God and the New York Times

Anyone for whom religion is more than a matter of “lifestyle” must regard the coverage afforded to religion by the New York Times with grave dismay. It is no secret—indeed, it has become notorious—that the Times has in recent years introduced a strong element of political correctness into its coverage of culture and even the news. Gone are the days when journalistic objectivity was an ideal aimed at or even paid homage to. Gone, too, are the days when serious things—mainstream religion, high culture, and affairs of state (how much the Clinton administration has changed the meaning of that phrase!)—were treated with the seriousness and dignity they deserve.

To say that its treatment of such matters is superficial would be a calumny on superficiality. Neither are we dealing with simple obtuseness or stupidity here. There is a reason that the quality of the Times’s cultural coverage, for example, has taken a nose dive in recent years. In order to accommodate the imperatives of its editorial policy, virtually every section of the Times has been subordinated to the liberal agenda it has embraced. Knowledgeable, independent judgment is out; a bland but ultimately toxic political correctness is in. Now more than ever, the Times brings its readers all the news that fits its agenda. And that agenda is essentially an updated version of the radical-chic agenda of the ’60s: the same old narcissism, but writ large and fitted out these days with the latest accouterments of yuppie self-satisfaction. That means “yes” to sexual libertinage, so-called “affirmative action” (aka, preferential treatment for approved groups) and big government, “no” to high cultural and educational standards (too “elitist”), local political control (too “right-wing”), and above all to traditional morality and religion (too “authoritarian”).

The Times’s animus to traditional religion and morality exhibits itself in many ways. Partly, it is a matter of tone and rhetoric. Serious Christians of almost any variety are regularly described as “fundamentalist,” a code word meaning “right-wing kook who needn’t be taken seriously except possibly as a threat to public order.” It follows that the Times abhors white southern Bible-belt Protestants (for one thing, to be white and southern for the Times is automatically to be suspected of racism). But the paper saves its greatest animus for the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics are not exotic enough to qualify for a dispensation on grounds of political correctness, and especially under the leadership of the current pope there are all too many signs that many Catholics are again taking some fundamental teachings of the Church seriously—a situation that our Paper of Politically Correct Record regards with a mixture of incredulity, panic, and disgust.

The Times’s treatment of John Paul II has vacillated between sullen wariness and outright hostility. The wariness generally triumphs when the issue concerns social justice or the poor; but carve up one of the Times’s sacred cows—homosexuality, abortion, the ordination of women—and the hostility immediately takes over. Thus the pope’s recent visit to Cuba was perfect for the Times. Never mind that coverage of the visit was relegated to the B list as soon as the much more important story of alleged oral sex in the White House broke. The juxtaposition of John Paul and Fidel Castro provided the Times with an opportunity to describe them both as “revolutionaries,” thus skipping over the inconvenient fact that Castro is a brutal totalitarian dictator who has oppressed his people for four decades, while the pope is one of the great moral and spiritual leaders of the century. Details like that do not discommode the Times. “Revolutionary” is a high term of praise in the paper’s lexicon, and it certainly wasn’t going to let this rare chance of describing a Marxist thug and the pope as “revolutionaries” in the same breath pass it by.

The Times’s coverage of the pope in Cuba was mostly fatuous, but it gave readers a fair introduction to how the paper deals with religion—if at all possible, by changing the subject. The best recent summary, however, of how the Times regards religion appeared on December 7, 1997, when the paper’s Sunday magazine favored its readers with a special issue on religion. Elsewhere, the media were full of recollections about the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the event, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, that made December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” For its part, the Times gave us “God Decentralized,” a miscellany of a dozen or so short articles by divers hands on subjects ranging from the problems of interfaith marriages, young American Muslim girls who wear nose rings and baggy jeans, and the monthly meetings of the Freethought Association in Talladega, Alabama, where “devout atheists gather for their Sunday social.”

Interleaved among these articles and the usual advertisements for Clinique makeup, Lexus automobiles, and jewelry from Tiffany’s were a handful of brief interviews—with Donna Rice Hughes, for example, who flickered momentarily into public consciousness when her relationship with Gary Hart became public and spoiled his aspirations for the presidency, and who now campaigns against pornography; or with Gail Turley Houston, the Mormon feminist who believes that God is half-female and who was denied tenure at Brigham Young University for “publicly contradicting fundamental church doctrine.” Max Frankel, the paper’s former executive editor, devoted his column to explaining that American press is too “pious” in its treatment of religious matters. “All too often,” he wrote, “what passes for religious coverage is a ritual celebration of papal tours or holy ceremonies.”

It was unfortunate, I thought, that Frankel had neglected to read the consistently anti-Catholic coverage dispensed by the Times—especially its treatment of the pope. But perhaps Frankel was following the advice that the British comic writer Stephen Potter once gave to people who want to appear intellectual. Whatever author comes up for discussion, Potter advised in his book Lifemanship, find out what quality he is most famous for and then blame him for not having enough of it. About D. H. Lawrence, for example, the aspiring “Lifeman” delivers himself of the opinion that “the one thing lacking, of course, from D. H. Lawrence’s novels was the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life.” Potter would doubtless have regarded Frankel as a natural-born “Lifeman.”

Other items were similarly edifying. The weekly food column was titled “Our Daily Bread” and was given over to soup and bread recipes with names like “St. Genevieve’s Soup” and “Brother Juniper’s Roasted Three-Seed Bread.” (“In the simple act of baking,” a caption informs us, “we can experience grace.”) Finally, the magazine’s Endpaper canvassed a dozen celebrities from Geraldo Rivera to Mario Cuomo about their views on the afterlife.

What the Times had given its readers, in other words, was the journalistic equivalent of Disneyland—a sort of verbal theme park in which claims of spirituality replaced Tinkerbell. It is not that every article was an exercise in fatuousness. Here and there were touches of genuine pathos—in “Alone in a Lofty Place,” for example, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s spare, moving meditation on illness and faith. But the overall effect of this melange was to induce that sense of nausea that comes whenever a serious subject is treated with the utmost triviality.

Part of the problem was the indiscriminate, all-religions-are-equal approach that the Times habitually insists on adopting when it comes to spiritual matters. Across the page from Harrison’s piece, for example, was a description of “The Unarius Academy of Science,” “a U.F.O.-oriented New Age group” that gathers annually at El Cajon, California (where else but California?), “to herald the future arrival of ‘space brothers.” Elsewhere in the issue we learned about the woman who became a minister after having a religious experience at “Womanquest, a Unitarian Universalist gathering on Lake Geneva,” under the influence of “Starhawk, a leader of the feminist spirituality movement who had brought [a group] to the woods to participate in a spiral dance.” Then there was “The Calibration of Belief,” an essay about faith healers who conducted a study of the effects of prayer on people suffering from arthritis. After an initial prayer treatment for everyone, the group was divided in two, with half receiving “booster doses of long-distance prayer, without their knowledge, every day for six months.” Or the Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, where toddlers sing, to the tune of Frere Jacques, “I am special, I am special. Look at me. Look at me.” And so on.

The two-sentence caption on the cover of this special issue of the Times magazine said a great deal about its contents. “Americans are still among the most religious people on the planet,” the editors informed us. “But these days, they’re busy inventing unorthodox ways to get where they’re going.” About the first sentence: Ever since Tocqueville, we have been told that America is an unusually religious nation. Perhaps that was true in the 1830s. But today? In a page of statistics about the state of religion today, the Times assures its readers that 96% of Americans surveyed affirm a belief in God. But at a time when such a belief can mean little more than anticipation of meeting alien “space brothers” such statistics signify very little. Ninety-six percent of Americans say they believe in God, but the “big question,” as the title of the novelist Benjamin Cheever’s column puts it, might turn out to be “God or BMW.”

Then there is the second sentence, about “inventing unorthodox ways” of practicing religion. “Unorthodox” is a recurrent word in this special issue—partly, no doubt, because spiral dances in the woods by Lake Geneva make for colorful copy. But the more important reason is that on all moral and religious matters the Times long ago declared itself an enemy of orthodoxy. Hence when it endeavors to cast a friendly eye on religion it winds up producing a carnival of psychobabble in which genuine religious feeling is indistinguishable from the most flagrant forms of pseudospirituality. Indeed, that conceptual muddle is precisely the point. For the Times, religion can go unchallenged only if (as one caption puts it) faith is an “option,” an innocuous item in that great consumer smorgasbord that includes expensive shoes, exquisite chocolates, and churches in the Ozarks where real-estate entrepreneurs dispense enlightenment along with mortgages and bedizen their chapel altars with the Star of David as well as images of Jesus, Shiva, Vishnu, and John F. Kennedy. We do not doubt that editors at the Times intended to produce a thoughtful reflection on religious diversity in contemporary America. What they have given us with “God Decentralized,” however, is a grotesque parody in which religion emerges as little more than a matter of lifestyle, the latest form of equal-opportunity kitsch.

G. K. Chesterton once observed, “Of all horrible religions, the most horrible is the worship of the god within. . . . That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” In its obtuse treatment of religion in this special issue of its Sunday magazine, the Times once again betrays its eagerness to keep up with the Joneses. It is, alas, a lowly, disreputable place to be.

  • Roger Kimball

    Roger Kimball is a contributing editor at Crisis. He is editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.

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