Journalists don’t understand that the reality of believers isn’t just another opinion.
By Rod Dreher
This forum asks, “What frustrates you, as a religion writer, about the campaign journalism you read and absorb?” To start with, I’m not a religion writer, but a writer on culture and politics whose viewpoint is informed by his religious sense. I don’t see a lot of newspaper religion journalism that tells me all that much about the state of religious life in America today. For that, I go to the specialized publications, and blogs edited by smart people who know where to find these obscure but telling stories and commentaries. Newspaper religion journalism tends to be like newspaper political journalism: following trends more than explaining the fundamentals undergirding and driving the trends.
A friend of mine who’s a Ph.D. candidate in theology at a Catholic university has been going on privately in e-mails for two years now about his theory that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy because of the Islamic imago Dei, which, among other things, guarantees social instability absent authoritarian rule. Everything he said made sense to me, but I’ve seen absolutely nothing about this theory in the mainstream press, which has been obsessed with explaining why Islam is just like Judaism and Christianity, pretty much, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Now, almost three years after 9/11, somebody finally publishes an essay in a major intellectual magazine making this very same argument. It’s in a recent issue of Commentary. It’ll be months before the nation’s religion sections get around to noticing this, if they ever do.
One of the most urgent questions facing the world today is: “Can Islam be modernized?” — a question that contains within it, “Can Islam ever be compatible with modern forms of government?” This leads to other questions relating directly to religion and human nature, such as: “Are Americans, whose worldview was formed by the Enlightenment, deluded about human nature in ways that ancient religions are not?” And so forth. It is not an exaggeration to say that the survival of our civilization may well depend on the answers we find to these kinds of questions.
This forum asked: “Do you think that religion writers for our mainstream media have any idea how to go about finding the answers?” I don’t think the questions even occur to them. They’re too busy running off to capture the latest exotic flavor of America’s polymorphous religiosity, or bringing a political approach to the coverage of religious issues — I’m thinking of the Anglican church’s struggle over the place of homosexuality in the church’s life — that deserve a far more searching analysis than you’ll find in the daily papers.
End of rant.
So let’s assume for the sake of this exercise that the religion writer covering politics is a good religion writer. What that person will know first off is that the secular worldview is not normative. That is, the set of fundamental principles through which most journalists interpret the world do not necessarily apply to someone who is sincerely religious. Generally speaking, religious people deal in absolute truths, while politics is about the art of dealmaking and compromise. The religion reporter will know what his journalist colleagues probably don’t: that to the truly religious person, some things are not up for negotiation, because to the believer, they aren’t a matter of an opinion about reality, they are reality.
The philosopher Richard Weaver said that the basis for any culture is a shared “metaphysical dream,” which he defined as “an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification.” To the truly religious person, Reality is unthinkable without reference to the metaphysical dream given to him by his religion.
I think this is the main thing that journalists, who don’t even understand the idea of the metaphysical dream, though they too have one, lack when they try to report on religion — or for that matter, politics, culture, and anything that involves the world of ideas that motivate and inspire people.
A good religion writer will understand that there are very few pure materialists in the world of men, and he will try to interpret and explain the motivations of voters by asking himself what their metaphysical dream entails. A religion reporter on the campaign trail could learn more about a Bush or Kerry voter by asking general questions designed to get him to outline his metaphysical dream. Find out what’s fundamentally important to him, how he thinks the world works — then work your way into finding out why this or that candidate appeals to his sense of reality.
This requires time, patience, and a lot of skill. I remember when I was an undergraduate, and quite a Reagan-hater. I could not grasp why my working-class father and all his friends voted for Reagan. I wanted to argue policy and politics with my dad, and I’d get so frustrated by polls showing that on specific policies, voters preferred the Democratic position — yet still went for Reagan. I chose to explain this to myself (and to my readers when I began writing for the college paper) by saying that Reagan was exceptionally good at fooling people.
Of course, the truth is that Reagan, whatever his policies, shared their metaphysical dream. They trusted him to accurately reflect and interpret reality. They connected with him on an emotional level that was beyond my ability to understand, because I was more interested in arguing, and in framing the issue in ways that made sense to a liberal Democrat college student, instead of being patient and humble enough to ask: Why would churchgoing working-class white people, all registered Democrats living in a small Louisiana town, think a California Republican is the greatest president they’ve ever known?
Come to think of it, I’m wondering now if the inability of so many on the Right to understand why people liked Bill Clinton, despite it all, has to do with an impatience with understanding the other side’s metaphysical dream.
But it’s late, and I’m going home…
Rod Dreher is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.