The story behind the story

1 2 3 | 4 | 5 INDEX

Several weeks before Chadís siege of Tallahassee, The New York Times devoted one news day to religious biographies of the candidates. It was an appropriate capstone to a White House battle that felt as if it should have had choir-and-pipe-organ accompaniment.

In the Timesí Gore biography, Melinda Henneberger pauses for a moment from her exhaustive analysis to clarify terms: "By definition, of course, religious belief is interior, personal, not necessarily a matter shared easily or even at all." While that may be a popular understanding of religion, it is far from accepted truth, especially in the halls of seminaries and sociology departments. Scholars are quick to point out that religion is always in flux, adapting to and influencing other aspects of social life. And nowadays, there is a growing view among academics that religion is once again on the move. "Older boundaries between public and private, moral and religious, even religious and secular are being redrawn in an age of grassroots negotiation," writes the religion scholar Wade Clark Roof in his recent book, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion.

The New York Times, along with much of the major news media, failed to consider that perspective. After all, normal people didnít thrust their religion in front of the public eye; only religious right-wing extremists did things like that. But when Lieberman came onto the scene, suddenly the media could not longer hold onto the illusion that religion was strictly a private matter. His unabashed observance of religious ritual, Roof suggests, challenged people; it forced them to confront a difficult question--what are the visible signs of a personís faith, and just how "visible" should they be? "People are torn between attending to their own spiritual selves in some private way and wanting visible, more distinctive signs of a healthy faith or spirituality," Roof writes. This was the deeper problem that the media grappled with. Unable to find an answer, they fell into their old, tired patterns of thinking.

As anthropologists are well aware, when someone is asked to explain their religion to an outsider, they often do so in terms of official teachings--even though their lived experiences are multidimensional. Likewise, when people want a religious explanation, they tend to seek out authoritative figures and documents. The middle ground between personal spiritual experience and official explanation is difficult terrain for any journalist, but it is one that he has to venture upon to provide an accurate picture of faith.

Unfortunately, the search for steadier footing can lead to a skewed perspective. This seems to be the case with the 2000 campaign. Like nineteenth-century explorers confronting an unknown civilization, the media poked and prodded Lieberman, took samples, and preserved him according to their categories. As any good scientist knows well, the lens you use determines what you see; if the lens is faulty your image will be distorted.

Journalists tried to be responsible reporters and explore the senatorís belief system. But they ended up glossing over the subtleties of those beliefs. They propped up norms (or what they perceived to be norms) at the expense of lived reality. And they failed to see that the political field today is not as polarized, not so sharply divided into two distinct camps of conservative fundamentalists and godless liberals. The result was coverage that "neutered" religion--treating it as a mere rulebook, as opposed something that animates lives. It was coverage that told readers that God-talk was a form of speech somehow specially suited to the religious right and Republicans.

Caricaturing Lieberman

Religion in black and white

ĎTaking back Godí

The story behind the story

A new spiritual skyline

Story Index