Thirty years ago, religion reporters from around the country met in Las Vegas, concurrent with the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, to have their annual conference. We followed preacher Arthur Blessitt dragging his cross down the Strip and cruised the casinos, exploring a bizarre world where there’s always an entrance, rarely an exit.
I was in my early 30s then; much thinner and part of a vanguard of young religion reporters making their mark. I was finishing up my third year at the Houston Chronicle and that year I came in second for the Templeton Award, at that time the top award for religion reporting in the country.
The Templeton no longer exists and the Religion News Association turned 70 this year, returning to Las Vegas this past week for their annual confab. A whole new generation of reporters has swept in and the RNA itself is quite different than the all-secular-journalists group it once was. Public relations folks and people from religious media are now members, giving the RNA a whole different feel.
In many ways, it was old home week for those of us long on the beat and there were plenty of old friends and the same inside jokes. Prizes were awarded for great writing, including a third place for our own Bobby Ross in the Excellence for Magazine Reporting Award.
But in other ways, it was a far edgier gathering judging from the unmistakeable social-justice vibe and some of the vicious tweets posted by those attending or listening in. To cut to the chase: The knives came out.
The vast divides among Americans were mirrored at our conference; not that anyone seemed all that upset about it. Only Paul Raushenbush, the founder and former executive religion editor for the Huffington Post, understood what’s at stake here. He told one panel, “We are increasing our diversity but not our pluralism. … We are at Civil War levels of distrust.” Something needs to change “or we’re not going to make it.” (Before I go on, know that tapes of all the sessions will be appearing on the RNA site. The quotes I’m running in this piece are as close as I could get while typing, so they are approximate).
Anyway, those divides appeared in living color on Saturday, when the Trinity Broadcasting Network sponsored a lunch on “The Future of Faith in the Media.”