When Journalists Don't Get Religion
The following commentary was written for The Media Project by Washington Post opinion columnist Michael Gerson.
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IN THE HEAT OF THE 2000 ELECTION, then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas made an off-the-cuff statement that we ought take the log out of our own eye before calling attention to the speck in the eye of our neighbor. The New York Times reported the remark as a minor gaffe—what it termed “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.”
The reporter—actually a fine and balanced journalist—did not recognize the biblical reference. Neither did his editors. And this, of course, was not an obscure biblical reference. Not only is it found in the red letters of the New Testament, it is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.
This is a small matter raising a large issue. The problem in many cases such as these is not just biblical literacy—though that is a problem. The lack of biblical literacy is often accompanied by an assumption among many journalists, and, more broadly, the “knowledge class.” In these circles, it is often believed that public expressions of religion are themselves offensive—a violation of the truce of tolerance. Religious belief, in this view, is protected by the Constitution, but for the sake of pluralism must be confined to the private sphere. And it certainly cannot be the basis for laws and public policy because this would be to impose a narrow set of beliefs on dissenters.
This kind of secularism can lead to indifference—and, when religion becomes an unavoidable topic, to suspicion. As a citizen, I believe this makes for bad political philosophy. As a former reporter, I know it makes for bad journalism.
A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time.
First, a journalist with secular blinders will miss the main source of reform and hope in the American story. Religious communities have always provided men and women with a source of support in times of oppression and a vision of social justice that stands above the status quo. This was true of Quakerism, which motivated so much early abolitionism; nineteenth-century evangelicalism, which continued and completed that fight; and African American Christianity, which, with tremendous spiritual resources, opposed segregation. And the central role of religion in social reform is clear today, from the pro-life movement, to antiwar activism, to growing concerns with global poverty, disease, sexual trafficking, and genocide.
American journalists have a history of missing this fascinating story. One of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants, Andrew Young, recalls of the civil rights era: “Even then, see, people didn’t want to think of Martin Luther King as a minister. Most of our white supporters kind of tolerated our religion, but they really didn’t take it seriously, and most of the press, too.”