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Message from Madison conference: Religion news is struggling, but still surviving

Message from Madison conference: Religion news is struggling, but still surviving

Religion reporting, as you no doubt know, is under even more stress than the news outfits that have been dumping the specialty in recent years. So those who attended the Reporting on Religion Conference this week showed not only an idealism about the Godbeat; they also showed courage and determination.

About 200 people -- students, journalists, religious leaders and speakers including myself -- converged on Madison, Wisc., for a broad variety of topics. Things like the kinds of cuisine from different lands. And the broad scope of social changes in America, highlighted by people's deepest thoughts and feelings? And finding a way to get attention for issues that don’t strike sparks but still speak to our deepest questions.

Madison itself embodies the tensions of religion in American public life. The city is home to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical ministry to college campuses. It's also home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, famous for its opposition to institutional religion.

The conference, however, was held at a sacred space: Upper|House, a combination lounge, study center and worship site at the University of Wisconsin. With comfy booths, hanging couches and a crescent-shaped amphitheatre, Upper|House served as an apt cosponsor of the conference, along with the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions.

The 15 speakers contributed a variety of understandings of the religion-news craft. Among them:

* Besheer Mohamed, despite his job at the number-crunching Pew Center, said that "Sometimes, a trend is better than a perfect question." For instance, people may mean different things by "evangelical," but fewer want to so label themselves than in 2007.

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