A farewell, but not to religion

Published Aug. 13, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

It has been nearly four years since I became religion editor of the Times, and in that period I've seen a remarkable change in the way matters of morality, spirituality and faith are treated in public discourse.

More and more, it seems, thought leaders and policy makers are beginning to countenance religion as a basic force in personal and public life, one to be taken every bit as seriously as politics, psychology and science.

I have enjoyed writing about this trend for the Times, and now it is with anticipation that I leave the newspaper to pursue religion journalism in another venue: at the Washington-based Religious News Service.

I will become news editor of RNS, in charge of the day-to-day news operation of the 60-year-old service. Acquired recently by Newhouse News Service, RNS serves 20-million readers of more than 50 major metropolitan newspapers, including the Times. Its clients also include several major broadcast outlets and some 200 religious publications.

I will miss the bay area and Florida _ I have spent 13 years here, first as a business journalist and then as religion editor. At the same time, I look forward to the challenges and opportunities of my new job, helping RNS fill a growing demand for high-quality news and commentary on religion and ethics.

As such issues as abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, fundamentalism and religious pluralism continue to punctuate the news, the nation's media seem _ slowly _ to be paying more attention to the moral and ethical dimension of these stories.

Meanwhile, America displays an overwhelming frustration with the moral drift of its institutions and culture, and smart news executives are recognizing their mandate to report on those issues as they relate to religion, ethics and morality.

Of course, recognizing that mandate and doing a capable job of fulfilling it can be two different things. Many small news outlets _ and, unfortunately, even some big ones _ don't have full-time journalists covering religion and ethics. Other news organizations are bewildered by the language of religion and morality, uncertain how to transcribe spiritual imagery into the lexicon of newsprint and airwaves.

As I contemplate my future, I also am looking back on the experiences I've had as religion editor.

A few have been sadly eye-opening: In letters and phone calls, I've occasionally run up against readers who are filled with hate and arrogance toward people who don't believe as they do. I've never been at a loss for mail from "Christians" who are only too ready to bash gays and atheists, Jews and Catholics, single mothers and liberal Democrats.

But for the most part, my time as religion editor has been among the most gratifying of my journalism career.

Early on, I spent a day following Bishop Desmond Tutu around Stetson University in DeLand. The man is media-savvy and well-rehearsed, but he exudes a moral authority that, by and large, is lacking in our own country. Bishop Tutu showed it yet again this spring as his native South Africa held its first all-race elections.

In early 1993, I went to Bosnia-Herzegovina with a group from Clearwater, a spiritual and relief mission that gave me a small glimpse of the ravages of war in that region.

The trip left many impressions, but my most enduring memory is of a Muslim man I interviewed late one afternoon at a remote farmhouse. He had taken refuge there with his family after he'd been imprisoned and beaten by the Serbs.

"I have not been guilty of anything," he told me, a tone of disbelief in his voice.

The man's comment brought me back to an interview I'd had a month or so before I left for Bosnia-Herzegovina. I'd sat at a table in the Don CeSar hotel on St. Pete Beach one quiet Sunday morning with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor. For an hour we talked alone, he with eloquence and passion about the hatred and prejudice that still festers in the world.

"We are lagging behind in morality," he had quietly said. "We know outer space, but we don't know what is happening in the human heart. We know the dark side of the moon, but we don't know the needs of our neighbor."

Wiesel's comment, it seems to me, defines our common quest, mine as a journalist, all of ours as citizens: to illuminate our world and to know the needs of our neighbor.