Times of London offers classic example of how NOT to do religion survey stories -- at Christmas or ever


There is great religion writing and there is lousy religion writing -- though most of it, like most journalism in general -- falls somewhere between the poles and is not worth endless discussion. But the following Times of London piece is such a missed opportunity that it's worth pulling it apart as a text-book example of how not to do the job.

In short, it's beyond lousy.

It should probably come as no surprise that the piece ran on Christmas Day. I say this because, and this just my conjecture, Christmas Day is probably the day we’re subjected to the year’s very worst religion journalism.

That, I'm guessing, is because of the self-created newsroom belief that something -- anything may be the better word -- relating to the holiday, or religion in general, must be published that day. Or who knows what will happen?

Will people not have received the “news” that it was Christmas? Will people drop their subscriptions and advertisers withhold their Christmas-related sales going forward? Don't really think so.

Oh, the things we do to ourselves out of misguided beliefs and our professional ruts.

OK, now onto the piece itself. (Take note: The Times website requires registration, though it will allow you to read a couple of pieces monthly for free. Also, the newspaper’s website is one of the more inefficient ones I've come across in some time.)

Here’s the top of it:

Politics and religion should not mix, according to the British public, who want politicians to keep their personal faith to themselves.
A majority of British people believe that religion should also play a less prominent role in parliament, with bishops losing their automatic seats in the House of Lords, a YouGov survey for The Times found.
In the past year, the prime minister, a vicar’s daughter, said that “faith guides me in everything I do”, while Tim Farron, a committed Christian, faced a barrage of questions over whether he believed gay sex to be sinful, as a result of which he felt he had to resign as Lib Dem leader.
The British Social Attitudes Survey found this year that the proportion of Britons professing to have “no religion” is at a record high of 53 per cent, although The Times’s survey also found a modest recovery in religious faith over the past year.
The survey asked almost 1,700 people whether politicians “should feel free to use their religious beliefs to inform their political decisions”, or whether they should “keep their religious views separate and not allow them to influence their political decisions”.
In response, 65 per cent of respondents said political figures should keep their religious beliefs cordoned off from their decision making, with just 14 per cent saying the opposite. The remaining 21 per cent chose neither option or said they did not know.

Where to begin? How about here?

The posted Times story made no mention of who was surveyed. Not their ages, their faith affiliation, if any, not their geographic distribution, or income or education levels. Nor could I find any link to these and other key aspects of the survey -- like how it was conducted and the margin or error -- on the site.

How many surveyed were Christians concerned that their faith’s historical lock on British politics is becoming undone, so better to keep Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus or others at bay by claiming to prefer greater governmental secularism now, while they're still got come clout?

Or how many surveyed were Muslims and other minorities seeking to protect themselves from the whims -- and defensive moves -- of the still-existent Christian majority?

Good follow up questions, I’d say. Apparently, they were never asked.

That’s just not how it's done if you want your survey to be taken seriously. Though, perhaps The Times cared more about publishing something, anything on Christmas than it cared about its work being taken seriously.

Nor was there any mention of Queen Elizabeth's annual Christmas message, news of which preceded this Times piece, and which GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly posted about last week.

Nor did the piece bother to quote any outside sources from the world of religion or politics giving their opinion on what this survey’s findings might actually mean, or even if there’s any meaning to be gleaned from this journalistic pretzel-making exercise.

But why bother? It's just a Christmas story.

Up to this point, I've concerned myself with what I consider the story’s very basic but strictly journalistic faults. There’s a deeper point to be made, however. For that, let’s return to the story’s opening sentence:

Politics and religion should not mix, according to the British public, who want politicians to keep their personal faith to themselves.

Did the questioners or respondents honestly think that’s humanly possible? That politicians, or any of us, can check parts of themselves at the door when engaging critical societal questions that require whatever wisdom can be mustered from the totality of our life experiences and the deepest values those experiences have inculcated within us?

In short, did the premise of the survey have any basis in reality? Or was it a flawed and meaningless stunt from the get-go?

Frankly, I do not believe it's possible to compartmentalize ourselves to this degree or that to do so is optimal. I agree that politicians should always consider their decisions' impact on all members of their society, including those who believe differently than they do. But I am certainly not in favor of elected officials being values-less.

I want men and women of personal integrity and principles, including overtly religious principles, serving in my government (my wish for the new year?) who can stretch themselves beyond the limiting precepts of their personal religious path.

GetReligion is rooted in the belief that values are passed on through religions -- whatever religion you can think of -- and so, in effect, every human decision, at its core, is a decision with at least some rootedness in some religious belief system. I believe this to be true even for hardcore atheists who had no choice but to come of age in a religious culture -- even if it's one they came to consciously reject.

Because overt rejection does not erase unconscious formation.

The Times -- one of Great Britain’s most venerated news operations -- would have better served its readers had it dawned on its editors that it might be a good idea to talk to someone with an understanding of how human psychology actually works. They might also have simply peeked outside their door and noted how religiously motived large portions of the public in nations around the world are when it comes to casting ballots.

I'd better stop now.

Because I certainly don't want to get started on what a clear example the United States provides on the deep connection between religion and politics -- even in a so-called secular state theoretically grounded in constitutionally mandated church-state separation guarantees.

Nope. I certainly don't want to point that one out.

IMAGE: Illustration posted at Digiday.com

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