September 20, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Sightings editor Elizabeth Alvarez consulted with Professor Wendy Doniger, director of the Martin Marty Center, our host, and myself, Sightings' Monday guest, about editorial topics and tone between now and November 2. The conversation provides me an occasion to train sights on how things work here and what we consider ourselves to be about.
Sightings was born of concerns in the former Public Religion Project and the Marty Center, which is also devoted to "public religion." These interests led us to spy, discover, monitor, appraise, and hold up for interpretation the places religion-faith-spirituality show up in a culture often described as secular and certainly pluralistic. Not many years ago, people in our business of writing history or "doing" reporting or sociology of religion were given to remarking how invisible religion was in North America. The people told poll-takers they were religious, but leaders in world affairs, the media, the academy, and the business community took no notice. So we did Sightings.
In a few years, the scene has changed drastically, and we never lack topics. At this moment there is an oversupply, most of it devoted to presidential and other campaign emphases. How do we handle that? Passionately political though I may be, I have not commented on presidential-type politics as often as many say they expected I would, or as I am tempted to. Should we speak about it more? Ms. Alvarez says that the backlog of Thursday Sightings submissions is heavy on presidential campaign comment, which is so visible, so open to analysis, and so vulnerable to criticism. Where does covering it fit into our overall design? A few points:
First, "public" religion is not the same as "political" religion; they relate as genus to species. Public includes media, academy, market, mall, stage, and folkways. We are always looking to the larger culture, not just politics.
Second, the campaign and religion in it are amply covered elsewhere. The candidates and their backers see to it that religion is a hot topic, and the media devour it. We don't want to contribute to overkill.
Next, we conceive of Sightings less as ideological editorializing and more as a place to "frame" issues, present perspectives, and serve as (my ideal here) Ortega's "civic pedagogy," not because we are so smart that we can teach, but because the teachers are co-learners. Civic pedagogy can be obscured by overdoing ideology.
Fourth, if the M.E.M. columns on Mondays are rather restrained (though not necessarily "fair and balanced"), we hope you'll allow our Thursday people -- faculty members, graduate students, and subscribers with expertise -- to swing a bit more wildly if they wish. They don't speak for anyone but themselves (though, not too sneakily, we often applaud them).
Finally, predictable journalism, if Sightings is somehow journalism, can't overdo predictable themes and approaches. Having said all that, if, or while, we hold our tongues and restrain our word-processors, do know that we'll be very happy if you vote for the people you think we want you to vote for. And we look forward to the days and months after November 2, when mass media will dwell on more topics than one.
Note: Last week I wanted to mention Daniel Pipes ("Learning from Tariq Ramadan," September 13), but thoughtlessly cited his father Richard Pipes, a fellow Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He must have mentally blocked Daniel's name as I wrote.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.