In recent days the local press here have followed some stories that have been big religion news elsewhere, but we’ve got an interesting local story, too.  How “religion” is written into the news–and into social controversies–continues to intrigue in both surprising and unsurprising ways.

The non-local story is the so-called “ground zero mosque.”  Tom Friedman’s recent take on the issue in the Times puts it well.  This is a simple issue of religious freedom and pluralism.  Interpreting it as an affront simply because it is a mosque continues to blame Islam as a whole for the events of 9/11.  A spirit of tolerance on this issue is both the most “American” response (the most constitutional, among other things), it is also the moral high ground, a position we should always strive to occupy.

The way the press deal with the issue, though, belies some continuing confusion not only on these points, but also on the finer points of what Islam (and particularly American Islam) is.  The Denver Post’s David Harsanyi (and, yes, for the information of those of you on the coasts, we do have decent metropolitan papers out here in the hinterland, and the Post is one of the best) waxed eloquent on the issue this week.  Harsanyi is the Post’s libertarian columnist, and this led to a real struggle for him.  He very much wants to uphold the rights of any Americans to do anything they want, religiously.  On the other hand, he finds their desire to do so somehow “intolerant.”

In the midst of his ruminations on the issues, though, he reveals a fundamental lacuna in his thinking about religion in general (perhaps) and (at least) Islam in particular.  Quoting Khan Abdal Rauf  as noting that the reasoning behind the mosque is to promote the voices of moderate muslims, Harsanyi observes “We need more secularized Muslims.”  Rauf did not say “secularized,” he said “moderate.”  For many in the media, these mean the same thing.  To most Muslims, they do not.  And they would not mean the same thing to most Christians or Jews, either.

The “local” story is one that continues Colorado’s status as a hot-bed of religious motility and controversy.  Joining coach McCartney (of the “Promise Keepers”), Ted Haggard, and the others is the new Denver Broncos draft pick, Tim Tebow.  Tebow, readers may recall, was last seen playing quarterback for Florida with Bible verses on his under-eye paint, and appearing in a high-profile Super Bowl ad funded by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.  He is also a poster child for the home schooling movement, and a cause celebre in the Evangelical community.

His selection by the Broncos earlier this year led to a cavalcade of coverage and commentary.  It was fascinating to see the “secular” sports writers extol his “character” and “discipline,” seemingly code words for his strongly-held religious beliefs.  He’s developed a huge youth following this Summer during training camp, drawing–according to press accounts–many who were not football fans before.  How to describe his religiosity continues to be a problem for the press, though, who choose to talk about it in this double-coded language which seems to be intended to shield that private area of  his life.

But he’s not private about his beliefs, and neither are his fans nor his friends at Focus on the Family.

And none of this is lost on the general public, either.  Lest we forget that Denver is more like secular Seattle than it is like Baptist Dallas, there is now push back from readers and viewers who are finding even the veiled coverage of his religion to be too much.  In the Post again, Electa Draper wrote a piece on the backlash this week, which has stimulated a good deal of traffic (most of it sympathetic with the backlash) in the letters column and on the blogs.

Where and how we talk about religion in the so-called secular media continues to vex.