Veteran newsman Bob Abernethy, who continues his 35-year relationship with NBC as a contributing correspondent even as he undertakes hosting PBS's "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," served as NBC's Moscow correspondent from 1989 to 1994. Returning to the United States after the cold war ended, he thought about what he would like to do.
"It was clear, even from 5,000 miles away, that more and more attention was being paid to the problem of inadequate coverage of religion in the national media," he said in a telephone interview. "I had done a lot of religion stories for NBC before I went to Russia, and I liked doing those stories. So it seemed to me if I could put together a half-hour weekly program, it would be interesting to me and, I think, interesting to an audience."
Gallup polls show that Americans are a religious people, says Mr. Abernethy, although, he adds, some critics will tell you that American religious interest is more broad than deep.
"But I don't know.... Look what has happened with books and religion," he says, "how many new books and books on tape there are. An enormous market has developed for books on spirituality and religion."
Asked why there appears to be a resurgence of interest in religion, Abernethy says, "I think the end of the cold war had an effect. For 40 years, we defined ourselves as a nation by our anticommunism. Then the cold war was over - OK who are we? What do we want to be? What do we want to do?"
He refers to Phyllis Tickle's "God Talk in America," in which the author explains that one of the reasons for the renewed interest in spirituality has to do with a feeling that materialism, consumerism, science, and reason are all inadequate when it comes to answering the oldest and deepest questions about what it means to live and how to live.
A member of the United Church of Christ, the journalist took a sabbatical from NBC in 1984 to spend a year in graduate studies at the Yale Divinity School studying theology and social ethics. He had a wonderful year, he says. He is, as he says, also on a spiritual journey - and finds doing "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" compatible with that journey. But he is emphatic about not confusing his private interest with his public responsibilities. There will be no proselytizing on this program, he says.
"This is not stealth evangelism," jokes Abernethy about his show. "It is more newsmagazine than anything. We want to be seen that way - to get across the idea that what's going on in this field is just plain interesting." And the Lilly Endowment, which funds the program, is a newsman's dream come true, he says, giving support without editorial interference.
There has been a change at all levels of American society toward religion, Abernethy points out. It is more intellectually acceptable than ever, he says. "We are becoming a far more pluralistic society, and that is going to have a great impact. I believe that the more we know about other people's faith and how they differ from our own, the more understanding we can be toward each other - and the stronger we become in our own faith tradition.... I hope [the program] will help us. My first hope is that people will find it interesting. I also hope it will encourage first tolerance and then respect."