Separation of church and state is a bedrock of the US Constitution. And perhaps because of it, many religions have thrived in the country and contribute to discussions in the public square. Most recently, the May 2nd leak of a draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the land, perfectly illustrates the mix of law, politics and religion.
Though a prime example, it happened days after I attended a one-hour webinar sponsored by Harvard Divinity School titled “Leading Toward Justice: Intersections of Religion, Ethics and Journalism.”
The overall intent of the webinar was that HDS prepares its students to navigate through the thicket of conflict when an issue like abortion or violence toward a minority community or white supremacy surfaces. But more than preparation, it asserts the need to explore religion for a deeper and more accurate analysis of the problem and help readers and viewers see it more clearly.
Featured in the webinar were three HDS alums who enrolled in the school’s doctoral program and wound up forgoing that dream and eventually going into — of all professions — journalism. While that might seem novel, it actually reflects the evolution of one of the foremost theological schools in the world. Founded over 250 years ago to train prospective Christian ministers, HDS has evolved into a place for the advanced study of religion as a research hub, embracing all the world religions and preparing students to tackle non-traditional professions.
The newest direction is its Religion and Public Life program, founded in 2020.
Webinar moderator Susie O. Hayward was a fellow in this program and is now associate director of the school’s Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative. Its mission, she said, is to “work with experienced professionals to advance religious literacy across these key arenas.”
All three guests now work in media and reflect how their religious studies at HDS prepared them for mining religions “to advance the public understanding of religion for the service of justice and peace.”
This is a prime mission for Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, an NBC deputy editor based in the Bay area of California who has covered the major, disturbing, ongoing story of prejudice and violence toward Asians based simply on physical attributes.
Last Thursday, a man allegedly shot three Korean women working in a hair salon in Dallas and fled. While this makes news, Kandil said, “I don’t think a lot of people have looked at it from a religious lens, which I started to do once these things started happening.” She noted how Asian Buddhist temples had been vandalized but not Asian-American Christian churches.
“It showed that there was a religious element and not a lot of reporters saw the intersection between race and religion,” she said.
The theme of the webinar was “Religion inevitably shows up as it does across human society,” said Hayward.
The Jersey Journal, recently awarded the General Excellence award by the New Jersey Press Association, is one of the rare newspapers today to devote a full page every week to religion coverage. So, the webinar especially resonated with me.
Seeing something through the lens of race, for example, can help us identify the landmines. Eloise Blondiau, a producer for National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program, recalled an HDS study project she did exploring where the white Jesus came from and the movement rising out of civil rights to give Blacks a way to see the relevance of Jesus to them. She noted the difficulty of “being a neutral reporter.” Kandil added that “a lot of reporters of color don’t feel like the lens of objectivity works for them.”
Investigative reporter Joshua Eaton’s coverage of Charlottesville in 2017 also bore this out. White supremacists clashed with peaceful protesters, one of whom was killed by a car that crashed into the crowd. Trump at the time said that there were good people on both sides.
“I was there,” Eaton said. “I saw it. I was threatened at a couple of points by one particular side there. There were not two sides, morally speaking.”
Questioning the journalistic principle of covering both sides “can lead to false equivalencies,” said Blondiau.
Though not ordinarily a show on religion, “On the Media” more broadly speaks about “the stories that we tell ourselves and tracing where certain narratives come from and where they show up in news or politics or culture,” she said.
Blondiau’s HDS education comes in handy when she describes what a typical week is like. On a Monday, potential ideas are floated for Friday’s show.
“And on a Tuesday, I might look at a book that’s 600 pages,” she said. She then breaks it down for discussion topics and decides the kinds of experts to invite on the show.
Her religious training allows her to cover topics that might not get the normal treatment in the mainstream press and media, she said.
“I think religious studies education has given me a much broader perspective in thinking about things in terms of meaning making and cultivation of a self and community and identity and belonging,” said Eaton. He adds that journalism has to call out the hate when reporting.
As priest and journalist, writing “Faith Matters” for 24 years this fall, I encounter similar dilemmas when I report on a story unfamiliar to me. Interviewing Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Muslims, for example, I need to start with a blank slate and see the story through their thoughts and experiences. Telling their stories is never done in a vacuum but contextually.
As Hayward noted: “We can lift up voices of those who are often unheard and who are not a part of dominant society.”
Though being a priest has its perks for religious expertise, the study of religions also allows a journalist or reporter to get it right.
Like the time I covered Pope Francis at the 9/11 Memorial Museum back in September 2015. En route on the press bus, I was eavesdropping on some reporters from big papers like The Washington Post flummoxed by Catholic church protocols. I offered some insights. They said to me, “Stay close by,” meaning I could help them navigate. Yes, in journalism and ethics, religion is a major player.
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @padrehoboken.