Wick Communications

Writing about religion

In Writing techniques on April 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm
Steve and Mary Gushee. Courtesy, Palm Beach Daily News

Steve and Mary Gushee. Courtesy, Palm Beach Daily News

There may be no more difficult topic to cover than religion. That is true for several reasons.

We care so very deeply. Our religious beliefs color so much of what we do and think. It’s hard to extricate our “rational” thought from our “religious” thought when we write about things that we ourselves may hold so very dear.

Others care equally deeply. And some of them think we are completely wrong about our religious beliefs. There are religious traditions that hold their own truth above all others. It’s difficult to respect those expectations and still be “objective.”

Some people don’t want to hear it. I count myself (mostly) in this camp. I don’t consider myself a heathen, but so much religion writing is partisan in ways I don’t find interesting. I, and I suspect others, tune out when the preaching starts.

Consequently, too often we leave it to the partisans. For most community newspapers, the religion page consists of a preacher’s column and little else.

I’m moved to write about this today because of the death of one man who did not shirk from the topic and did an amazing job of balancing his beliefs and the exigencies of newspaper reporting. Though I did not know him, Steve Gushee was a religion columnist at The Palm Beach Post when I was there. He died last week at the age of 76. …

Gushee was a deeply religious man. He graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass. He was a fellow of the Virginia Theological Seminary and associated with the St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was a director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. He led a congregation in Florida for three years before joining the Post. He wrote columns for 12 years. His religious bona fides were unimpeachable.

In print, Gushee would explain rather than preach. He sought to enlighten us about disparate religious traditions. He did it in a gentle way that made clear his wasn’t the only belief system. He always acknowledged the importance of religion. There is no denying that it deserves coverage in American newspapers.

Here is a snippet from his final column:

“This weekend, more people will worship God than do any other single activity outside the home. The faith they confess is arguably the most powerful force on Earth … The moral imperatives honed in churches, synagogues and mosques shape the country and profoundly influence the world. Reporting that activity, trying to discern the nature of religious practice, is a difficult task and a consummate joy … Reporting religion is a privilege not without hazards.”

If you read your own writing on religious topics and it sounds too preachy, perhaps you should take another approach. There are many other kinds of coverage under the umbrella of “religion” that we could all tackle:

  • Church news. New pastors, building funds, childcare initiatives and the like.
  • Nonprofit work. Include religious organizations in larger stories of charitable work in your community.
  • Real estate. How about a one-off story on the real estate holdings of churches in your town? Are churches growing or shrinking?

Don’t ignore religion. Just think about how you present it.

— Clay

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