When the press doesn’t talk about religion

Pew on religion and the PresidentSo 18% of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. 34% think he’s a Christian and 43% aren’t sure what he believes. The data comes from a Pew study of religion and politics and underscores, I think, the remarkable and judgmental ignorance of the American public. The study notes that it is political opponents who skew the results, but that doesn’t explain the 43% who say they “don’t know.” This is not just tragic; it’s damning evidence of the how religion has been virtually eliminated from mainstream discussions of leadership at all levels.

I’ve been associated with studies of religion for a very long time. In 1988, I led a month-long study of religion in the Tennessee Valley for WDEF-TV in Chattanooga. The project, in conjunction with the Chattanooga Times, was extremely well-received by the public, and I’ve often thought that it’s the most overlooked news “beat” in the country, especially in the South. The truth is that journalists are uncomfortable talking about religion, because it’s complicated, polarizing and easy to make a mistake. It has the potential to really make the uninformed look like an idiot, too, and what reporter wants that? Nevertheless, 92% of Americans profess a belief in God, so it’s clearly relevant to the audience.

It’s this unwillingness to talk about spiritual matters in everyday life that leads to the data from Pew. If the press doesn’t talk about it, the only source of information is peer groups, and the kind of echo-chamber nonsense of groups like certain factions of the Tea Party.

I should mention that the Chattanooga religion project DOUBLED our ratings in one month, so the interest level is there. The subject just needs to be treated respectfully.

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