If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”
Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.
That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”
(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”
Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.
Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.
However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understanding of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.
But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).
Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective. This is long, but essential:
… (R)eligion is thought of as the “frosting” rather than the “cake” of a person or community. The real substance of a person’s values and needs lies, say, in economic concerns — not the superficial fact of where they go to church. This is one reason we so often hear a privileged secular person wonder with palpable exasperation, “Why do these people vote against their own interests?”
Asking this kind of question demonstrates that one just doesn’t get religion. Someone for whom religion is very important doesn’t think of it as something like their favorite flavor of ice cream. Their theological claims express things they believe to be objectively true. A particular kind of god exists. That god created the universe. That god made every human being in God’s image and likeness. That god commanded men and women to be fruitful and multiply. To give a preference to the poor and marginalized. To welcome the child and the stranger. And so on.
But for media members who take the “frosting” view of religion, those who push for particular public policies based on their religious commitments are acting quite strangely — akin to wanting to legislate chocolate ice cream’s superiority over vanilla.
This fundamentally misunderstands what theological claims are. They are not articulations of personal preference or taste. They are claims about what is objectively true based on a particular understanding of the good. They deserve precisely the same place in public discourse as similar kinds of secular claims.
A critic might argue that theological claims presume such a parochial understanding of the good that they are disqualified from public discourse. A secular person simply can’t make heads or tails of, say, the Christian claim that the indelible image and likeness of God in human beings precludes direct killing in the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and more.
On this view, the Christian ought to either translate her faith into a common secular language — or, again, just stay on the margins. Of course, that is the case with all fundamental disagreements about the nature of the good, whether theological or secular. There is no defensible reason to single out theological disagreement.
Now, that’s important, but pretty dry, stuff.
If you want to see a more entertaining public-square clash between these world views in the American mainstream, check out this famous encounter between Woody Allen and the Rev. Billy Graham. Whose words ring a little bit hollow, decades later?
But back to Comosy and his essay.
It is also interesting to note that quite a few journalists have little or no problem affirming, or at least respecting, the religious beliefs of those (hello Mayor Pete Buttigieg) whose theological convictions agree with the editorial-page doctrines of The New York Times and most theologians in the Democratic Party.
This respect often translates into accurate coverage, as it should. The question is: What happens to coverage of theological convictions that are seen as anti-modernist heresies?
To add insult to injury, not all theological claims get marginalized. When Pope Francis addressed Congress, he used explicitly theological claims as a basis for his plea to address climate change. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked St. Thomas Aquinas on the difference between human law and the eternal law of God as the basis for his argument in favor of civil disobedience. …
If these points of view are not seen as violations of the separation of church and state and marginalized from public discourse, many deeply religious Americans rightly wonder why their particular theological claims are understood differently.
Oh yeah. Read it all.