Home > Queensland Synod News > Journalist scrutinises religion beat amid spiritual ‘intolerance’

Journalist scrutinises religion beat amid spiritual ‘intolerance’


The theological and political divisions within the US religious landscape have made the once-quiet "religion beat" one of the most interesting, if intense, journalistic assignments in the United States today, writes a prominent award-winning reporter who covers religion.

"As a reporter covering religion at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the last four years, I’ve been a witness to attitudes and language on my beat that would make veteran political reporters cringe," writes Tim Townsend in a reflection in the May/June issue of the New York-based Columbia Journalism Review, a magazine that examines trends and critiques performance within the US journalistic community.

Townsend says that reporters who cover the "fractured, volatile, weighty world of religion" need to be equally respectful of all beliefs. But he also says journalists who cover religion "also need to weigh that broad respect for belief against a larger truth".

"If a particular tenet of a particular faith has the potential to influence the public discourse outside the walls of the church, synagogue, or mosque, reporters are responsible for holding it up to the same scrutiny as any other idea tossed into the public square for debate," Townsend says.

Townsend was named 2005 religion reporter of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association, a professional grouping of US journalists who cover religion. He noted that a blog he wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper "became such a target for corrosive, hateful comments that I was forced to shut it down".

As one example of the divisions, Townsend quotes Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of the Washington-based news agency Religion News Service about the current divisions within the US Episcopal (Anglican) Church on the issue of sexuality:

"The chasm is so deep that neither side trusts the other or is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on anything," Eckstrom said. "The traditionalists feel their way of life is being taken away from them by the tyranny of the majority, while the progressives think a bigoted minority is holding the Holy Spirit hostage. [And] even those fights aren’t about sex, or even theology, but about power, and who gets to make the decisions that will tie the hands of everyone else."

Townsend’s article, "Love Thy Neighbour: The Religion Beat in an Age of Intolerance" suggests that the divisions of the US religious landscape can be traced at least as far back as the Bible itself, which contains quite differing views of Jesus’ ministry.

As depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is both seen as peacemaker ("Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth … Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God") and as stirrer of discontent ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

"If even Jesus could be divisive, what can be expected of the sinners who call themselves his followers?" Townsend writes.

"And how about his contemporary American disciples, who sport anonymous Internet handles and spend their days trolling blogs dedicated to the disparagement of other faiths? What about those who insist that Jesus himself have a stronger voice in the US Congress?"

Townsend finds a strong historical basis for such divisions within US Christianity, noting that spiritual polarisation is nothing new. "Intolerance might as well have been the motto of the Puritans, separatists who crossed the Atlantic in 1630, fleeing religious persecution," he argues. Puritan leader John Winthrop, Townsend writes, told his fellow Christian pilgrims they "were not voyaging to New England to set up a democracy. The idea was to found New Jerusalem, a Christian government that would complete an unfinished reformation."

He adds, "The United States is a young nation, and maybe it’s not so strange that these impulses toward exceptionalism and religious intolerance – paired as perfectly as a cold Budweiser [beer] and a Ball Park Frank [hot dog] – have passed so easily down sixteen generations from our Puritan ancestors. By now, they seem encoded into our red-white-and-blue DNA."

Tim Townsend’s article can be found at http://www.cjr.org/review/love_thy_neighbor.php?page=1

Ecumenical News International