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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Writing About Religion in a Polarized Age

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On an unusually dark and stormy October night, a dedicated crowd took shelter from the storm in Devlin 101 to hear three distinguished journalists discuss the challenge of writing about religion in today’s polarized political climate. Moderated by Boisi Center director Alan Wolfe, the panel brought together Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times and Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches.

In his introductory remarks, Wolfe noted how the field of religion writing has become a more serious journalistic enterprise over the past twenty-five years, pointing to the relative youth of his panelists as evidence of the subject’s continued relevance. Dreher then launched the discussion by citing homosexuality as the most polarizing issue in modern religion writing, arguing that the failure to communicate the orthodox view on sexuality demonstrates a wide gap in understanding. Dreher generalized that religious liberals tend to treat religion as something man says about God, while religious conservatives see religion as what God says to man. He also worried that modern religion has turned into what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a feel-good spirituality with little prophetic power.

Oppenheimer’s remarks focused more on the writing component and the responsibilities of a religion journalist. He argued that the main problem with reporting on religion is that it is too “soft,” and likened his role to that of a sports writer who holds enormous respect for his subject but is unafraid to tackle the steroid abuse stories as well.

Posner focused on the question of religious exemptions, citing the recent Hobby Lobby case as one example. For Posner, such questions reflect the ambiguous intersection of religion and politics, and pose a real challenge for reporters, who must at once take such religious claims seriously and respect the nonbelievers who are affected by exemption policies.

Following these remarks, the panelists engaged in a lively back-and-forth discussion. Wolfe raised the provocative question as to why American journalists pay so little attention to theology. All the panelists agreed that theology was rarely written about, but Oppenheimer disputed the consensus that it needed more media coverage, arguing that most readers do not care about theology and that increased theological understanding would not necessarily lead to greater political harmony.

The panel was also met with a series of questions from the audience, including a religion reporter from California who sent in a question via Twitter. Ranging from practical questions about how religion reporters should deal with church communications staffers, to broader themes of inter-religious understanding, the audience’s questions stimulated a wide-ranging discussion.

As the event drew to a close, Wolfe asked the panelists one final question: what do they consider the single most underreported aspect about religion in the United States? Posner maintained that the answer was Islam, since few Americans understand its theological roots or the way that American Muslims live their faith. Oppenheimer took a different tack, arguing that what is most needed is hard-hitting, indigenous reporting from within religious traditions. Finally, Dreher drew the audience’s attention to two neglected narratives: the growing religious divide between “the West and the rest,” and the falling away of working class voices from religion in the United States.