Finding The Line Between News And Religion

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Two weeks ago, the Payson Roundup ran an inspiring interview with a woman who won her battle with cancer.

Throughout the article, she made numerous references to the role of God and prayer in her recovery. She quoted Bible verses and spoke freely about her faith.

Years ago, any newspaper editor would have drawn a red pen through much of it. It would have been inappropriate to quote scripture in the middle of a "news" article.

But times are changing and newspapers are changing the way they approach religion.

Religion has started to appear in everything we cover from politics to education to legislation. In the past, the safest thing to do was write around religious references or edit them out all together.

These days, we are finally admitting that religion is as important, if not more so, to the daily lives of our readers as the referendum on November's ballot. In some cases, the two might be intertwined.

But as the Roundup and newspapers nationwide open our pages to religious ideas, we must also ask ourselves where to draw the line.

In a recent article published in the American Journalism Review, titled "The Media Get Religion," Dan Bradley, news director for the NBC affiliate station in Tampa-St. Petersburg made this observation, "You see more people participating in ... Bible studies ... than you'll find voting in a municipal election, but we cover elections like the second coming."

Given that perspective, should we be covering weekly services with the same vigilance we cover weekly town council meetings?

Hardly.

But it can no longer be ignored the way it has been in the past, because religion is less and less in the realm of the private life. It is increasingly political and increasingly public.

Politics are entering into religion and religion is entering into politics.

On June 23, PBS aired an interview by Bill Moyers with Salman Rushdie on the role religion plays in the modern world. Rushdie spent years in hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989, commanding Muslims to kill him on sight no matter where he was in the world as punishment for blasphemous things he wrote in the book, "The Satanic Verses."

The fatwa was lifted in 1998.

The idea Moyers and Rushdie kept returning to in their discussion was this concept of "political religion," which both agreed is a phenomenon of our times.

Religious beliefs from Islam to Christianity have changed over the years to include political debate. In Colorado Springs, Colo., Dr. James Dobson leads the group Focus on the Family. The organization is now focused as much on politics, local and nationwide, as it is on the tenets of the Christian faith.

Religion is as divisive as it is unifying.

It will take time for newspapers to find their footing in the space where we have always feared to tread.

Two weeks ago, we did not have to debate for long about including Bible references in the aforementioned cancer survival article, because we know that religion is important to many of our readers. Payson has more churches per capita than many communities. But what if the subject of our article had been from a non-Christian faith? Would we have quoted the Koran as freely? Would a Wiccan text have been as well-received?

The newspaper should never proselytize, but when religion is a significant part of the story, we should not turn away from it.

Religion shapes us -- for good or bad -- and we can no longer pretend it does not exist.

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