News, goes one definition, is what people are talking about.
But because organized religion is one of the few topics people won’t talk about, journalists tend to ignore it.
Lately, though, it has been hard to miss it. Kayla Mueller, the humanitarian aid worker killed while an ISIS hostage, eloquently cited her faith in God in explaining her devotion to alleviating suffering and her strength in the face of hardship.
And on the other side, although President Obama calls it a “brutal, vicious death cult,” the fact that ISIS claims to possess religious authority in the name of Islam begs the question: Where, exactly, is that coming from?
In this country, God is frequently invoked at occasions big and small. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he offers an olive branch to the defeated South, invokes a call to a higher power nearly as many times as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “I Have a Dream” speech. But as Obama noted at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, faith requires humility – the belief that God's purposes are not directly knowable to humans and that no single believer is in sole possession of the truth.
I take that as a kind of raison d’etre for the journalist’s calling: Fair and balanced reporting grows from the belief that there are many causes and points of view to an issue. Not all are equally valid, but most help readers understand how and why an event or issue developed the way it did.
But what if deep personal values – whether through organized religion or a secular moral philosophy – surface in ways that make them hard to ignore? Will readers have the context to understand how moral values underlie not just abortion politics but debates over the federal reserve and immigration if journalists call it ”just” religion and focus instead on the strategies and tactics that grow out of it?
Kayla Mueller, for example, took steep risks in the name of God to bear witness to the atrocities of war, yet readers know little of her particular Christian denomination. Students without a similar faith tradition might still be as outraged by the cruelties of war and displacement, but would they be as committed to act?
Across the Atlantic, we see the opposite emphasis in a stridently secular country like France, which separates church and state to the point that religion is no longer discussed in the public square and cultural traditions tied to faith are restricted. The backlash from practicing Muslims is not violent. But feelings of alienation and exclusion – only now just being discovered by the press -- challenge France’s founding ideals of liberty and equality and undermine national solidarity.
So even secular France is starting to have a conversation about not just religion in public life but how nonbelievers – secularists – set standards for the common good, then gain the moral motivation and sense of purpose to achieve it. The challenge for journalists now is not just to explain how the world works or doesn’t, but how people grow into the values that drive their worlds.
Public spaces for such conversations beyond church walls on Sunday mornings are few and far between. Few citizens are willing to get up in front of the city council and explain how their deep commitment to equality is rooted in the abolitionism of their Congregationalist forefathers. Or why their respect for a sacred space in the forest is more rooted in John Muir than Moses.
But values conversations are more important than ever as place-based communities give way to globalized corporations and anonymous online chat rooms. NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest program has tapped that hunger for a safe space in which to share beliefs that add meaning and purpose to lives at risk of being on autopilot. Other venues – even ones devoted to topics as humdrum as plastic bags – could do worse that start out by asking participants what virtues they value most or what is their vision of a good life and a good community.
Journalists need to be there when those questions are asked and answered. And they need to start asking questions on their own. There might not be another Kayla Mueller anytime soon. But when there is, readers deserve a better understanding of how religion and values are often central to the headlines and the stories that run below them.