(With apologies to Martha Nussbaum)
By Jason DeRose
In June of 2004, the Center for Religion and Media at New York University asked me to contribute to a forthcoming series of essays onThe Revealer. The project: The Revealer’s Campaign Coverage Forum. The assignment: discuss elements of the campaign that aren’t receiving adequate coverage or where mainstream coverage misses certain points that religion writers might have picked up.
The assignment gave me some difficulty. There seemed to be a number of religion stories coming out of the current presidential campaign: John Kerry’s Catholicism, the Catholic church’s use of communion as a political weapon; same-sex marriage. But all those were already being covered. Covered quite a lot. And the assignment was to discuss what wasn’t receiving adequate attention. Besides, I had given a related talk to the University of Chicago Divinity School a few months earlier and said just about everything I had to say about religion reporters covering politics. What new angle then, should this essay take?
While I was worrying about this problem one warm Sunday afternoon, I sat on my deck savoring the sweet smell of my rapidly spreading mint bushes and poking around in my laptop’s hard drive for a copy of what I’d said at the University of Chicago that spring. Perhaps I could revisit some of those ideas, I thought. But there, in the folder marked “Religion Reporting,” right below the outline for my earlier remarks, I noted a strange document. It was a manuscript of several pages. Its title was “Politics and the Religion Reporter: A Story.” I thought this a remarkable coincidence; I had just chosen this title for my submission to The Revealer. I refilled my iced tea, returned to my Adirondack chair and read the pages through.
It was a strange document: an odd hybrid of fiction and philosophy. But it was on my topic–a topic on which I couldn’t seem to think of anything new to say. I began to consider passing it off as my own and sending it to The Revealer. But I could not figure out who the author was. I strongly suspected that it was a religion reporter, one who worked in public radio. The setting is a real place: a back deck on a warm Sunday afternoon; I’ve been there. I thought immediately of the few other public radio reporters who cover religion: perhaps Barbara Bradley Hagerty in Washington, Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston, Monique Parsons here in Chicago. But it seemed to me unlikely this article could have been one of theirs. Their styles are different; and they have no interest in short stories. This author, I saw, had been to divinity school, was familiar with Luther and Augustine as well as Nussbaum and Sloane-Coffin. The author’s interests, in fact, lie very close to mine. What’s odder still is that this religion reporter introduces a sentence allegedly written by one of his characters (the one called he) a sentence I wrote and delivered a few months earlier at the Divinity School. The other character (the one called I) claims to have written my story on the play Sin: A Cardinal Deposed. Well, I thought, sitting in my Adirondack chair, whoever he is, if he can lift my words, I can lift his. So I decided to do just that for The Revealer.
On election night, in the fall of 2000, when not even Cokie Roberts knew who was going to be president, he found himself in a student lounge at a local university working on a report about election night reactions from first time voters for the local public radio station. He was also thinking about God. He had, earlier that year, finished divinity school and couldn’t figure out how those long, bleak years could possibly help his career as a reporter.
During the weeks and months leading up to this night, he had followed Dick Cheney and George W. Bush around Chicago’s suburbs. He had reported a rather oblique piece about the gay and lesbian vote. He had interviewed a high school senior who wasn’t old enough to vote but was working as a junior election judge at her local polling place. No stories about God on the campaign trail. Others more prominent that he had done the faith-based initiatives story already. Gore and Bush were so much alike on this topic, nothing truly interesting could have been wrestled from it anyway. And so he was consigned to covering college students and their politics, which seemed more heavily influenced by Monica than Marx. This was, he feared, the beginning of a long, dull career struggling to make anyone, any editor care about religion coverage. How could he sneak God or even just values into this election story?
He kept asking pointed questions of students whose mouths were stained Cheetoe-orange. What values were ultimately at stake in this election? What did compassionate in Compassionate Conservative mean? The only vaguely-related response one student gave was “I think there’s a moral imperative to vote.” Coming down on the side of democracy in America wasn’t going to put this guy on Morning Edition.
I have had so little time to divert my attention from clergy sex abuse and anti-Muslim sentiment, I have reported only one election-related story in the last year. I work in a public radio newsroom in a large city with a big Catholic population. This city is also quite diverse and has about 400,000 Muslims living within its borders and in its suburbs. How could I have time to report on politics when there are a dozen religious land use law suits in the region and the Cardinal is, frankly, an un-indicted co-conspirator. Diverting my attention from religious hatred and serial child-molestation seems a bad idea. I wanted this religion beat very badly. I had sacrificed a lot to get it.
The one election-related story I did cover comes as part of a compromise I reached with my news director. I cover religion, ethics and spirituality most of the time. But in the months leading up to a primary or general election, I cover political advertising. I often joke I cannot tell which involves covering more lies: religion or political ads. Back in the fall of 2002 during mid-term elections, I reported a series of pieces about political ads. They were straightforward truth-squading. Unremarkable. But something different happened in the piece I reported for the 2004 primaries. I didn’t pay attention to individual ads or candidates. I wanted to report on how bad political advertising was: Not bad from a truth standpoint; bad from an advertising standpoint. Ads in which candidates roll up their sleeves and shake hands are meaningless. It’s like selling Tide with Bleach with the slogan “Our detergent is a pretty pink color.” For this piece on political ads as advertising, I spoke with an ad executive from Baltimore who said, “The problem with these ads is that they fail to capture the imagination of the electorate. They’re all biography and stale image. I’m not seeing anything like ‘It’s Morning in America’ or ‘I believe in a place called hope.’”
I’ve carried this ad-exec’s words with me for the past months: capture the imagination of the electorate. And I remembered a conversation I had with a friend of mine. She and I were talking about why I covered religion and didn’t I find that difficult or oppressive when all the religion news was bad news. I rebutted: First, I’m glad religion news is on the front page these days instead of in the feature section on Saturdays, next to the gardening page. Second, most news is bad news, and reporters are used to it. That said, what I really loved reporting on were people who have well-developed religious imaginations. What a great phrase, she said. I told her it wasn’t mine.
By religious imagination, I mean an ability to deal with sacred texts–hymn and history, story and sermon, prophesy and poem. I also mean an ability to understand contemporary religious realities as part of that same, unfolding body of sacred texts: Religious institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless are living human documents imagining themselves into existence and being imagined into reality by institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless. I fear imagination in general is on the wane. The few children I know prefer the canned imagination of Disney or the laminated fantasy of Harry Potter to, say, a set of wooden blocks or a blank sheet of paper. By religious imagination I mean something like the play Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, which I covered for NPR. The play was a way of dealing with a real issue (clergy sex abuse) through literature and performance.
I wondered if either of the U.S. Senate candidates from my state would capture the imagination of the electorate. And I wondered if either would do so through the use of religion.
He sees the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in his state just had his divorce records unsealed. The candidate apparently forced his ex-wife, the actress Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager) to visit sex club with him in New York, Paris and New Orleans. His hope of capturing the religious imagination of the electorate fades. The prurient imagination-the American way-prevails.
The (Imaginary) Present Progressive
A candidate of integrity and intellect is capturing the religious imagination of the electorate. This imagination is not pandering to prejudice or fear. It’s forward-looking toward loving-kindness. This imagination is fostering lively debate and is coming down firmly on the side of human rights. It’s concerning itself with issues of gender, justice and pluralism. This imagination is cultivating compassion throughout the nation. It’s speaking truth to powerful and giving voice to the voiceless–understanding that words are powerful. This religious imagination is humming the Magnificat while volunteering in a homeless shelter and swaying like a blade of grass to the Adon Olam while proposing legislation that would fund education for every child and care for the nation’s poor. It’s teaching hospitality through example. This imagination is dwelling in possibility–the politics of possibility. It’s speaking with the clarity of the Gospel and the call to prayer. This imagination is emancipating and transforming. It’s seeking the poetics of justice. This imagination is understanding the fragility of goodness. It’s crawling to bed exhausted from a day of hard, meaningful work. And this religious imagination is awaking hopeful. This candidate of integrity and intellect is inspiring the electorate to believe that if we can imagine it, we can become it.
Jason DeRose is a news correspondent for Chicago Public Radio. He reports on a wide variety of cultural issues with a particular emphasis on religion, ethics, and spirituality. His reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Eight Forty-Eight.