Religion writer speaks about ‘Religion in the News’

By Staff Writer
October 31, 2002

Chris Jones

Gustav Niebuhr never wanted to be a religion reporter. However, when word of a job opening at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution came his way, he quickly set aside his aspirations of being a political reporter.

After a year of convincing the editors in Atlanta to give him the job, Niebuhr left The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, La. where he was a political reporter who had started out as an intern, taking photos of the local high school sports teams and writing obituaries. Niebuhr even drove the delivery truck to make extra money.

Things are very different these days for Niebuhr, who recently left his job as head religion reporter at The New York Times. Niebuhr spoke to a crowded room of people in the Mansion, Wednesday, Oct. 23. Niebuhr’s lecture, entitled “The Problem with Religion as News,” followed a dinner he shared with students, staff and faculty.

The night started out with comments by President Antoinette Iadarola, followed by Dr. Margaret McGuinness, religious studies department chair, who welcomed Niebuhr to Cabrini.

Niebuhr, whose current book project is entitled, “Sacred Ground, Meeting Grounds: Contemporary Religious Diversity and Interfaith Dialogue at Historically Significant Sites Across the United States,” began his lecture by saying that he had, “Two very pleasant and stimulating experiences with students [at Cabrini].”

Niebuhr started his day at Cabrini by speaking to Dr. Leonard Primiano’s religion class. That class was followed by the dinner and lecture in the Mansion. Niebuhr said that there is, “A lot of deep thinking at Cabrini.” Niebuhr hoped his lecture would spawn “dialogue” on campus.

Niebuhr started reporting on religion in 1986, and has been a religion writer for 16 years, working at such papers as, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. He has also taught religious courses at Union Theological Seminary, New York and Princeton Universities.

Niebuhr is “disappointed” with religion reporting in general, although he describes himself as “normally cautiously optimistic.” Reporting religion has taken Niebuhr to many places across the world, including interviewing prisoners in jail, White Supremacists in Oklahoma, a Zen Buddhist Monastery in the Catskills and the Oval Office in the White House, all to talk about religion and allowing him to meet new people.

“When you write about religion,” Niebuhr said, “you explore the lives, thoughts of individuals. But – not only that – you also range across a great deal of the American culture.” Niebuhr spoke about the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying that Americans are religious people. Niebuhr said that Americans are closer to Ireland, India and much of Africa, than we are to Canada and Sweden, where “secularism is much more pervasive.”

According to Niebuhr, in 2002, the appalling use of religion as basis for violence forms a backdrop of American life. “Our nation bears the physical and psychological scars of an attack of religious warfare, as defined by its perpetrators,” Niebuhr said. “This is the wrong time not to have enough people concentrating on religion coverage because of religion’s current role in society.”

“Individuals, motivated by religious convictions, have done enormous good and great injury to our society,” Niebuhr said. This puts the U.S. in, “company with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Northern Ireland,” as far as nations who have survived terrible religious conflicts.

Religion flows into politics, education, sports and business, which Niebuhr describes as the, “Bread and butter of daily news. These actions have a clear beginning and an ending, sets of numbers to see who won, who lost.” However, Niebuhr has some, “constructive criticism” about the role of religion in news.

From a journalistic standpoint, “Religious life does not fit within a clear narrative, in which a story has an obvious starting point, and a well-marked finish line,” Niebuhr said. According to Niebuhr, many religion reports are an “either/or proposition. Either the reporter would be lifting up the good, or ripping the lid off scandals.”

Niebuhr said that the “problem here is a failure of imagination, a failure to understand how religion works in the lives of most people, and in society.”

On the distinction between religious fanaticisms as being a political act or a religious act, Niebuhr said, “What the terrorists did amounted to a savage war against civilians, a massacre, a terrible political act. And we’re free to call it that. The fewer people in the world who see anything religious in terrorism, the better for us all.”

On the scandal in the Catholic Church, Niebuhr feels that more attention to individuals involved, not necessarily the victims, the accused or the Bishops, would be more appropriate. “I hope this won’t be the only religion story reported in 2002.”

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