It's none of your business

January 24, 1994|By Stan Lichtenstein

WHEN I broke (or fell) into journalism decades ago, no one asked about my religion, so far as I can recall.

It was different, some years earlier, when I was inducted into America's World War II Army. The military authorities were careful to ascertain my religious identity, if any, so that they could issue me the proper dogtags. I don't have them anymore, but I think my identifying symbol was "H" for Hebrew. The purpose, presumably, was to see that I got the appropriate last rites if I lay dying on some far-off battlefield.

That kind of "tagging" hardly seems necessary in the case of journalists, except possibly for crime and court reporters or war correspondents who face exceptional occupational risks.

In my first newspaper job I was a copy boy for the New York Times. The application blank I filled out for that exalted position is, like my Army dogtags, among the missing. If, however, the Times had required me to state my religion, it would have risked running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

Such niceties are beyond the grasp of today's crusaders of the religious right. Complaining of an alleged bias against them in the media and the arts, they have commissioned pollsters and consultants to search out the religious identities and devotional habits of editors, reporters and commentators.

These investigations are based upon the bizarre theory that religiosity -- as manifested in regular church-going -- makes for responsible and objective reporting. By the same token, news and editorial matter emanating from professionals who are less than religiously correct must automatically be considered suspect.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, laments that "few of our nation's journalists, professors and intellectuals can be found in the pews on any given Sunday." He doesn't mention Friday or Saturday, days of worship in other religions. At any rate, those who are absent from the pews are chided for being out of step with the "more than 100 million Americans" who, according to pollsters, "attend church every month and approximately 30 million [who] attend church four times a month or more."

Researchers Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter are engaging in a silly contest with rival researchers at Vanderbilt University's Freedom Forum First Amendment Center about the measurement of religiosity. The latter research group had found more piety among journalists than previously reported.

To me the only encouraging thing about all such surveys (on either side) is that half of the litmus-test targets decline to respond. Non-responders are saying, in effect, "None of your business!" They are right.

What the U.S. Constitution guarantees with respect to political functionaries -- that there shall be "no religious test for public office" -- should apply with equal force to journalistic office.

It is reasonable to expect that religious news specialists be well versed in their subject, but the accuracy and quality of their output is not necessarily correlated with their devotional regularity.

Can a church-going reporter cover a public meeting of the local society of militant atheists? Of course, if the reporter is honest and competent. Then why can't an unorthodox reporter competently monitor the activities of Catholics, Unitarians, Southern Baptists, the Nation of Islam, B'nai B'rith and other groups?

Here's a parallel question: Must every sports reporter be a jock? These specialists, naturally, are seen regularly in the sports "pews" -- in the press box -- but they are not necessarily at worship. In making comparisons of specialized media coverage in various fields, I mean no disrespect to any. When George Bernard Shaw remarked that he could not lay an egg but knew one when he saw one, he was not being hostile to chickens.

Paradoxically, I think I can make an important contribution to those who feel it vital to monitor the religiosity of journalists. Why not require all media job applicants to wear electronic bracelets like those used to keep tabs on freed criminals, paroled prisoners and others on probation or out on bail? The church-going of the bracelet-wearers could then be reliably and irrefutably recorded, and decisions on the hiring and firing of media people safely made.

I'm not patenting my proposed innovation, but I do want credit if it is put in use. Call it the Lichtenstein Religiometer.

Voters could use it, too, to keep tabs on ostentatiously pious politicians.

Stan Lichtenstein writes from Bethesda.

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