Religion has grabbed a high profile in this political season - a sure sign of its place in American life. Even the broadcast media have taken note. But generally their attention spans have been short when it comes to matters of faith.
One of the very few exceptions is public television's groundbreaking half-hour program, "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," which begins its fourth season this weekend.
The brainchild of veteran journalist Bob Abernethy, the newsmagazine produced by WNET in New York is now seen on more than 200 stations nationwide and ranks as the most-watched nonprime-time series on PBS. (See local listings for times.)
It's the best spot on the television landscape to take in a broad view of the spiritual dimension of American life, as well as insightful glimpses of developments abroad.
A mix of top religion- and ethics-related news stories, thought-provoking features, and vignettes on the beliefs and practices of various faiths, the program captures many forms of religious conviction and how they are being put into action. It doesn't shy from controversy or scandal in the news. Yet it also considers the inner experiences of adherents.
"Belief and Practice" segments, for example, have dealt with such matters as the impact of daily "fixed-hour prayer" on an individual's life, and the meaning of icons in the spiritual practice of an Orthodox churchgoer. One feature examined the new vocation of "spiritual directors," advisers who help believers consider issues in their lives through spiritual rather than psychological means. Another explored the impact on rural families in the United States of the closing down of churches, often the center of local life.
To cover religion, "you bring all the regular reporting skills to the job," Mr. Abernethy says, "but you also have to go in close enough so people talk to you about their deepest beliefs ... and what the relationship is between their beliefs and actions.... If you don't do that, you miss the whole spiritual dimension."
It's a constant effort, he adds, to strike "the right balance between objectivity and showing respect for religion and its importance in peoples' lives - without preaching."
Abernethy, who was an NBC News correspondent for four decades, and his experienced team of reporters seem to be accomplishing that aim.
"They are demonstrating that you can do an interesting and professional job of religion-news coverage on television," says Andrew Walsh, who keeps an eye on the news media at the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Hartford, Conn. "In general, I'm impressed with the show."
Some observers suggest that with its attention to the diversity in American religious life, the show may give short shrift to mainstream Protestantism. Yet in pluralist America, there is something to be said for programs that allow those who are interested to increase their understanding of less-familiar faiths.
Each show starts with the news stories of the week, from Supreme Court decisions relating to church and state issues to religious violence abroad, to churches grappling with policies on sexuality.
The show also delves into major ethical issues - genetics, cloning, assisted suicide, the death penalty, keeping premature babies alive despite severe health conditions. For Mr. Walsh, the forays into ethics coverage aren't as satisfying as the religion coverage. "You run into the problem of people having different ethical standards," he says, and it tends to "boil down to 'he said, she said.' " Yet the issues are generally well spelled out and various perspectives clarified.
During the new season, coverage will include the interaction of religion and politics, and how public-school teachers deal with religion in the classroom.
Abernethy says the program is also exploring how to give viewers an opportunity to hear people talk from a religious or ethics perspective about the news in general - subjects that are usually discussed from a secular point of view. "About 95 percent of us believe in God," he says. "What does that mean for how we see the world?"
The show has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, including awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and American Women in Radio and Television. But it hasn't yet accomplished another objective - to get other broadcasters to do more on religion. While newspapers have made significant efforts to boost coverage of religion in recent years, apart from one reporter on ABC and another on National Public Radio, "it is kind of a wasteland out there in the broadcast world," Walsh says.
"Religion is an essential part of our lives that deserves careful and discerning attention on television," Abernethy says.
So this year the show will distribute some segments through the NBC news channel and CNN to affiliates, and develop a radio version of "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly." It also offers a Web site through www.pbs.org and a Viewer's Guide, which some churches and interfaith groups use as a basis for discussions.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society