Last night I attended a lecture given by Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine. He discussed his career as a journalist who reports on religion in America. Some highlights of his talk included a significant and hilarious moment during a Pagan naked antler dance, his interviews with leaders of a Cowboy church, and his recent investigative project at the New Church in Colorado Springs.
A fascinating question that he wanted to ponder was this: why does religion, all strange varieties of religion, get so under-reported in the mainstream media when religion is so obviously a huge part of millions of Americans’ lives?
Journalists, according to Sharlet and his colleagues, tend to regard religion as too weird and too eccentric to take very seriously. Sharlet suggests, however, that journalists need to find ways to take these religious beliefs seriously if they are to provide accurate and thorough coverage of a story.
Many stories that involve the eccentric element of religion get killed too soon after they first appear in the public eye. Not enough follow-up reporting continues if a story involves secret prayer cells, shaking, and speaking in tongues. For instance, decades ago Playboy Magazine did a story about the prayer cell that hung around with Gerald Ford. More follow-ups could have provided further illumination on this prayer cell, but the story never continued. John Ashcroft is ardent about his prayer discipline and who knows what else? It never gets reported.
Sharlet closed by saying that journalists who report on religion need to learn the language of all these millions of people who speak these languages, For an investigative approach, he offered, “It’s almost as if you act like you believe and then go back to your own beliefs later.” He suggested that better reporting on religion in America would involve more narrative reporting, getting more different voices to speak.
I’ve been thinking about his talk and what it means for me. And I think I still embrace his early comments about how the press usually doesn’t deal with religion because we tend to see beliefs as an aspect of life that is protected by rights to privacy. A free press’s obligations and concerns probably fall more under the tenets similar to separation of church and state. For the most part, the press is most useful to focus on the issues of state. Personally, I think a story about someone falling down in the spirit is not all that newsworthy. However, tension does arise when an official like Hillary Clinton holds a meeting with the current leader of an underground Christ Fellowship Foundation prayer cell because she claims she has interest in making peace with the Christian Right. This made me think that it is true these stories shouldn’t get killed, buried, or go ignored by readers who take more liberal or secularist positions. We all need to be thoroughly informed about what motivates our nation’s leaders to make the choices and decisions they make. Who are they engaging? Who are they trying to please and why? I don’t know if a story needs to go so far as to probe a senator who says a prayer before casting a vote, flips a coin, or consults the tarot. But if these actions have real influence on decision-making, policy, and legislation then they are more newsworthy than the illusion that we are a rational, critical-thinking, and law-abiding nation.
Sharlet is correct in suggesting that being weirded out by people’s beliefs is keeping us misinformed. But how do we even begin an objective, analytical probe into others’ beliefs? It seems more complicated than thinking that so long as I remain respectful, I might be able to get at the truth about how these beliefs motivate action and whether or not there are consequences, and what kind of consequences, beliefs bring to public life.
Here are the links to Jeff Sharlet's blogs:
Killing The Buddha
His talk gave me lots to ponder as I walked in the city under the falling snow. I love life.