Blind Spot Religion

“It's not often that I let out a whoop of joy when I read a book…this is the book I – and my students – have been waiting for.”

Ari Goldman, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of The Search for God at Harvard

- Michael J. Gerson

Michael J. Gerson

In the heat of the 2000 election, then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas made an off-the-cuff statement that we ought take the log out of our own eye before calling attention to the speck in the eye of our neighbor. The New York Times reported the remark as a minor gaffe—what it termed “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.” The reporter—actually a fine and balanced journalist—did not recognize the biblical reference. Neither did his editors. And this, of course, was not an obscure biblical reference. Not only is it found in the red letters of the New Testament, it is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.

This is a small matter raising a large issue. The problem in many cases such as these is not just biblical literacy—though that is a problem. The lack of biblical literacy is often accompanied by an assumption among many journalists, and, more broadly, the “knowledge class.” In these circles, it is often believed that public expressions of religion are themselves offensive—a violation of the truce of tolerance. Religious belief, in this view, is protected by the Constitution, but for the sake of pluralism must be confined to the private sphere. And it certainly cannot be the basis for laws and public policy because this would be to impose a narrow set of beliefs on dissenters.

This kind of secularism can lead to indifference—and, when religion becomes an unavoidable topic, to suspicion. As a citizen, I believe this makes for bad political philosophy. As a former reporter, I know it makes for bad journalism.

A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time.

First, a journalist with secular blinders will miss the main source of reform and hope in the American story. Religious communities have always provided men and women with a source of support in times of oppression and a vision of social justice that stands above the status quo. This was true of Quakerism, which motivated so much early abolitionism; nineteenth-century evangelicalism, which continued and completed that fight; and African American Christianity, which, with tremendous spiritual resources, opposed segregation. And the central role of religion in social reform is clear today, from the pro-life movement, to antiwar activism, to growing concerns with global poverty, disease, sexual trafficking, and genocide.

American journalists have a history of missing this fascinating story. One of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants, Andrew Young, recalls of the civil rights era: “Even then, see, people didn’t want to think of Martin Luther King as a minister. Most of our white supporters kind of tolerated our religion, but they really didn’t take it seriously, and most of the press, too.” But King took religion seriously. After the Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955, King was receiving dozens of death threats a day. One evening around midnight, a call came promising to blow up his home, and King began to despair. He prayed aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. . . . But, Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.” He went on to say, “It seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

This is quite a story—the voice of God, urging persistence in a movement of social reform that transformed America. And it is not uncommon in our history, because dissent often requires courage, and courage is often rooted in faith. Any journalist who cares about dissent and reform must take religion seriously.

Second, a journalist with secular blinders will not be able to see some of the most important historical trends of our time. Many of those trends, of course, concern Islam—its nature and future. The events of 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have exposed Americans to a bewildering array of theological and historical debates within Islam. The participants in those debates consider them deadly serious. But the coverage of those religious arguments in Western journalism—with some notable exceptions—has been less than serious. High-quality journalism on Islam is not an option but a requirement in the modern world.

But there are other important trends being missed as well. We are witnessing a historic shift of the center of gravity of world Christianity to the global south. There are now more evangelical Christians in Nigeria and Brazil combined than there are in the United States. African church officials are engaged in active missions to North America. This trend is already causing disagreement within many global denominations; it is forging stronger ties between American Christians and their developing-world brothers and sisters; it is igniting new movements to fight poverty and disease; and it is exposing a fault line of conflict between Christianity and Islam across the center of Africa. A journalist who ignores this trend is missing a fascinating story.

Third, a journalist with secular blinders ignores some of the deepest philosophic views and moral convictions of Americans. The great influence of religion has not been its eschatology or soteriology—those teachings have little public importance—but its anthropology, its view of human beings. From the beginning, a Judeo-Christian view of human rights and dignity has informed the American experiment, along with the philosophic views of the Enlightenment. Religion provides a transcendent basis for human dignity and equality, which skepticism and moral relativism do not supply.

A Canadian newspaper once cited as evidence of resurgent American extremism that President Bush claimed that “God wants people to be free.” That, of course, is the extremism of the Declaration of Independence. It is the extremism of Abraham Lincoln, who argued that “nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.” It is the extremism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who proclaimed that “man, born to freedom in the image of God, will not forever suffer the oppressors’ sword.” A journalist who ignores or dismisses this kind of public argument is ignoring a central tenet in the philosophy of freedom.

This timely, lively volume explores a variety of issues where religion and journalism intersect—from Islam, to human rights, to Mel Gibson. Taken together, these essays make an important case: The more sophisticated our knowledge of religion, the more sophisticated our knowledge of the world. G. K. Chesterton once called secularism “a taboo of tact or convention, whereby we are free to say that a man does this or that because of his nationality, or his profession, or his place of residence, or his hobby, but not because of his creed about the very cosmos in which he lives.”

Good journalism should be concerned with all of life, including our nationality, our professions, the places we live, and the interests that engage us. But journalism is radically incomplete without also covering the creeds we hold about the cosmos in which we live.