September 22, 1999
-- Martin E. Marty
Counting may not be the most exciting thing we do, and reading about counting may not give receivers of "Sightings" much to develop into editorials, talk-show topics, or lecture and sermon illustrations. But keeping track of news everywhere goes with the job, and it informs our venture if now and then we report on statistical reckonings. To the point:
For exactly one month after the Fourth of July, we monitored and clipped--made confetti of, really--all stories dealing explicitly with religion and religiously named groups and incidents in the very secular NEW YORK TIMES. This was done as background to a report for an executives' meeting in Toronto; they wanted a sense of happenings on the global scene. We don't usually do globes, either. But, here goes:
Kashmir, with Hindu-Muslim war, rated twelve stories, and China's pursuit of the Falun Gong spiritual movement garnered eleven full-length mentions. Tied with eight each were stories about the Serbian Orthodox Church wrestling with the current government, Iranian protests testing the Islamic fundamentalist government, and the Northern Ireland Protestant-Catholic crisis. Seven stories reported Israel's new leadership adjusting to life with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. There were three news stories about Algerian Muslims, two British and two South African news accounts, and one each from twenty-one other nations.
Clearly, religion is surging around our post-secular globe, and much of it is violent. Of course, it is conflict and not stability or serenity that makes news, so the reporting is by definition a distortion, and when we get close to home, more sides of religion come out. THE NEW YORK TIMES had fifty stories outside its Arts sections on religion in the United States. While numbers of these had to do with the World Church of the Creator and killings by a member, there were numerous stories with tender references to Catholic rites after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.
Let us just jumble together proper nouns from other stories to indicate scope: Woodlands United Methodist Church; the United Church of Christ; theologians comment on embryo research; the Reverend Jesse Jackson as spiritual adviser; Representative Gephardt bows to pressure and replaces a Muslim appointee with a Christian one; religion and millennial fears; House vote on religious freedom "trivializes religion" editorial; candidates Gore and Bush say more on "faith-based" welfare and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb editorializes in favor of it; witches; angels; alternative spirituality; prayer by victims of insurance fraud; and dozens more. There were also twenty-one "spirituality" and "religious" art stories. Yes, we are secular. And we are religious, too.