Press and religion: a new dynamic

Religion and the press have always been odd siblings at the First Amendment's family table. One plays to our faith, the other to our curiosity and fascination.

The idea that freedom to practice religion makes a more democratic people is as strong today as it was when Alexis de Tocqueville toured a young nation. Now religious pluralism is widely regarded as a tool for building new unity and national purpose.

The press enjoys the same constitutional freedom. Yet for all it does to shed light in dark corners, journalism does not occupy the same esteemed place in the eyes of the citizenry as religion. From the time of Jefferson to the present, the press often has been regarded as a necessary nuisance. Those wanting a more civic-minded press complain that it can be too sensational, neglecting the positive things in life that matter to ordinary people. David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, for example, has lamented that journalists too often "come down from the hill and shoot the wounded."

The press has had even less standing on religion coverage. During the 1980s and '90s, religious conservatives freely attacked the press for not understanding their moral concerns. And in older urban centers like Boston, it used to be convenient to write off any critical reporting on religion to a perceived anti-Catholic bias in the secular press.

However, something extraordinary has happened in the past year. The press in two major instances has demonstrated its capacity to force religion to reckon in democracy's public square how it measures up to its own ideals. It did so, first, with the phony assertions of Islamic terrorists about their religion's mandate, and again when Catholic leaders waffled in the face of unspeakable crimes by clergy against children.

All this relentless spotlighting of religion's claims and performance has been on full public display. Nearly a year after the attack on the World Trade Center, National Public Radio, under fire recently for its Middle East coverage, produced an informative interview with a Columbia University scholar on the breadth of intellectual ferment that exists within the Islamic world. After months of stories on priestly pedophilia, The Boston Globe editorialized on the shame of a religious institution that protects its hierarchy by putting its young at risk.

The press has been stung in the past by the well-earned criticism that it hasn't done an adequate job of covering religious trends. Operating in a secular world, editors used to regard religion as something that people did on weekends, as if it were disconnected from public policy and the life of the nation. In an important collection of essays a few years back titled "Reporting Religion," Benjamin Hubbard, chairman of the department of comparative religion at California State University, Fullerton, invited leading religion writers of a previous generation to reflect on their craft. Many complaints would sound familiar to readers and viewers today. Editors had short attention spans, wanted only the sensational stories about wayward TV evangelists, and were uneasy about having religion creep into the regular news columns.

But in recent years, editors and producers have become more attuned to the religious dimension, and more reporters specialize in religion coverage or at least are familiar with major religions. This can allow newspapers and broadcast outlets to report more confidently when religious leaders or policies go astray. Today, the press also provides a venue for the experts to sort out and explain how religious values bear on policy questions and international trouble spots.

Across the board, the past year's coverage of terrorism, church scandal, and political turmoil has clarified the interdependence of religious and democratic institutions. Democracy must accommodate believer and unbeliever alike, but its universal aspirations also happen to match up with many core values of religion. Both are committed to tolerance, equality, and justice, and to the welfare of the poor, the elderly, and the young. However pious individuals may be, the democratic sensibilities of all Americans provide a useful measuring stick for how well religions are keeping faith with their stated missions.

A truism through more than two centuries of American history has been that religion is good for democracy. The year since Sept. 11 reveals the profound fact that the reverse also is true, that democracy is a good thing for religion.

The press as a key democratic institution has a vital role in carrying forward this idea. While journalism and religion always will view each other with some suspicion as free spirits under the Bill of Rights, the profane press now has some justifiable claim on being its holy brother's keeper in democracy's rowdy household.

• Stephen Burgard is director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and author of 'Hallowed Ground: Rediscovering Our Spiritual Roots' (Plenum, 1997).

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