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Reporting Faith

Friday, September 30, 2011  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

Candidates for president should be prepared to respond to any question, including a host of them concerning their faith. That’s the way our system works, even when the questions are far out of the ordinary realm of political conversation in the country. Often the response may be short and to the point: “I am running for president, not pope and I don’t make any claims to theological expertise.” Other questions are legitimate when asked a few times, such as those involving values and morals. Obviously prejudiced inquiries into specifics of doctrine or practice have to be shrugged or politely laughed off, and the public will be glad they are.

All of these sorts of questions, however, are loaded with risk for the candidates and especially for the journalist who is raising them. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza entered this trickly field with his profile of Michele Bachmann earlier this year, and that profileled to a series of exchanges with the New York Times’ Ross Douthat which were interesting and far above the normal level of debate on the subject.

Lizza was back on my program yesterday (the transcript is here), and we continued the conversation about faith , politics, and journalism and it is very good to learn that Lizza knows about his critics at places such as Article VI blog. Reporters in the Manhattan-Beltway media elite don’t tend to care much about the opinions of those who aren’t at least alums of their order, and this is a particularly perilous indifference on matters of faith where most of the elite practice a sort of secular absolutism and where most of the expertise is far removed from the centers of secular power. As Mark Steyn pointed out, also on yesterday’s program, most questions about faith coming from most reporters aren’t posed in good faith.

“Nobody is really interested in any serious, meaningful, theological discussion,” Steyn argued. “The point is to raise the subject, to tell secular independents or post-Christian members of the Congregational Church, and the Episcopalian Church, that these people are slightly freaky-deaky, and way out of our comfort zone on this subject. And so it’s about hanging a label around them.” He is right of course, though a few like LIzza are genuinely attempting to understand some of the candidates’ faith backgrounds and convey that information to largely secular audiences. The trouble begins when even these “good faith” reporters try and “get smart” on theology and faith like they would on Solyndra –by asking a few folks around town to get up to speed and then by calling the prime source.

To get reporting on faith right, the reporters can always begin with Michael Cromartie and his colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, but if they are serious they will make sure to try and get some background from folks like Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, Dr. Albert Mohler at Louisville Baptist Seminary, Dr. Mark Roberts of the Laity Lodge, Dr. Wayne Grudem of Phoenix Seminary or any of the scholars working at Patheos like Timothy Dalrymple, or any of scores indeed hundeds of other experts ranged across the country busy at work in particular areas of theological inquiry. These are incredibly smart and careful scholars, and also generous in their time and willingness to educate reporters on questions of faith. Their academic credentials far outstrip those of the media elite and their experience in the intersection of faith and reason has prepared them to assist the reporter-essayist working in good faith to get to his or her audience a serious understanding of a key question. The reporters will also read seriously on the subject they are reporting on, especially the exchanges on faith the candidates they are covering have already provided. (When I hear Romney being asked questions about his LDS background that betray the reporter’s laziness in having refused ot even skim the vast number of exchanges Romney has had on the subject for example, I am amazed that such people get paid. A White House press conference dominated by questions about Jeremiah Wright is the analogy that one will never see unfold even as its counterpart plays out week after week on the GOP side.)

Unlike Bill Keller, whose ham-handed Obama-boosting led to rank religious bigotry, Lizza is thus working to get it right on a sensitive issue, and hopefully his example will spread, assisted by folks like Douthat and the gang at Article VI. As either Mitt Romney or Rick Perry as the GOP nominee brings with them quite obvious faith-and-politics story lines, we have to hope the Lizzas far outnumber the Kellers going forward. I am the last person to say that the faith and morals of candidates don’t warrant extended scrutiny, but the public has not just a right to know, but a right to know that the folks asking the questions are doing so for the right reasons of finding and providing knowledge and background, and that they have done their homework.

Because the MSM is so overwhelmingly secular, it generally doesn’t know what it doesn’t know on matters of faith. With a year ahead of us that will almost certainly see faith at the center of many important discussions, I hope the media elite at least tries to study up. If they start with the names above, they will have at least demonstrated a beginner’s sincere curiosity, not about a particular faith, but how to report on any faith responsibly.

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