NYT religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer considers my post suggesting a daily news-talk show from NPR focusing on faith and values, and gives his reasons for why he believes such a show would be a “dismal failure.” Among them:

Well, the first thing is that people don’t care about theology. I mean, Rod does, and I kind of do, but your average American believer (or non-believer) does not care about the particular tenets of her faith. And so she won’t listen to me go on about various synods of Lutheranism.

The second thing is that to be interesting religion must be treated without reverence, and even better, with humor. The best religion stuff on TV or radio is on Jon Stewart (whose writers, I am convinced, know a lot about theology, as the authors of The Book of Mormon, which I saw last night, do). NPR has many virtues, but I suspect that any religion show NPR would do would suffer from over-earnestness and a severe lack of mirth. The desire not to be seen as anti-religious would be very strong; the aversion to poking fun would be too great. I can imagine lots of stories in which the interviewer listens patiently as some loopy minister  natters on idiotically about how God told him to start a men’s prayer/bowling league, with no skepticism coming from the interviewer.

Third, such a show would, I suspect, suffer in a very bad way from one of the faults that afflicts a lot of religion coverage (including mine): a suspension of normal journalistic practice of asking for proof.

There’s more, but I don’t want to quote too much of Mark’s post, and deprive him of the link. Do read the whole thing. 

To answer these objections, I would first say that I agree most people wouldn’t listen to a strictly theological show. That’s why I conceive of the program as a “faith and values” program, one that explores the theological aspect of current events, but also the moral and ethical aspects. Just yesterday I posted on a review essay in the New York Review of Books that focuses on the religious revival in China. Author Ian Johnson observes that the religious awakening in general there — not just Christian — but that there’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of human rights lawyers are Christians. Why would this be, especially given that unlike (say) Islam, Christianity explicitly separates itself from worldly power (“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” “my kingdom is not of this world,'” etc.)? Is there something about the Christian way of seeing the world that encourages human rights work in oppressive regimes? Is it only modern Christianity that’s like this? Why would Christians do it but not, for example, Taoists? These are the sorts of questions that an NPR show could take up.

While I’m interested in the differences between iterations of Lutheranism, I recognize that to succeed, an NPR program on religion would have to be far more broad-based. Terry Mattingly and the folks at GetReligion.org, the religion and journalism site, are always talking about the “ghosts” in news stories — that is, the religious element that tends to be ignored or downplayed. This program would be all about such ghosts. A third point: is it really the case that more Americans are interested in the ins and outs of the news media than religion? NPR makes available WNYC’s “On the Media” with Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone. It’s an interesting show, but I’m a professional journalist; when I listen to it, I find myself wondering how many people who aren’t professional journalists or media junkies care.

More after the jump:

Mark’s second objection is a lot harder to answer. To treat a religion without reverence doesn’t mean you have to disrespect it. It means that you treat it like you would a normal news subject. You have to be willing to put the same kinds of questions to your guests as you would to guests on a political show, for example. No kid gloves. The problem, as Mark recognizes, is that so many people are so unbelievably thin-skinned about religion that a normal interview in which a religious figure was challenged would strike many listeners (of that faith) as bigoted and offensive. When I was at the Dallas paper and dealt with members of the Muslim community, it frustrated me that the only kind of coverage they were willing to accept was completely uncritical boosterism. Write anything critical, and you were, in their view, an Islamophobic bigot. They were on the extreme, but many Christians and Jews can and do behave similarly.

This, I think, is one reason why reporters tend to stray away from doing serious religion coverage. It’s hard to know where the land mines are buried, and rather than have congregations organizing boycotts and suchlike, they’d rather not mess with it. Not long after I arrived in Dallas, I wrote about the extremism of a national Muslim group whose president presented them falsely as a voice of moderation. After this, I stumbled across an e-mail list for area Muslims in which members were discussing a stealth plan to enlist Christian and Jewish clerics and leaders in a quiet move to pressure my newspaper’s publisher to fire me for putting Muslims in danger. I gathered these e-mails and blogged about them, which killed the plot. I wonder what would have happened to me had I not had the dumb luck to have been able to be part of that e-mail community for 24 hours before they found me out.

If Mark is correct — and I fear he is — the conclusion to draw is that Americans are simply too immature, from a religious point of view, to embrace a quality news-talk show about faith and values. To be precise, Krista Tippett’s program is a very high quality show about faith and values, but it’s not a news-talk show. News-talk programming has to be somewhat adversarial and newsy. That sort of thing makes many religious believers very, very nervous.

And that leads to Mark’s third objection: that the hosts and reporters for such a show would inevitably find themselves unable to be normal journalists, because the audience would object. Mark identifies one aspect of this as “a suspension of normal journalistic practice of asking for proof.” I don’t think he means that religion journalists are to be Ditchkins-like inquisitors demanding that clerics provide scientific evidence for their religious truth claims. That would be absurd. I think he means that reporters wouldn’t feel at liberty to put guests on the spot and ask them why they believe things that seem outlandish. I, for one, would really love to hear observant Mormons talk about why they believe what their church teaches about the lost tribe of Israel existing on the North American continent in light of DNA evidence showing that this cannot be true. I would not want to hear an interviewer hectoring a Mormon guest about this, to be sure, so I suppose a host would have to be sensitive enough to know where the line is between asking an honest and necessary question, and when they’re badgering a guest for the sake of proving a point. But again, we go back to the point of the sensitivities of the audience. Plenty of Evangelicals, for example, would see nothing wrong and everything right with a host pressing a Mormon guest on that point, but would squirm in their seats if a host pressed an Evangelical Young Earth Creationist in the same way.

This, says Mark, is why so much religion journalism is mediocre: audiences don’t reward thoughtful, penetrating religion journalism, and journalists too often pull their punches out of deference to the audience’s expectations. Nobody wants to listen to a religion program that’s about nothing more than everybody sitting around being nice to each other, and agreeing not to put uncomfortable or divisive questions to others. But that kind of well-meaning earnestness, says Mark, is what you’d likely get from an NPR religion show. Some secular version of this is probably why “Tell Me More” is not as interesting as it could be. The pieties surrounding the discussion of race and culture in this country make for tepid journalism.

For example, the other day “Tell Me More” interviewed one of the black US Olympians who gave the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and who has a new book out. It was a total cream puff of an interview, following the usual “Tell Me More” formula of Minority Triumphs Over Adversity. When the story started, I wondered how the athlete’s thinking about his country had changed over the past decades, and why. Isn’t that interesting? Were there no questions that could be put to the athlete challenging his acts or his views? If any had been, they were left on the editing floor. If this is the kind of journalism NPR would do in a faith-and-values program — and Mark Oppenheimer has given good reasons for why this is what we could expect — then yes, better not to try it.

(BTW, Mark, I agree with you that it’s a shame so much of my Beliefnet work is now inaccessible. When the new owners took over, they changed the site somehow, and I typically can’t find most of what I ever wrote there — even though some of my blog entries are still there. Just wanted you to know that I had nothing to do with this apparent spiking of so many of my posts. If I had known that was going to happen, I would have cut, pasted, and archived some key posts.)