Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn tells RNS: 'Occultism was so much a part of my growing up and my beliefs'

Sally Quinn tells RNS: 'Occultism was so much a part of my growing up and my beliefs'

The media campaign for Washington, D.C, journalism legend Sally Quinn's "Finding Magic" book rolls on and on.

This really isn't a surprise, in light of her spectacular social connections to just about every level of Beltway society and the media powers that be -- starting, of course, with The Washington Post, where she was a Style page force to be reckoned with both as a writer and as a news maker. There was her infamous romance with the married editor Ben Bradlee, of course, followed by their equally celebrated marriage.

That Washingtonian profile -- the subject of my first post on Quinn and her book ("Sally Quinn and her ghosts") -- was just the start, describing her as the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Yes, there are all the hot political connections. Yes, there are the even hotter personal details, from sex to deadly hexes. But I am sticking by my earlier statement that the Quinn revelations in this book are important and that they should matter to GetReligion readers because:

... Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

Now, Religion News Service, has an interesting Q&A up online with Quinn, which means here are going to be lots of questions about the DC maven's "evolving faith." The word "occult" shows up in Quinn's very first answer and the crucial theological term "theodicy" should have, as well.

RNS: Your childhood is a particularly beautiful and important part of the book. What was your religious experience growing up?
Quinn: For me, it was what I call embedded religion. The occultism was so much a part of my growing up and my beliefs.

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Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Now this is what the DC chattering classes desperately needed right now -- something to talk about other than President Donald Trump and his wife's controversial choices in footwear.

If you have followed post-1960s life in Washington, D.C., you will not be surprised that the person in the center of this hurricane of whispers is none other than journalist and social maven Sally Quinn. Yes, we're talking about the much-talked-about lover and much-younger wife of the great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Once the most feared "New Journalism" scribe covering DC social life, Quinn later used her personal charisma and clout to create the "On Faith" blog at the Post -- opening a window into the religious beliefs of her corner of the DC establishment. Hint: Mysterious progressive faith is good, traditional forms of religion are bad, bad, bad. Meanwhile, the former atheist became -- in her public persona -- a rather visible Episcopalian.

Now she is tweaking that image with a spiritual memoir entitled "Finding Magic" in which, in the words of a must-read Washingtonian profile, the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Journalists reading this profile will marvel at the personal details. However, it's also important to keep remembering that Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

OK, back to the Washingtonian article itself, which details the degree to which Quinn has decided to let her "spiritual freak flag fly." The summary statement is:

It’s a spiritual memoir, called Finding Magic, that charts her path from “angry atheist” to -- well, Quinn’s spiritual classification is a bit hard to define, even for her. A sort of Eat Pray Love for the This Town set, the memoir offers an intimate, at times painful look inside her exceedingly public life. There’s less glamour and cutthroat ambition, more vulnerability and personal anguish. She outs herself as a believer in the occult and as an erstwhile practitioner of voodoo, and she packs the book with moments that have made anxious friends wonder: Are you sure you want to share that?

Really? #Really.

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Looking for spiritual ghosts, as the Ben Bradlee story moves to National Cathedral

Looking for spiritual ghosts, as the Ben Bradlee story moves to National Cathedral

Of course Ben Bradlee was raised as an Episcopalian.

This is Washington, D.C., and he was one of the giants of the city, a titan from his days consulting with (and covering) John F. Kennedy, Jr., to his final years working hard to encourage a new generation of journalists in The Washington Post newsroom as it struggled, like all major media institutions, to enter the uncharted waters of the digital age. He was larger than life and that kind of Beltway story can only end with a funeral in the interfaith, ecumenical, civil-religion holy place called National Cathedral.

The Post team, as it should, has pulled out all the stops in its eulogies for Bradlee, with untold inches of type -- analog and digital -- and numerous multi-media features. And the role of religion? Let's just say that the liturgical elements of this drama didn't go very high in the story. Here is the top of the massive Style section feature on the funeral:

Following a small choir’s soft alto affirmation of America’s beauty, the organ swelled, and the people joined in, and the national hymn that Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee chose for his own funeral filled the cathedral, its pews lined with the powerful and the ordinary.
Then a prayer, and two sailors delivering a taut flag to the editor’s widow, and a bugler sounding taps from high in the Gothic rafters, and then, because this was Mr. Bradlee who was being celebrated, a sharp break from the stately and solemn: The band struck up Sousa’s jaunty “The Washington Post” march and Ben Bradlee left the building as he had departed his newspaper on so many nights through the 26 years he led it: electrifying the room just by sweeping through it.

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Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. 

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Got news? Has Kristallnacht come to the Middle East?

There was always an important, yet unstated, idea at the heart of the “On Faith” website at The Washington Post: Religion is an important and powerful force in the real world, but the reality is that religion is all about feelings, experiences and opinions, not facts about history, doctrines, laws, scriptures, traditions and governance that journalists should cover in an accurate and balanced manner.

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