JANUARY 26, 2004
Conflict and Consolation
Martin E. Marty
Devoted as Sightings authors are to the craft of religion newswriting, we know that there is inevitable distortion when religion-as-news as opposed to religion-in-features dominates. We also know that congregations, parishes, movements, and denominations at peace, or in their peaceful modes, are often under-noticed. Yet, we have to hypothesize, and can also observe, that most people participate in religious gatherings in order to find, among others: salvation, company, transcendence, hope, healing, peace, consolation, and inspiration. Despite this, news about religion paints a different picture.
When we look at the register of the top religion stories of 2003, conflict rules. Many religious and some secular news services provide "Top Ten" lists. We respect the Religion Newswriters Association's (RNA) collection of the top twenty-five for the year, since the RNA can pool the resources of those who engage in daily religious coverage in newspapers and weekly in magazines. On their list I find roughly three of the "peaceful" sort: Pope John Paul II's silver anniversary (6); a new ecumenical organization formed to promote Christian unity (18); the Latter-day Saints celebrate the 25th anniversary of their appointing blacks to the priesthood (22).
For the rest, let's notice the conflict aspects of what makes news: 1) Episcopalians fight over ordination of an openly gay bishop, and some threaten schism; 2) American churches fight over attitudes toward the Iraq war; 3) Massachusetts court decision about gay marriage induces church fights; 4) Justice Roy Moore provokes a fight over the Ten Commandments on public space in Alabama; 5) Catholics fought over churchly responses to clerical abuse instances; 7) fights in denominations over necessary budget-forced cutbacks were common; 8) Presbyterians fought each other over the gay issue in the clergy; 9) religious people fought over "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; 10) Missouri Synod Lutherans fought about who gets to pray where and when and with whom.
The list continues: 11) Southern Baptists fought about and then fired missionaries who would not sign on to their new creed; 12) faith-based charities provoked fights among the religious; 13) religious liberty advocates fought back against the Patriot Act; 14) church movements and bodies fought about the "partial-birth abortion" prohibitions; 15) fights among the frustrated Jews and Muslims over the blocks in the "road map" in Israel were heated; 15) (tie) new leadership appeared in fought-over groups such as Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, the Family Research Council, and the National Association of Evangelicals; 17) religious people fought about the Terri Schiavo "ending-of-life" issue in Florida; 19) Muslim-Hindu violence and other "tribal" fights far away produced repercussions at home; 20) Jews fought over surveys showing fewer people following Jewish teaching; 21) fights began early about Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie about Jesus; etc., etc., up to 28.
Since these lists were theoretically available or could be found on the web, why devote our weekly page to reviewing them? For the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph. Religious people and groups have to be busier and more visible about their positive business if they want publics to have understandings of what they are about, or think they are about. Most religion-in-the-news has to be a turn off in the eyes of seekers.
Can we see the word "fight" less often?