Private religion? It's time for reporters to ask factual questions about candidates' faith

When I was working my way into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth's crust, the primary argument editors used when justifying thin coverage of trends and events linked to religion was that this faith was a private matter and, thus, not news.

Then Jimmy Carter started talking about being "born again" and the Religious Right emerged and things changed. Everyone knew that politics was real. Thus, it follows that religion must be real to the same degree that it affects politics.

When I was doing my University of Illinois graduate project (click here for The Quill cover story) I talked to scores of editors and asked why journalists tended to avoid covering religion news. I heard two answers over and over: (1) Religion is too boring and (2) religion is too controversial.

There's the rub, I have said ever since: There are just too many boring, controversial religion-news stories out there and they don't seem to want to go away.

In this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), Todd Wilken and I talked about that old "private religion" argument and how it faded over the years. These days, however, political-beat reporters face another question: If major figures in the public square keep talking about their faith and their religious convictions, to what degree should journalists investigate those claims?

In other words, to be blunt, why not ask politicians who keep talking about their faith some specific questions? Such as: "Where do you worship?" "Who is your minister?" "How often do you attend?" "Can we see tax records about your charitable giving?" "Who are the religious authors and thinkers who have most influenced your beliefs and actions?" I could go on.

In other words, if a public figure often says that he/she is an evangelical, or a Catholic, or whatever, can reporters ask for some journalistic material to support that statement?

This reminded me of questions I used in the Denver Seminary classroom when I was teaching mass media and apologetics in the early 1990s. In my main class, I developed what I called a "journalistic" method to describe the lives of Christian "disciples." It consisted of three questions, as I explained:

How do you spend your time?
How do you spend your money?
How do you make your decisions?
If you can answer these questions without colliding with the power of the news and entertainment media, then you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish. They may be the only Americans whose lives will fit your approach to ministry and mission.

I would urge journalists to take the same approach when preparing questions about public figures who make claims about how faith influences their lives. Note that this, in a way, an extension of the old journalism challenge to "follow the money."

You can see these kinds of practical, daily life questions looming in the background in this National Public Radio piece about Donald megachurch leader Max Lucado and his struggle to understand the candidacy of Donald Trump. The nationally known author and pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, recently wrote an essay on this topic with the headline, "Decency For President."

Look at the details in this passage that could lead to valid questions by journalists:

Decency matters. ... We take note of the person who pays their debts. We appreciate the physician who takes time to listen. When the husband honors his wedding vows, when the teacher makes time for the struggling student, when the employee refuses to gossip about her co-worker, when the losing team congratulates the winning team, we can characterize their behavior with the word decent.
We appreciate decency. We applaud decency. We teach decency. We seek to develop decency. Decency matters, right? Then why isn’t decency doing better in the presidential race? ...
I don’t know Mr. Trump. But I’ve been chagrined at his antics. He ridiculed a war hero. He made a mockery of a reporter’s menstrual cycle. He made fun of a disabled reporter. He referred to the former first lady, Barbara Bush as “mommy,” and belittled Jeb Bush for bringing her on the campaign trail. He routinely calls people “stupid,” and “dummy.”1 One writer catalogued sixty-four occasions that he called someone “loser.” These were not off-line, backstage, overheard, not-to-be-repeated comments. They were publicly and intentionally tweeted, recorded, and presented.
Such insensitivities wouldn’t be acceptable even for a middle school student body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith?

Would it surprise you to know that this evangelical leader once studied journalism?

Enjoy the podcast.

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