For most of my life, my relationship to the media could only be described as extraordinarily thin. My first interview took place in 1953 when a radio station in my hometown interviewed me about the statewide scholarship test for high school seniors I had just taken. My second interview followed 50 years later for National Public Radio on the crisis in the Episcopal Church over gay ordination. Between 1953 and 2003 not much happened.
In my view, I had my hands full doing my day job at Duke and being a dutiful father, son, brother, husband, citizen and taxpayer (though not necessarily in that order). I was much too busy to worry about talking to the media.
I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers in 2003 by an early morning telephone call from someone in the Duke News Service who wanted to know what issues, if any, had led to permanent splits in Christian churches.
“Let me count the ways,” I replied. “There have been arguments over race, hospitality to the poor, the role of women as leaders in churches, the dating of Easter, whether infant baptism is valid, the place of indulgences, the infallibility of the pope, and the relation of the two natures of Christ. My own personal favorite is the schism in Holland over whether the snake spoke to Eve as reported in Genesis.”
A few days later (and probably as a result of the news tip issued by Duke News Service) I was asked by Newsday, the Long Island newspaper owned by The Chicago Tribune, to write an op-ed on the fight that had broken out in the Episcopal Church between the traditionalists, who opposed gay ordination, and the liberals, who thought it was a long-overdue issue of justice. I thanked the editor who asked me to write, but declined her invitation, confessing I did not think I knew how to write an op-ed on any subject, much less on a hot-button issue like the election of an openly gay bishop.
Shortly thereafter I was called by Mark Pinsky, religion newswriter for the Orlando Sentinel and a Duke alum, who was looking for what he called “a kicker quote,” a reasonably strong statement with which he could end his story on the Anglican troubles. In the course of the interview I mentioned the invitation from Newsday and my unwillingness to accept it.
Mark thought I had made a mistake and told me so. In his view I was neglecting my civic duties in refusing to share my knowledge with my neighbors. Information about religion can be as useful to nonbelievers as to believers. Everyone needs to understand the religious currents in society in order to deal intelligently and charitably with one’s fellow citizens. If people like me were not carrying our part of the burden of educating the general public about matters religious, we were leaving the platform free for the religious crazies (whose number, alas, is legion).
I found it hard to argue with such a reasonable objection, so I caved in, wrote an op-ed for the Sentinel and another for The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer. I followed these pieces with op-eds for The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal. Before I knew it, I had written more than 60 op-eds, appearing in papers from the Detroit Free Press and The Charlotte Observer to The Contra Costa Times and the Dallas Morning News. In this rather haphazard and unplanned way I started my amateur career as an explainer of things religious (especially things Christian) to a mass audience.
It seemed to me at the time that the care of the world implicit in the commandment to love one’s neighbor meant not only care for the natural environment but also care for the social world of human relationships. In this social world, the endangered species are not the snail darter and the spotted owl, but empathy, knowledge, compassion, patience, justice and courtesy. When these species are endangered (as they currently are in America), silence, even pious silence, is never golden.
There are, of course, limits. Op-eds, however persuasive, can never save the world from its deadliest faults. But to the extent that journalism is a form of truth-telling that contributes to God’s providential care of the world, it is worth doing and well worth doing well.
Michael Murphy, the op-ed editor from the Orlando Sentinel, saw to it that any pieces sent to him were circulated over the wire service. The upside of wider circulation was that old friends wrote to say that they had read my latest piece in the local evening paper or cited on a blog. I heard, for example, from three members of the first class I ever taught at Lancaster Theological Seminary, friends I had not seen in almost 40 years.
But the unfortunate downside of wider circulation is the increased generation of hate mail. This comes in many forms, from merely patronizing notes to outbursts of almost incoherent vituperation. Hate mail, however painful, can be used as an indicator of success. No one attacks columns or columnists that miss their mark completely. The howl of rage is often a glowing tribute to accurate marksmanship.
My op-eds generated some invitations to be interviewed. Church historians generally live a quiet life, since few reporters are interested in the latest news on Didymus the Blind or the signing of the Mayflower Compact. I found myself, quite uncharacteristically, talking to AP, Reuters, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, NPR, and even Christian radio. The interviews in turn stimulated fresh op-eds, in part because the interviewers were often willing to chat with me, even to give me some useful tips and much-needed encouragement (I was, after all, a greenhorn, and I knew it).
What I discovered was that the bulk of religious newswriting was in the hands of a dedicated and knowledgeable press corps that wanted above all else to get the story right. The conditions under which these reporters work are seldom ideal. But the quality of their best writing is comparable with the best writing in any field, some of it even setting a gold standard for accuracy and fairness.
I wondered what Duke could do to help the enterprise along without compromising the fierce independence of religion journalists. The Divinity School was already giving prizes for the best religion news stories published each year in North Carolina. Moreover, Duke University sponsored a longstanding fellowship program for journalists, giving them an opportunity to pause and hit the reset button. Fellows could spend a month at the university, reading, attending seminars and classes, and talking with faculty, students and fellow journalists. Yonat Shimron, religion newswriter for The News & Observer, had already participated in this program. But there was as yet no slot funded by the Divinity School and reserved for religion newswriters.
In collaboration with Laurie Bley, the director of the Duke journalism program, the Divinity School developed just such a slot. To date we have welcomed as fellows Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post, Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, Caroline Borge of ABC News, and Rachel Zoll of AP.
Cooperman was interested in learning more abut the so-called Great Awakening and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. But Pope John Paul II died before Alan could get very far with his studies, and he was whisked onto a plane to Rome with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a credit card that did not work.
Mark Pinsky was luckier. He was left alone while he focused his interests on evangelicals in the South, a topic on which he had just written a book. Mark later lectured to a Duke audience on how his mind had changed about who evangelicals were and where they were heading.
Caroline Borge read widely on a variety of subjects, and she talked to our faculty and students about her ABC Special Report on poverty in Camden, N.J. She posed the moral problem ABC pondered: could journalists be satisfied to report what they saw among the desperately poor and homeless, and then simply walk away, or does conscience require even professional observers to become actors and intervene on behalf of the dispossessed. In the end, ABC intervened.
Rachel Zoll was incredibly productive in her brief time at Duke. Like Caroline, Rachel worked on a variety of issues, from the nature of evangelicalism in America to variations in Protestant Eucharistic theology (a subject on which all alumni of Church History 14 have notes). Her public lecture explored the present state of religious newswriting in America.
In addition to the journalism fellowships, which seem to be working well, the Divinity School established its first short-term conference on March 27-28, 2008, to enable religion newswriters and religion specialists to meet at Duke and discuss matters of common concern. The theme of this first, largely experimental, conference was “Religion in the Public Square.”
The journalists who came to Duke were an interesting cross section of the profession: Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR, Cathy Grossman of USA Today, Michael Paulson of The Boston Globe, Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post, Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer, Yonat Shimron of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, Ted Olsen of Christianity Today, and Jason Byassee of The Christian Century.
They participated in four panels—“America’s God: Trends in American Religion,” “The Ups and Downs of the Mainline,” “Evangelicals after Billy Graham,” and “Religion in the Public Square: Where Should the Lines Be Drawn?”
The guests from the media were joined on panels by Duke faculty Lauren Winner, Mark Chaves, Jay Carter, Stephen Chapman, Jo Bailey Wells, Grant Wacker, Greg Jones, Paul Griffiths, Randy Maddox, Jeff Powell and me. Wacker also gave a rousing public lecture on “Billy Graham’s America.” The discussions were lively and engaged, so much so that it was difficult to end panels on time. The strong impression I gathered from the intensity of the discussions was that Duke had managed to do something that was really useful both to journalists and to faculty.
Which brings us to the end, thus far, of two stories: my own improbable life with the media, and the more important story of Duke Divinity School’s relationship to religion newswriting in America.
There is no way for the Divinity School to ensure success in its media initiatives, though there are reasons to be optimistic about what has been done so far. Encouraging religion newswriters without encroaching on their independence is never easy. But there are ways to do it right. If we fail, the religion newswriters themselves will be the first to let us know. You can count on it.
David C. Steinmetz has taught at Duke since 1971 and is currently the Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the history of Christianity.