Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What is NOT "Religion" News?

Is Terrorism "religion" news?

By Terry Mattingly

The suicide bomber struck at a sandwich stand in the busy outdoor market of the Israeli coastal city called Hadera, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the blast, which came a month after Israel's September exit from Gaza. Israeli leaders quickly released a statement noting that this attack followed remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map."

The bomber was a Palestinian. News reports did not attempt to pin ethnic or religious labels on the victims.Are events such as this one "religion" news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers -- Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events "religion" news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

Nevertheless, it's hard not to ask these kinds of questions when reading the list of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 news events of 2005.

The overwhelming choices for the top two stories were the final decline and death of Pope John Paul II -- who mourners hailed as "John Paul the Great" -- and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The 100 religion-beat professionals who took part also selected John Paul II as religion newsmaker of the year, with 68 percent of the vote. The new pope placed second, with 21 percent.

News at the Vatican will always make headlines. The rest of the 2005 list included other familiar topics, from debates about evolution to euthanasia, from battles over homosexuality to unresolved church-state tensions among the justices -- current and future -- at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the top 10 included no events linked to terrorism, Iraq, Israel and the clash of cultures that has dominated the news in recent years.

This is news about religion, but is it "religion" news?

According to historian Martin Marty, America's best-known commentator on religion, it's time for journalists to ask a more disturbing question: "In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that IS NOT religion news?"

Here's the rest of the RNA list of the top 10 religion stories:

(1) The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II after his historic reign of 26-plus years. His courage in the face of death inspires many. Admirers call for his canonization and major networks broadcast mini-series about this life.

(2) The veteran Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top aide to John Paul II, is elected by the cardinals to succeed him as Benedict XVI. Catholic progressives are appalled, while other Vatican insiders watch for signs of what his papacy will bring.

(3) While demonstrators mourn, Terri Schiavo dies in a Florida nursing home after her feeding tube is removed. Politicians, clergy and family members debate her right to live or die.

(4) Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and a devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Many clergy ask: What role did God play in these disasters?

(5) Disputes about homosexuality continue to split the global Anglican Communion, as well as cause tensions among Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists and, in a dispute that finally went public, the American Baptists.

(6) Advocates of "intelligent design" continue to push for the right to question Darwinism in public schools, but suffer stinging defeats in Pennsylvania.

(7) U.S. Supreme Court approves posting of Ten Commandments outside the Texas state capitol and disapproves their posting inside Kentucky courthouses -- both by 5-4 votes. A federal judge reinstates a ban on "under God" in Pledge of Allegiance in three California school districts.

(8) Voices on the religious right and left question President Bush's three nominees to the Supreme Court, with some evangelicals supporting and some opposing born-again candidate Harriet Miers.

(9) Vatican releases long-awaited document on gay seminarians, barring from ordination those who are actively homosexual, have "deeply rooted" gay tendencies or oppose the church's teachings on the subject.

(10) Billy Graham holds a final evangelistic campaign in New York City.

--Terry Mattingly ( is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.


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