Religious correctness

September 07, 1994|By Genie Dickerson

IN THE SAME way that political correctness puts a damper on open talk about temporal subjects, religious correctness dampens spiritual discussion. A few bad apples muzzle the American public, including the media. Religious correctness works like this: First, a newspaper or magazine story may say, "The Counter Reformation of the 16th century remedied certain VTC abuses in the Roman Catholic Church."

Right away readers yell at the publication. A Protestant screams, "How dare you preach that the Catholic Church ever cured anything?"

A Catholic shouts, "Where do you get off claiming that the Catholic Church ever had abuses?"

Various readers say, "What hole did you crawl out of, pretending that Christianity was more important than our faith?"

Others chant, "Only a servant of the devil would credit mankind with self-improvement."

Religious correctness is the ideological bullying of innocent religious thinkers. Users deal in spiritual arrogance and name-calling. The religiously correct don't present facts or reasoning. They don't respect neutral positions.

The problem's not that their beliefs are extreme (or right or left) but that they treat people rudely, sometimes even violently. Their goal is to make the public climate for religious talk unsafe.

For decades they have been successful. After the Counter Reformation story, the hounded editor orders the reporter to cork it. The journalist then apologizes for offending readers. He also learns to keep the meat out of religion articles, when he can't avoid the topic entirely.

Aside from the press, most other Americans keep religion private, too. Nobody wants to push someone else's hot button. It used to be that religion and politics were considered impolite topics to introduce into social conversations. Today politics has moved across the tracks but religion still resides in the wrong part of town.

Yet according to a recent Gallup poll, 85 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them. Many of these believers express dissatisfaction with the media's scant coverage of religion.

In a conciliatory tone, the Seattle Times has urged its reporters to attend services in their favorite churches. This is a nice gesture but misses the point: Thousands of journalists are already deeply religious but subject to religious correctness.

"Religion and the News," a 1994 conference report by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, made several recommendations for the media and the churches in hopes of improving religion coverage. These steps are very small but better than nothing.

For instance, the report urged religion writers to become more knowledgeable about religion in order to cover the subject more accurately. Wrong facts have been the source of many #i complaints. It would help if religion reporters held degrees in history or religion.

Then, too, church people might do well to have handy a brief religious bibliography to hand out to reporters (or any interested persons). The literature should be widely available. Without personal pressure, the material should give accurate overviews of denominations and other religious topics.

The report also brought out that, with more than 1,500 denominations, sects and cults in this country, the media can't please everyone. Do many persons read pieces about religious groups other than their own? Maybe people aren't as interested in religion as they think they are, at least not in the subject of religion as a whole.

Discussion of religion should develop thinking, morality and good will. Courage should also spring from religious dialogue. People who want religion to come out of the closet are going to have to gather the courage to stand up to religious correctness. The goal is to make the public climate safe for a variety of religious expression.

Various groups are trying to prod the government into religious expression, believing we were founded as a Christian nation. But the founding fathers wanted to prevent just that -- the government leading us in religious expressions not natural to us. Until religious people of many faiths band together against religious correctness, we won't know the natural feelings of our fellow Americans.

Likewise the media can't be a religious leader. But all Americans, including the media, can play a part to make free religious expression safe. We all need to work together to give it a try.

Genie Dickerson writes from Baltimore.

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