is natural, since this is an acceptable brand of religion we’re talking about, a faith that is on the correct side of the modern arc of history.

Now, if readers want to see small-o orthodox thinkers respond to this near-candidate, they can turn to the religious market press — as in this Catholic News Agency report.

Also, Pence has been granted some ink to respond to Buttigieg, as in this USA Today follow story. Of course, this news report — #DUH — brings in zero additional voices to broaden the context of the Pence statements about his religious beliefs, but adds layer after layer of new support for the theology of Buttigieg.

These USA Today pieces come close to offering an evangelistic tone. One half expects to find a click-on link at the end of each story, where readers can read pro-Buttigieg biblical commentaries and then make professions of faith.

How can anyone claim that journalists hate religion?

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