< Blinded By the Light


Friday, February 13, 2009

And now, religious misunderstanding of another sort. Listen to President Barack Obama at his Inaugural Address paraphrasing a passage from First Corinthians.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We remain a young nation but, in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

BOB GARFIELD: He made a point of attributing it to scripture. Had he not, many in the audience, [LAUGHS] including many reporters, might not have recognized the biblical reference. That journalists too often don't get religion is the subject of a new book, Blind Spot, which seeks to describe how the media missed the mark on stories from the war on terror to the 2004 presidential campaign to human rights. In the forward to Blind Spot, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson states that, quote, “A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time.”

MICHAEL GERSON: You know, I come from a more conservative religious background. There is a certain caricature of evangelical and fundamentalist political involvement, which sometimes [LAUGHS] is justified – you know, a Moral Majority view. I think that a lot of the media, for example, has missed the fact that there’s a large movement going on within American conservative Christianity that has to do with other social justice issues, particularly human trafficking, where it was really a religious coalition that brought this to the forefront of American foreign policy. Things like Sudan, the North/South agreement in Sudan, which was pushed by specifically religious coalition involving many evangelicals; things like advocacy on AIDS and malaria, those are increasingly religious causes motivating our foreign policy by religious ideals and approaches. Not recognizing the trends and complexity of some of religious life in America would obscure some of those stories. I'll also mention one other thing. I think one of the great missed stories of our time is this extraordinary historical change, which is the movement of the center of gravity of world Christianity to the global south. There are now more evangelicals in Brazil and Nigeria combined than there are in the United States. There are now Presbyterians in Ghana than there are in Scotland. This is a huge event. And if you didn't take religion seriously, you'd miss that story.

BOB GARFIELD: But it struck me that the focus of your book was rather not on the coverage of religion per se but the coverage of everything else by those who don't understand the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – effect of faith on what happens around us.

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. I did the introduction for this book. There are many other authors in it who were making the case not that we need more religious reporters but that we need all reporters [LAUGHS] to be more knowledgeable about religion. One of the case studies that’s used in the book, which I think is quite effective, is the case of the coverage of someone like John Paul II. You know, he was a major world leader that participated in the end of the Cold War, was deeply involved in the transformation of his own church, was one of the largest figures of the 20th century. But he tended, by many reporters, to be interpreted entirely through the lens of American ideological debate. So he was either a conservative or a liberal, when, in fact, the comprehensive and fascinating thought of John Paul II violated those categories fundamentally and was not generally understood. Because many reporters didn't really understand Roman Catholic social teaching, I think they misunderstood the essential role that John Paul II played. That’s one of the arguments of the book, and I think it shows the broader implications of some of these failures.

BOB GARFIELD: We began this conversation by quoting Obama’s quotation of Scripture. He felt, or his speechwriters felt, that he had to explicitly [LAUGHS] mention that it was a Scriptural passage. When you wrote for President Bush, it has been said that you were actually able to go right past the media elites, to avoid the media filter and speak in a kind of Scriptural code directly to the president’s base. Is that true?

MICHAEL GERSON: No. [LAUGHS] The reality here is it’s not a code. It’s our culture. It’s the common rhetorical heritage of our country. When Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” it was part of the New Testament. When Ronald Reagan used “a city on a hill,” it’s from the part of the New Testament in red. And the reality here is that it’s not necessarily the president’s fault when you use references that should be common cultural references. I'll give you one example – and this was not a speech that was written. It was just the way the president talks. During the campaign in the 2000 election, he mentioned during an interview that it was important to take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. The reporter in The New York Times, who was a very good guy, thought it was a gaffe and called it on the front page [LAUGHS] of The New York Times an “interesting variation on the pot calling the kettle black.” He didn't know the reference. Neither did any of his editors at The New York Times. These are words of Jesus from the New Testament that would be familiar to most Americans. [LAUGHS] This is the way that presidents have always communicated. And, by the way, it’s the way that Barack Obama, in that great tradition, communicated in his own Inaugural, by using Scriptural references – and not just that one, but talking about still waters, for example, which has a marvelous Biblical resonance. You know, I don't think that’s a plot. I think that that’s American rhetoric.

BOB GARFIELD: So somewhere around the '80s newsrooms began to figure out that in covering civil rights, and every other aspect of American politics and society, that it was not enough to be well meaning; that you had to have diversity – racial diversity on the staff. Otherwise you were essentially tone-deaf to a lot of the major issues that you reporting on day to day.


BOB GARFIELD: By the same token, should newspapers be doing diversity outreach for people of faith, or at least scriptural literacy?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I'm not sure that we're going to see or that I would even support evangelical quotas at the [LAUGHS] major newspapers in the country. I don't think that would necessarily be appropriate. I think this is a matter of good reporters understanding the deepest motivations of many of their fellow citizens and not dismissing them. This is not a secular country. It’s not even a secular government. We don't establish religion, we don't favor sectarian groups but we're inclusive of all traditions, and that’s the attitude, I think, that reporters should take - not that we scrub our public discourse of religious ideas and references, that that is somehow neutrality. That’s not neutrality. It’s silence.

BOB GARFIELD: Michael, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He wrote the forward for the recently published book, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion.