From time to time someone makes a statement that so encapsulates the heart of an issue so well that you cannot overstate its magnitude.
One such statement was made in early December by New York Times Executive Editor, Dean Baquet. In an interview with NPR, Baquet discussed the then recent election of Donald Trump and commented on the role of religion in American life. Then he said, “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”
On the one hand, we can admire a man in Mr. Baquet’s position admitting this shortcoming in his own publication. On the other hand, we must step back and marvel at the rapidity with which expectations of a basic knowledge of religious beliefs has fled the nation’s elite publishing companies.
To put the disparity in terms of American demographics, the religiously unaffiliated comprise roughly 22.8% of the American population while those identifying with Christianity stands at about 70.6%. When you expand the pool to all religions, 77% of Americans identify with a religious group and among those 77% said that their religion was at least somewhat important to them. These numbers point to a majority of Americans, just shy of 60%, who say their faith is important to them and whose religious convictions shape their worldview and actions.
At least part of this can be explained by the climate in which the New York Times finds itself. In the state of New York 60% identify with Christianity, Catholics making up the majority of that number with 31% (we can probably assume that those numbers are lower in New York City). But in New York, only 29% say that they attend a religious service at least once a week compared to 36% who say they attend seldom or never.
So, the New York Times doesn’t understand religion. More accurately, they don’t understand the role that religious conviction plays in peoples’ lives. But we must own our part in this.
Every time someone claims they can separate their private and public opinions on issues of religious importance they add to the confusion. You can’t claim that your religion is important on the one hand and then say that it doesn’t impact the way that you think and act in issues of public concern on the other. The classic example is that of Mario Cuomo’s distinction between his convictions as a Catholic and as a Governor, saying that he must put aside his Catholic faith to support abortion. In reality, he said that his religious convictions could have no bearing on his public role as governor.
What should Christians do in light of a media that doesn’t, and may be incapable of, understanding us? The same thing we should have been doing all along, clearly articulating the faith and how it informs and shapes our public lives. We are encountering an entire group of people who cannot fathom how a theological truth claim could possibly have any bearing on a situation. Our task is not to react in anger, but to explain the role of religion faithfully until people like Mr. Baquet can say, “we get religion.”