Religion, Journalism, and the New American Orthodoxy
September 24, 2010
Address delivered before the Religion Newswriters Association.
It’s good to be with you today. Of course, most speakers say that, but I actually mean it—for two reasons. First, I’ve been a heavy reader all my life. A lot of my reading has been, and still is, newspapers and news magazines, although now I mainly read them on my Kindle. And second, I love my country. I think there’s something wrong with a man unless, somewhere in his heart, he really loves his homeland—its people, its beauties, and its best ideals and institutions.
A free press is part of the American identity, and also one of its best institutions. I respect that. I value what journalists do for the same reason I value the importance of religious faith in American life—both in the private home and in the public square. A responsible press and a faith shaped by the God of charity and justice share two things in common: a concern for human dignity, and an interest in truth. We might define that word “truth” differently, and the differences might be serious. But an honest search for it creates a kind of maturity. And that maturity allows us to make a decent future through our choices here and now.
Freedom means that our choices matter. It also means that our mistakes have consequences. That’s why lots of people really prefer unfreedom. What many people really want is a rescue from the burden of personal responsibility. They want deliverance from the drudgery of thinking critically about themselves, their mortality, their world, and the purpose of their lives. We all struggle with these temptations. Americans as a people are no exception. So I can imagine an America without a free press. And I can imagine an America with much less religious freedom. But in either case, it would be a worse America and a disappointment to the generations that built it.
The kind of journalism that tracks our religious life is so important because journalism is the profession where two of our defining freedoms meet. The very best religion journalists—and I know a few of them personally—aren’t “normal” people. They’re amphibians. They live in two very different worlds, and at their best, they can understand and honor the dignity of both. That’s hard work. It takes patience and intelligence. Not many people can do it well. But those who do enrich the common good.
Most of you in this audience have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm at some point. It’s a modern classic. But he had a very hard time getting it published. The reason why is interesting.
Orwell, you’ll recall, was a man of the left. He was also no friend of organized religion, especially the Catholic kind. He was also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. While fighting in Spain, where he was nearly killed himself, he saw the duplicity and brutality of the Soviet secret service, which spent more time murdering its Spanish allies on the left than it did fighting fascism.
By the time he finished writing Animal Farm in 1943, Britain had joined with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Orwell couldn’t find a single publisher honest enough to release his allegory of the Soviet regime, in which the main characters were a breed of shrewdly cynical pigs.
Editors said his book would be “inopportune.” When it finally appeared in 1945 near the end of the war, Orwell tried to add a preface titled, “The Freedom of the Press.” The essay didn’t make it into print. It remained unknown for more than 20 years after his death. Scholars found the typescript among Orwell’s papers.
Six decades later, this essay still has value. And here’s why: Most arguments for press freedom deal with the media’s need for independence from state censorship and propaganda. That makes sense. But Orwell focused on something very different—a kind of undermining of free thought and expression unique to modern democratic societies.
He saw his problems with Animal Farm as part of a much bigger pattern of “self-censorship” in wartime England. Nobody demanded the media’s fawning coverage of the Soviet Union. Nobody required the falsification of facts, or the ugly attacks on critics of Stalin, or the covering-up of unpleasant truths. Nobody forced journalists and editors to do these things. They freely chose to do them.
media of the day were staffed by decent men and
women. They felt they were on the side of social
progress. They thought the Soviet Union,
whatever its flaws, was fighting for human
progress too. So they ignored unhappy details
and hard questions about the reality of Soviet
Their assumptions created what Orwell saw as a new form of religious orthodoxy. That orthodoxy shaped the boundaries of permissible thought and expression. And Orwell warned that this unspoken tendency toward group-think would threaten the press in democratic societies well into the future. He wrote:
At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas, which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that, or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it . . . [And] anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, whether in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
I think Orwell’s words capture the way many people feel today toward the news media and coverage of religion news. In practice—at least in the eyes of ordinary people I hear from every week—a new body of ideas seems to shape the limits of acceptable thought in American public life. This new orthodoxy seems to influence the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented. It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won’t be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences. At its core, it has a set of assumptions about the nature of human life, the purpose of government, and the proper role of religion in the lives of individuals and in society that veers away from past American habits of thought.
This new thinking seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America’s past or anything warranted by present facts; a society where people are free to worship and believe whatever they want, so long as they don’t intrude their religious idiosyncrasies on government, the economy, or culture.
Whether these ideas really dominate today in American newsrooms is debatable. I think they’re more common than journalists want to admit. I do know reporters and editors whom I admire, and whose fairness and skill I commend. But I think the deficiencies in today’s coverage of religion are too real to ignore. And they’re not simply issues of deadlines and resources. They’re also attitudinal, even ideological.
One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem. But news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy, and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.
Some of the best proof of the problems I’m talking about is published every day by the journalists at getreligion.org. We now commonly see religion coverage that’s illiterate about the subject matter, or narrows the scope of facts or sources to fit an unfriendly narrative—especially when it comes to the Christian faith and its traditional content. Coverage of Islam tends to be equally ill-informed and confused on matters of history; but also more respectful and even sympathetic, as in the recent New York mosque controversy.
In contrast, the Christian story now told in mainstream media often seems to be a narrative of decline or fundamentalism, or houses divided against themselves along predictable lines of sex and authority. It’s a narrative of institutions and individuals that—insofar as they stay true to their historic beliefs—act as a backward social force and a menace to the liberty of their fellow citizens.
Freedom of the press clearly includes the right to question the actions and motives of religious figures and institutions. Our constitutional safeguards for the press developed partly in response to efforts by Puritans like Cotton Mather to have editors and publishers tossed into jail for satirizing local pastors and mocking Christian beliefs in their pages.
But freedom doesn’t excuse prejudice or poor handling of serious material, especially people’s religious convictions. What’s new today is the seeming collusion—or at least an active sympathy—between some media organizations and journalists, and political and sexual agendas hostile to traditional Christian beliefs.
When this happens, the results are bad for everybody.
It’s no accident that freedom of religion and freedom of the press are both named—in that order—in the First Amendment. The country’s founders believed that protecting these two freedoms would be vital to the American experiment. They saw that a self-governing people needs truthful information and sensible opinion from sources other than the state. They also believed that morality grounded in religious belief is fundamental to forming virtuous people able to govern themselves.
These beliefs about American liberty were once widely shared by media professionals. In the mid 19th century, one might often find anti-Catholic sentiment on the editorial pages of America’s major papers—just as we do today. But it served a Protestant consensus. Newspapers attacked “Popish” infiltration, the better to push Protestant goals like prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
The question back then was not whether religion had a place in our public life. Most newspapers assumed, along with most of the cultural establishment, that religious faith and the role of believers were vital to shaping public morality, laws, and policies.
The importance of religion for America’s civic life was never at issue. The rights of religious believers, their leaders, and their communities to preach, teach, organize, and engage society and its political issues were also never at issue. The only issue was whether Catholics should fully enjoy those same rights.
Of course, 2010 is not 1850. A lot has changed. More change is coming. Both Barna Group and Pew Research Center data show two key qualities to our religious landscape today.
First, Americans remain a broadly Christian people. Somewhere between 75 percent and 80 percent of us self-identify as Christian. And Americans continue to have a very high rate of religious practice compared to other developed nations.
Second, old religious loyalties are softening. The percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation has doubled since 1990. For young adults age 18-29, a quarter of them are unaffiliated. And their view of Christianity is more negative than any previously recorded generation at the same age.
This is interesting information. But it’s probably more interesting to our knowledge classes than it is to the ordinary people who get lumped into these social trends. My point is that we need to understand and use social data. But we also need to be skeptical about them. They don’t predict or determine anyone’s future. The late media scholar Neil Postman liked to argue that social science isn’t really “science” at all, but a disguised form of moral theology.
[T]here is a measure of cultural self-delusion in the prevalent belief that psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and other moral theologians are doing something different from storytelling. The New York Times could help if it stopped reporting their work on its Science page. It could help even more if it added a Moral Theology page to which ‘social scientists’ of every variety (including economists) could regularly contribute.
Many factors explain our current religious landscape. But four strike me as most useful. First, more of our immigration now comes from non-Christian cultures than at any time in the past. Second, economic, scientific, and technological changes have shaken up our traditional patterns of thinking and learning. They’ve also changed our understanding of the world and of ourselves. In the process, they’ve diminished the place of religion. Third, Christians have done a terrible job of transmitting our faith to our own children and to the culture at large. The reasons for that would need another discussion on another day. But in general, I think too much of American Christianity is habit and inheritance. And too little of it is personal conviction and witness—even within the family.
By the way, for me, the argument that the so-called “religious right” alienated a generation of young people with its activism seems flatly wrong. And it would have little merit even if it were true, since the mass media play a huge role not just in informing the public but also in shaping opinion—including opinion about religion. Religion has always played a big role in American public life. The religious right comes from the same soil as the religious left did in its civil rights and peace movement forms. The content is different. The roots are much the same. I know that from personal experience, because I worked on both the Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Carter campaigns as a young Capuchin. My own thinking as a young priest was heavily influenced by groups on the religious left like Pax Christi.
This brings me to my fourth and last factor in thinking about our religious trends. Some of you, I’m sure, have read Christian Smith’s collection of essays The Secular Revolution. The book has two key themes. First, American public life went through a massive secularization between 1870 and 1930, and the process continues today. Second, the process wasn’t an accident. Secularization didn’t happen naturally. It wasn’t the inevitable result of “progress.”
Secularization took place in large measure—as Smith and his fellow scholars prove in great detail—because academics, educators, journalists, economists, and scientists consciously attacked and overthrew America’s Protestant establishment. In the words of Smith,
[This] rebel insurgency consisted of waves of networks of activists who were largely skeptical, freethinking, agnostic, atheist or theologically liberal; who were well educated and socially located in knowledge-production occupations; and who generally espoused materialism, naturalism, positivism, and the privatization or extinction of religion.
As Smith and his colleagues show, knowledge professionals have their own kind of orthodoxy. They place a high premium on their own skill and autonomy. This has consequences. It predisposes them to be uncomfortable with, and even hostile toward, any claims of revealed truth, religious institutions, traditions, doctrines, and authority.
These are strong statements, but history supports them. Obviously, exceptions do exist. Many people in the knowledge occupations do believe in God. Many practice a religious tradition. The Catholic Church, after all, has one of the longest and greatest intellectual traditions in human history.
The point I want to leave you with is this: Journalism is a “knowledge profession.” But like any other profession, the work of journalism doesn’t necessarily translate into self-knowledge or self-criticism. And any lasting service to the common good demands both. Journalism has its own unstated orthodoxies. It has its own prejudices. And when they go unacknowledged and uncorrected—as they too often seem to do—they can diminish our public life.
Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that—and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility—then you’ll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you’ll embody the best ideals of your profession.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, 2008) and the Archbishop of Denver, Colorado.