Religion is being better covered in the media now than perhaps ever before. A generation ago, religious coverage was often just a summary of weekend sermons from the silk stocking churches and temples. Even the most harmless religious stories were buried. In 1955, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan would never have found out that hometown rookie Sandy Koufax was Jewish if that fan only got his news from, say, The New York Times.
Koufax, who first told the team that he wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur while the Dodgers were still in Ebbets Field, was never reported to be Jewish by The Times until 1963, eight years into his career.
In 1994, few stories in the media were bigger than the death of the
Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. Living just a few block from Ebbets Field, the rebbe was as important when he was young as when he was old, but there were almost no stories on him until deep into the 1960s, more than 20 years after he first arrived in New York.
It was nothing malicious. Religion was thought to be best left private. A few days ago, John Kerry recalled that in 1960, John Kennedy’s challenge was “to prove that he was not so Catholic that he could be president. My challenge [in 2004] was to prove I was Catholic enough.”
In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was “God is dead.” And yet, by century’s end, Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated named Koufax “athlete of the century,” not only for his pitching but for putting “God before the World Series.”
God and religion are now as big a story as any. The New York Times surely covers Judaism, let alone religion, more exhaustively and seriously than any general daily in the world, even granting the occasional editorial choices that frustrate this one or that. Ari Goldman, who did so much to develop The Times religion beat, now writes a religion column in the Sunday Daily News. This past week, the Anti-Defamation League gave their journalism prize to Newsweek editor Jon Meachem, an Episcopalian, “himself a man of faith,” said ADL National Director Abe Foxman, for contributing “to the public’s understanding of America as a nation of faith, but not governed by faith.”
For all the critique of National Public Radio in conservative and religious quarters, the most intelligent and inquisitive program on religion anywhere on the air is American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith,” hosted by Krista Tippett (WNYC 820 AM, Sundays at 10 p.m., with repeats on WNYC 93.9 FM). Text transcripts, along with audio, can be found at speakingoffaith.publicradio.org.
With Middle East negotiations coming up, including negotiations over Jerusalem, it’s worth a trip into the show’s archives to find Tippett’s conversations with Yossi Klein Halevi and Islamic theologians reflecting on the Middle East from the sober perspective of those with a God-consciousness, for that is the heart of it, after all.
Tippett’s show was the locale for some of the best conversations regarding the recent surge of atheist and secular critiques of religion. It would be medicinal for both sides in that debate to go online and listen to the Oct. 18 program, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide,” with Harvard professor Harvey Cox, the best-selling voice of secularism back in the 1960s. He now warns that “either-or debates” are obscuring the great interaction between faith and other forms of knowledge that is unfolding away from the spotlight, among those who simply aren’t shrill.
Virtually every field, said Cox, has issues “that exceed the limits of that particular discipline,” requiring ethics, moral reasoning and religion to be put in the mix, “not giving the answers, but [as] part of the conversation.”
Cox noted a current Harvard project on theology and evolution that’s bringing in both professors of science and professors of religion. Also, Harvard Medical School just announced, a few weeks ago, a conference on spirituality and healing. There are people on the Harvard faculty, said Cox, who now believe “it’s really irresponsible to turn students out in to this modern world for leadership positions [in] government, business, media, whatever, without their knowing something about religion.”
Several years ago, in The Atlantic Monthly, Cox wrote, “A friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages."
But pick up even the greatest business pages of them all, The Wall Street Journal, and you’ll find articles on religion, including an ongoing “Houses of Worship” column. On the WSJ’s OpinionJournal site this week (Nov. 2) is an essay on the new Reform siddur and its implications. Another column looked at the value of the Sabbath (June 15): “Of all the gifts Jews gave the world, that of a weekly day of rest is certainly one to be cherished. And yet the Sabbath is now marked more by its neglect than its keeping,” a regret that likely would not have been shared by a previous generation of Journal readers. Other recent articles examined the Orthodox debate on agunot (Aug. 24), Jewish divorces left in limbo, and one on dating outside the faith from a Christian perspective (Sept.14).
Of course, with more attention to religion, there are vast dark alleys in the soul that will be exposed, as well. The Economist (Nov. 2) features an 18-page section on faith and politics, but its front cover depicts God’s hand, emerging from the heavens, clutching a grenade.
“Back in the 20th century,” says the report, “most Western politicians and intellectuals (and even some clerics) assumed religion was becoming marginal to public life; faith was largely treated as an irrelevance in foreign policy.” But now, “from Nigeria to Sri Lanka, from Chechnya to Baghdad, people have been slain in God’s name,” let alone the blood feud of Sunnis and Shias. “America would surely not have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (and be thinking so actively of striking Iran) had 19 young Muslims not attacked New York and Washington.”
Unfortunately, when The Economist gets to Israel, Judaism and Islam are given equal blame. Religion in Israel is primarily seen as an obstacle, something ominous, rather than the political opportunity it could be, if only the interlocutors for peace could better speak the religious language of love and loss heard from the Yarkon River to the Jordan.
Yes, there are still many media neighborhoods where religious souls are best advised not to walk alone or after dark. But Thanksgiving is coming, and the religious thing to do is to recognize that in print and on the air we’ve been increasingly blessed. There are few blessings better than to be taken seriously.