The Magazine

Sacred Mistrust

God is not in the details of reporting religion.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Then, too, there is the problem of accepting at face value what our politicians say about matters of faith when more questions may fairly be asked. Take, for example, Bush's belief that civil freedom is a gift of God and that its spread throughout the world is "inevitable." Bush attributed his belief to a "theological perspective." Okay--but where were the journalists who asked him about a theology that contemplates the inevitable spread of political liberty? What is the theology that teaches such a certain human outcome?

Likewise, where were the journalists who pursued candidate Barack Obama about the black liberation theology of his onetime church, and asked him about his evident sympathy with that theology, as indicated by passages in Dreams from My Father. And where were the journalists who asked him what he meant by his stated desire (in South Carolina before its primary) to build a Kingdom of God on earth? Merely a metaphor, this reference to a "Kingdom," or did its use indicate something grandiose (in any of the word's definitions) about Obama?

As might be expected, the editors of Blind Spot would like to see less of the blind spot that is their focus. They would like more journalists to "get religion." These are worthy goals. And in his essay Terry Mattingly, a veteran religion reporter and media critic, offers some sound recommendations: He urges greater care in handling religious language and in using labels, and he shows by negative example how news organizations should not go about hiring religion reporters (a lesson, by the way, for those outlets still in business and able to hire).

Mattingly recalls how, some years ago, the editors of the Washington Post put up a notice in the newsroom for a religion reporter, hoping to find someone on staff. The "ideal candidate," said the notice, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

The latter half of that conjunction was problematic, Mattingly writes, correctly observing that it's hard to imagine Post editors "seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying that the 'ideal candidate' is one who is 'not necessarily an expert on legal issues,' or similar notice seeking reporters to cover professional sports, opera, science, film, and politics." He makes a compelling case that news organizations should seek to improve their coverage of religion by "taking precisely the same steps they would .  .  . to improve coverage on any other complicated, crucial theme: hiring qualified specialty reporters and giving them the resources to do their jobs."

This may seem like urging the obvious, but sometimes it's the obvious that most needs doing.

Terry Eastland, publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the editor of Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate Over Church and State.