I continue to be disappointed in NPR’s coverage of religion.  The network that should be a national flagship for serious journalism consistently whiffs the “big ones.”  This morning (August 22) it was Don Gonyea’s turn, covering the erupting story of public misperceptions of President Obama’s faith.  Typical of NPR, unfortunately, it was a re-hash of the bloody obvious.

Kennedy struggled with the charge he was a “Papist.”  Johnson’s membership in the Disciples of Christ was uncontroversial–according to Gonyea (was it, Don?  Wasn’t it an issue, in Texas, that he wasn’t Methodist or Baptist?), Nixon was a Quaker (Gonyea completely glossing the huge problem for a Quaker to be a “hawk”), Ford was an Episcopalian, as was Bush I.

The key comparisons for the present case,  in my view, are Reagan and Bush II.   Gonyea brushed past Reagan with a note that he was “Presbyterian” (entirely news to me, but who knows?)    The point Gonyea missed is that with Reagan we DIDN’T know because he didn’t show at all, did very little that was overtly religious, and yet is still vaunted by the religious right as a champion of their causes.  That fact is very pertinent in trying to understand the present case.

Gonyea took the easy way out by comparing Obama to Bush II (brushing over Carter and Clinton and inaccurately suggesting that Carter was unequivocally the most overtly religious president in recent years–ignoring that Clinton was actually a close second and a tie with Bush, in my view–he just wasn’t an “Born-Again Christian” so for the inside-the-beltway thinking of NPR, he didn’t measure up on that exotic “religion thing” scale).  Bush gets credit for his “Jesus is my favorite philosopher” statement, and then his frequent evocations of warmed-over born-again rhetoric.

Gonyea then completely failed to even mention Obama’s own denominational affiliation in his list of the Presidents (United Church of  Christ), choosing instead to recount the bromides about how he’s privately religious, etc.  The whole question of equivalence between these various faith positions, etc., what expression means, how it is heard and seen by various audiences and constituencies, those are the real questions.

The story then ended with some predictable and oft-repeated things about how you have to be public about your religion for it to be noticed, etc.

Well, it would help if the media–particularly the elite media–tried a little harder to get into some of the nuances that would actually help understanding.

Later on this morning’s Weekend Edition, there was an interview with Liza Griswold about her new book on Christianity and Islam.  That was full of nuance, and stressed Griswold’s point that conflict between Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel are usually about things other than religion, with religion introducing a potent and powerful frame.

That is a good point.  There is an obvious danger to such nuance, though.  Those who are temperamentally allergic to thinking about religion are prone to miss the nuance and to underplay or even ignore the religion in these cases.  The result is reports like Gonyea’s which differentiate and isolate religion as a set of impulses and statements and actions that have no logical foundation or bearing in politics, power, economics, or history.  Religion “floats free,” and the result is coverage that would be thought nonsensical and incompetent were it about anything else.