There are two institutions in most towns of any size in the U.S. that invite people in to voluntarily confess needs beyond their own understanding — houses of worship, and strip clubs.

Those who opt for the former often do so not just because God tells them to, but because an intangible desire for contact, for community, for revelation drives them to worship with others. Those who attend the latter are, obviously, seeking “revelation” as well. And by their very presence, they confess their hunger for — something. Sex? Probably. Lust, an impulse given free expression? Perhaps. Contact? Definitely.

The Revealer found itself thinking about churches and strip clubs, houses of worship and dark, seedy clubs of worship — that is, public places of vulnerability — because the other day we were in one with Jason DeRose, a reporter for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ, and a frequent contributor to NPR’s national programming. Jason is working on a piece about Killing the BuddhaThe Revealer‘s travelogue of religious America, and he wanted us to revisit one of the stops chronicled in the book — a rural strip club (or rather, as the local law dictated, a “bikini bar”) where we had encountered a gathering of prophets in pasties, a self-declared Calvinist in a silver leotard called Kennedy, and Dina, who thought herself descended from Marranos, the “hidden Jews” and claimed the gift of automatic scripture, rather convincingly at that.

But they were both gone, fired by management. He must have been a primitivist — he preferred creation in the raw to all that theology. So we found ourselves talking to “Beautiful Bailey.” She was a Catholic, she said, which had at first made for problems when she began dancing; but over time she’d reconciled her faith with her vocation.

Terrific, we thought, thinking that we’d found another great religion story, proof of our theory that religion is everywhere and that the Godbeat goes well beyond churches and conferences and schoolboards.

“How do you do it?” we asked Beautiful Bailey. BB shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “I make money.”

Sigh. As The Revealer wrote yesterday, sometimes the story finds you, sometimes it doesn’t. We gripe a lot about religion writers who fail to ask real questions about belief, but it’s not just journalists who’ve neglected to think things through.

Earlier that day, Jason had told us about a piece he’d done on the consecration of Gene Robinson, the openly gay, Episcopalian bishop. Jason asked a well-established Chicago priest for his reaction. Jason writes: “He said God was doing a ‘new thing’ with the election of Gene Robinson. I asked ‘What does it mean that God is doing a new thing?’ He just sort of sputtered for a couple of minutes saying ‘well maybe it’s not new but it certainly is different’ until I moved on to the next question. It was clear to me he’d heard someone somewhere use that language to discuss Gene Robinson and so just started using it himself. He really had no idea what he meant by it.”

The Revealer was reminded of this story today as we read a front page story from The Arizona Daily Star. The headline, “Bush Prayers Top 3 Million on OV Web” is confusing enough, but what really gets muddy are the responses gathered by reporter Stephanie Innes as she seeks to make sense of the “Presidential Prayer Team,” a mass movement dedicated to the notion that what the Bible really wants us to do is pray for the people in charge. God put them there, and He knows best. They say they’re nonpartisan, but their logo cites Psalm 33:12, a curious claim of chosenness from people who claim they just want to do God’s will, whatever it may be.

Innes take a good tack — instead of reporting the story as a he said/she said, spokesman-for vs. critic-against article, she seems determined to get something out of the faithful themselves, apparently asking several to provide insight into their calling. Their answers? Along the lines of “We’re just doing as God instructed.” Well, that shines some light on the matter. Hey — didn’t Osama say something similar?

Relax, evangelical defenders of the faith — The Revealer is not comparing the Presidential Prayer Team to Al Quaeda. Rather, we’re trying to suggest that if we really want a press that’s smarter about religion, we need to give it smarter responses. “God told me so” is a conversation closer, not much more thoughtful than “I dunno.” Of course, not everyone has the body or the soul to be a prophet in pasties, but then, we’re not called upon to know answers so much as we are to ask good questions ourselves. Not just religion writers, but all the rest of us who are the subjects of their stories about people looking for faith, finding it, losing it, dodging it, studying it, living it — whether in a mosque or online with 3 million presidential prayer warriors or dancing on a stage in our skivvies.