Mainstream Journalism’s Religion Problem

Now that Holy Week is behind us, it is worth reflecting on the “religious” views expressed by “mainstream journalism” over those few days. While not expressing it quite so crudely as the last Democratic president and his wanna-be successor—the press seem stumped by those “baskets of deplorables” who still “cling to guns or religion.” Take The New York Times, which still pretends to be America’s “newspaper of record,” and The Washington Post, whose viewpoints regularly “inform” the political brains of our nation’s capital.

The Times apparently felt a compulsive need to address the crescendo of religiosity connected with Holy Week. Columnist Margaret Renkl engaged in an apologia pro vita sua, explaining that although she was raised a Catholic and claims to have raised her children as regular Mass-goers, she last went to Church last Easter and planned to make some sentimental journey there today, but has generally given up on Mass because so many fellow congregants voted for Trump and supported repeal of Obamacare over its abortifacient mandate. I thought her reasoning represented progress: at least she doesn’t want to kneel alongside living Trump voters. That’s an improvement over some Virginia Episcopalians, who apparently suffer distress from kneeling where the now dead George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshipped. (In fairness, the names of Washington and Lee are now properly “stricken from every book and tablet, every pylon and obelisk,” and a couple of wall plaques in Alexandria.)

Renkl finds God in “the woods, where God always seemed more palpably present to me anyway,” rather than in “human institutions” like the “worldly church” that “are by definition, imperfect.” (Note her idea of the Church: a human institution.) Still, there’s no resisting the smells and bells: “We could have chosen another branch of Christianity, one whose secular framework more closely matched our own understanding of a church’s role in the world. But to a soul imprinted from birth on Roman Catholicism’s stained glass and incense and 2,000 years of art and music, all the other churches just seemed a little slight somehow. Not quite finished.” Although there are plenty of ecclesiastical versions of skim milk to pick from, Lenny Bruce was on to something when he joked that there is only one Church out there that people call “the Church.” When was the last time the Times felt a need to give space to a lapsed United Methodist?

For those in search of the “sounds of silence,” instead of directing readers to a place like St. John’s on 30th St. or St. Francis on 31st St.—churches in the center of Manhattan, steps from Penn Station and oases of quiet and sacramental peace—the Times sent us to “Sanctuaries of Silence” to learn about how a reader’s “baptism” was apparently about listening to a rainstorm. Oh course, since this is the Times, some of those Thoreau-like spots look rather trendy but, presumably like Thoreau who let others pay for his conscience, I guess we can search for the “poetics of space.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan (a.k.a. James Boylan) prefers to pursue the “agony of faith” at the Jersey Shore rather than in some sylvan glade, rainy or otherwise. Boylan does “not know if an actual person named Jesus rose from the dead. I hope that this is true, but I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” That’s hardly as important, though, as “the friend of my youth” who also happens to be willing to concede Boylan’s belief to being a “woman.”

Not to be outdone, The Washington Post reported March 26 that the Archdiocese of Washington was going to a federal circuit court of appeals in its suit against the Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority, which runs the capital’s bus lines, for banning religious-content advertising. The Archdiocese had wanted to run a series of ads inviting people to Church for Christmas, but the DC transportation gurus decided to exclude any religiously themed messages. Too bad—they could use a prayer to get the Metro to arrive on time. Just read the comments to the article to get a sense of the hypersensitivity to religion in the public square among those in the nation’s capital.

The piece de resistance at the Times was a two-fer on Easter Sunday. Eugenia Bone’s Easter reflection was—in contrast to the Paschal message—about the glories of decomposition. If Rankl finds God in the woods and Finney Boylan on beaches, Bone’s deity seems to be lysosomes, part of the structure of cells that begin the process of post-mortem rotting. “I admit, I myself am tempted to spiritualize decomposition. It kind of makes sense that God wouldn’t be one great huge entity, but actually billions and billions of microscopic ones. But I won’t go that far at the Easter festivities this year. The truth is, detritivores and decomposers are physical phenomena, mortal organisms like you and me. They may resurrect the essential ingredients of life, but they aren’t a miracle. They just feel like one.” Ashes and worms, once the stuff of memento mori, are now celebrated.

(This is why the growing tolerance of cremation among Catholics, primarily out of economic considerations, represents such a threat to the Christian vision of body, life and death. The Resurrection and the Assumption, which showed that God did not intend man to end as food for worms, grows increasingly unintelligible to generations ecologically sensitized to imagining themselves as stardust.)

Of course, the cat came out of the bag in the paper’s Easter feature piece, “Democrats are Christians, Too” Amy Sullivan can’t figure out why Christians who take their Christianity seriously are increasingly alienated from the party. Perhaps it has something to do with a party whose aspirants to highest leadership appear to disparage their “clinging” to “religion” while promoting “deplorable” views. (Of course, Sullivan wrote in 2008 that Democrats were on the verge of closing the “God gap” which, to this writer, still seems as wide as the Grand Canyon.) After all, Sullivan assures us that Barack Obama used to have Easter Breakfasts in which he talked about religion. You want to raise that pesky abortion issue? Well, as Sullivan tells us, “no one is pro-abortion. The crucial difference is not between those who view abortion as good and those who don’t, but between vastly different approaches to reducing abortion rates.” I might note that, for most Democrats, even Bill Clinton’s mantra of abortion “being safe, legal, and rare” lost the last qualifier, while party candidates dare not even question the unlimited license for abortion in the second and third trimesters.

The glory of Easter is that death has lost its sting in the birth of a culture of life. The purveyors of the culture of death, of infertility and sterility, remain baffled, however, about why death needs defanging. Which is why they celebrate the white crawly things under rocks in forests and decomposing fungi, deeming it a badge of courage to proclaim: “I’m in the odd position of being someone who loves detritivores, that is, things that eat the dead.”

(Photo credit: Adam Jones / Wikimedia)

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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