Ask a New York- or D.C.-based journalist what they know about evangelical Christians and you may well get an answer like, “They’re the ones who voted for Donald Trump.” The typical reporter tends to view society through a political lens and has little exposure to religion. Carl Cannon, Editor of the news website RealClearPolitics, acknowledges the problem. “I was practically born and raised in the news business, and know firsthand that newsrooms are exceedingly secular places,” he says. “But the people we cover—and our audiences—are steeped in religious faith of all kinds. So to accurately cover the political and civic life of this country, journalists need to know what’s going on in the spiritual life of their fellow Americans.”
Back in 1999 a fellow journalist, Michael Cromartie, who happened to be an evangelical Christian, decided to address the knowledge gap. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Christians believe the media is “unfriendly” toward religion. Cromartie sensed that secular journalists were more uninformed about religion than biased against it. Fact-checking colleagues often called him with questions about religion that revealed their unfamiliarity. For example, one asked him for the author and publisher of the book of Ephesians.
Cromartie rounded up sponsors for what would become known as the Faith Angle Forum. He organized a two-day retreat at a Florida resort for elite journalists to interact with scholars and prominent religious figures. His goal was not to convert anyone, rather to introduce journalists to people well known in the religious world but less so in the world of media. Over the years, these speakers included Tim Keller, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Miroslav Volf , Francis Collins, Andy Crouch, Richard Mouw, Os Guinness, Mark Noll, and Rick Warren.
When Rick Warren joined the gathering in 2005, David Brooks of the New York Times commented, “Although The Purpose Driven Life had already sold 25 million copies, I’m not sure many in the room had heard of him.” Some 200 journalists have taken part in the annual Forums, and the relaxed setting has produced memorable encounters. Many of the liveliest discussions—such as debates between the renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens and the columnist David Brooks—have occurred on the patio over appetizers or dessert.
Educating just one reporter about faith can in turn raise awareness in the broader public. In 2009 Dr. Francis Collins, an outspoken Christian who headed the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health, spoke about science and ended his presentation by pulling out his guitar and singing a worship song. Intrigued, a journalist at the Forum followed up by writing a profile on Collins in The New Yorker, emphasizing his harmonious commitment to both science and faith. Many other articles and feature stories have referenced speakers and conversations from a Faith Angle Forum.
Michael Cromartie died of cancer in 2017, but the Forums have continued, covering such topics as immigration, just-war theory, racism, the megachurch, and the evolution of the Christian Right. As a result, at least some media coverage on religion has become more nuanced and well-informed. (See this short video for an introduction to the Forum: https://bit.ly/PYintroFAF)
Last month I co-led a session at the Forum with my friend Pete Wehner, who writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. We were joined by Pete’s colleagues from those publications, as well as journalists from Time, Huffpost, Al Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, The Daily Beast, Axios, Comment, The Bulwark, and Christianity Today. Each of the three main sessions lasted almost three hours.
Jemar Tisby, author of How to Fight Racism, and Philip Gorski of Yale University led a discussion on “The Rise of Christian Nationalism.” We had all seen photos from the January 6, 2022 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, with the cross and American flag prominently displayed together, along with slogans like “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.” In the past few decades the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians has declined from 90 percent to 64 percent, which stirs up fear and alarm in some quarters. Tisby calculates that a third of the U.S. population supports some form of Christian nationalism or even white supremacy.
Two Muslim scholars, Mustafa Akyol and Dalia Mogahed, led a discussion on “Islam and American Pluralism.” Muslims represent only 1 percent of the U.S. population, and thus have no expectation of gaining much political power. I learned that most American Muslims view evangelical Christians positively, respecting their stance against a secular, materialistic culture. The reverse, however, is not true: evangelicals tend to view Muslims negatively.
Pete Wehner and I led the third session, on “Spiritual Formation in Turbulent Times.” All attendees received a copy of my memoir, Where the Light Fell, and I began by sketching out my life story. As I told the journalists, “I envision God looking at me and saying, ‘Well, Philip, you’ve seen the worst of the church, so let me show you some of the best.’”
I began my journalistic career in the Watergate era of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and at first aspired to be an investigative reporter shining a light on the charlatans in religion. Very quickly I learned that involved spending time with litigious jerks who bristled at any criticism. Instead, I began to seek out people I wanted to emulate and learn from. I profiled Dr. Paul Brand, who became my co-author on three books, and interviewed authors like Frederick Buechner and Henri Nouwen. In my travels I featured those on the front lines of ministry, such as Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission and Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. I found that healthy Christians, like healthy churches, often get overlooked by mainstream media.
The number of people with no religious affiliation, “the nones,” has been growing exponentially. Many millennials and GenXers who grew up in the church have gone on to de-construct or jettison their faith entirely. My own story adds a further stage. To borrow an analogy from Jesus, after surviving a toxic church I discovered a pearl of great price hidden in a field. In four decades of writing, I’ve been scrubbing off the accumulated dirt and grime on that pearl, in search of the “good news” at its core.
What do you say when you’re asked to speak in places of deep tragedy, like Columbine High School, and Newtown, Connecticut, or even Sarajevo?
We know about moral formation and character education. How is “spiritual formation” different?
What is your message for ex-vangelicals, those raised in the church but who have since left it?
What kept you from responding to a toxic church by walking away completely, as your brother did?
How has your recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease affected your life?
This video link (https://bit.ly/PYsessionFAF) presents the entire session that Pete Wehner and I led. I tell my story in the first half hour. Those interested in our responses to the journalists’ questions can keep listening to the interactions that followed. I left Miami grateful to the Faith Angle Forum for helping to sharpen how journalists understand and cover matters of faith.
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