“Journalism’s emphasis on what is provably factual — vote totals, stock prices, batting averages — left most reporters and editors leery of the ineffable, inchoate qualities of religion. To the degree that mainstream American journalism gradually rose to the task in later decades, it did so by erroneously trying to comprehend religion through the prism of politics.”
Nearly 40 years ago, I took my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter, covering four towns in central New Jersey for the local daily. Our paper circulated a modest 40,000 copies or so, and yet it exuded ambition. The staff included a pair of investigative muckrakers, a drama critic, health and education reporters, and sportswriters assigned to New York’s pro teams. The alumni of the humble Courier-News went on to places like The Washington Post, USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and, as you can see here, The New York Times.
One vast gap existed in our collective field of vision, however, and we hardly even recognized it. Nobody on the staff reported on religion. That coverage was farmed out to a prim, elderly freelancer, a sure sign of the topic’s unimportance. Her stories included the Easter or Christmas sermons of major representatives of the area’s clergy and the occasional feature about a beloved church organist.
During his 38 years as the religion editor of Newsweek — a span that ended in 2002 — Kenneth L. Woodward stood as one of the welcome exceptions to the clueless, self-congratulatory secularism of the Fourth Estate. He was virtually bioengineered for the assignment: born to an evangelical Christian father and a Roman Catholic mother, raised and educated in Catholic schools all the way through the University of Notre Dame. In his professional life, Woodward ventured outward from his home base in observant Catholicism to explore the fervent and expansive denominational landscape, balancing his believer’s reverence with a sharp journalist’s critical distance. He was and is an elegant, graceful and rigorous stylist. Catholic education could not ask for a better exemplar of why nuns and priests have spent so much time at parochial-school blackboards diagraming sentences.
Now Woodward, who has written earlier books on saints and on miracles in different religious traditions, has produced a volume that is clearly meant as a career valedictory. He certainly merits the opportunity, but it comes with decided risks. There is a certain kind of journalist’s book that I call the “empty-the-notebook book,” written by a correspondent leaving an exciting assignment. The highest achievements of the genre, such as Michael Herr’s trippy and gritty Vietnam War book “Dispatches,” outlast the temporal headlines by dint of literary élan and analytical incision. A great many other such books, though, are essentially collected clips.
“Getting Religion” lands somewhere between the extremes. Woodward lays out a thesis of sorts in his opening pages, stating his intention to chart two countervailing trends of American religion in the post-World War II years. One is a “narrative of institutional decline,” most vividly afflicting mainline Protestants, while the other is the “midcentury spiritual awakening” that included everything from evangelical Christianity to New Age seeking.
That premise is solid and defensible in Woodward’s hands. One of his finest insights concerns the role of religion in the civil rights movement. To the lasting discomfort of secular liberals, as he points out, the movement was inextricably Christian, albeit rooted in an African-American Christianity that drew heavily from the social justice prophets and Exodus narrative of the Hebrew Bible. But if religion was good for the movement, Woodward argues, the movement was not so good for religion. The civil rights crusade deepened the sense that institutional religion could save itself only by becoming attached to political and social causes.