Reporters reflect on faith and politics

One journalist said religion is a flawed political tool.
The tables were turned on a group of journalists who usually cover the news, not reflect and expound on it.
That was the case when Ray Suarez, senior correspondent with "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS, presented the lecture "Politics of Faith in America " as part of the "Belief in America" series in the amphitheater at Chautauqua Institution. After his lecture, a panel discussion featured journalists from The Boston Globe, Time magazine and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Suarez indicated that his present position is not one that he anticipated. He studied African history at New York University and earned a master's degree in social science from the University of Chicago. He said he had hoped to spend time reporting from Africa.
Suarez said when he was growing up, religion and politics were two topics to be avoided in social conversation. Now, he said, they are frequently discussed. Religion has moved to a different place in political life.
"It's not that people shouldn't bring their values into the political marketplace. And it's not that religion shouldn't affect decisions." But he asked, "Does the way in which religion is used in politics today actually get good government and results that people can live with?"
Religious, secular history
The story of how the early settlers laid the foundation of the most powerful nation on the planet cannot be told without the story of American religious conviction, religious inventiveness and new ways of being both Christian and American. But, Suarez said, there is a secular story, too. The religious and secular narratives are entwined throughout 200 years of history.
Suarez assured the audience that he was not taking political sides. He was saying religion is a flawed political tool.
Suarez traced a historical perspective of how religion and religious issues have gone from nonexistent to front page in the selection and election of candidates. He asked the audience to identify the faiths of various presidents up through the '50s and few knew the answers. When he came to President Kennedy, everyone knew the answer. Suarez said Kennedy was smart in saying that he would not be a Catholic president but a president who was a Catholic.
Separate qualities
He has asked voters if it was important that a candidate has a strong religious faith, and they said it was one of the most important things. But, when a person walks into a voting booth, there is a need to determine who we're asking to do what in this society. Suarez said that if a person is very religious but can't figure out how to get garbage collected, streets lighted or children educated, then maybe that's not the right person to do those things. One set of convictions tells you nothing about the other.
"A government that uses religious standards as a basis of upholding a democracy is asking government to lead you down all sorts of blind alleys," he said.
He asked the rhetorical question, "How do we make the world a better place?" and answered it by saying that government should be like soft clay. Government should be flexible to allow people to live their own values rather than fire mortar at each other. "There should be room for collective values rather than a government telling you what your values should be," he said.
No one should walk into a debate saying, "I'm right and you're wrong," Suarez continued. Instead, people should ask how to incorporate their beliefs and values within the structure of a governmental system.
He closed the session by commenting, "This is not a time in the life of our country for the faint of heart. ... It's a time to figure out how we're going to be American, and be American together."
Religion in the news
Another session at the Hall of Philosophy involved three journalists who gave their impressions of religion in the news.
Michael Paulson was a member of the team of Boston Globe reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their stories on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He shared some of the aspects of that investigation.
Paulson said that he wished he had more time to do feature stories on religion but that the abuse crisis, the terrorist attacks and other issues have made religion more news-focused and left little time for in-depth stories about the various faiths. He said that the number of reporters covering religion at the end of the 20th century had grown dramatically. Twenty percent of stories now are about religion, spirituality or values, he explained.
Sometimes get it wrong
Nancy Gibbs, another panelist, has written more than 100 cover stories for Time magazine. Although they weren't all about religion, they often have covered the intersection of religion with other topics. Gibbs said she thought that religion reporters are extremely well-read in the field but that when other reporters find themselves covering religion, they sometimes get it wrong.
Gibbs referred to some of the surveys that have been done to determine the scope of belief in America. In the popular surveys, she said, we find high percentages of homes with Bibles and people who believe in God. But, she cautioned, it is difficult to assume the level of knowledge or practice of faith that correlates with having a Bible and professing a belief in God. She cited one study in which 12 percent of those with Bibles and belief in God identified Joan of Arc as Noah's wife.
Gibbs agreed that religion was becoming more newsworthy and mentioned a story in The New York Times that appeared during the week before the program at Chautauqua. The story was about an evangelical minister who lost 1,000 members from his congregation when he suggested that they should leave religion out of political issues. She said she felt that matters of faith are so personal that they need to be discussed more subtly and sensitively than ever before.
David Briggs, the third panelist, began his career with The Buffalo News and then served as national religion reporter at The Associated Press for 10 years. He now is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize from all three organizations and has won several other reporting awards.
Where institutions can improve
Briggs said he thought that religious institutions and religious individuals have become their own worst enemy by projecting hateful judgments toward others. He said he felt that the rise of fundamentalism is a mirror of our own need to be right. Briggs gave historical evidence of religious terrorists from every faith.
Most religious services begin with a confession of weakness and then there is a begging of forgiveness and asking God for help, he said. Briggs said that people need to continue in that vein in our discussions with one another instead of expressing condemnation. He closed by saying, "The motivation to foster respect for each other and care of each other must come from religious leaders."

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