What Makes ‘Religion’ News? -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

What makes religion newsworthy? That is the question Martin Marty asks this first week in February. Lots of stuff happens that is religious, but not all makes it into the news. So what does appear? Marty gives a few tidbits of what he's been finding as he scours the papers and journals. He gives a few links to follow as well, so take a read!

What Makes Religion News?
By MARTIN E. MARTY   FEB. 1, 2016
Buddhist temple in Kaifeng, China.                                                                         Credit: Lain / flickr
January ended with a fifth Sunday, a calendar item that occasionally prompts an appraisal of what gets covered and what public-media assessors of the scene assume their publics will find of interest.

While Monday’s Sightings pay close attention to four daily newspapers and numerous magazines, this week we’ll note only what reaches us in a fair sample of on-line releases and stories. Since our calling is to relate religion to public life, we writers take pains to avoid fusing ‘religion in public life’ with ‘religion in politics.’

Readers may note that our columns avoid all mention of political candidates, campaigns, and media coverers of the same. The reasons for this choice are multiple. Here let it be said that we do not feel at all guilty by our acts of avoidance. Religion-in-politics and political news and opinion do get noticed in an election year.

So, to start, no surprise, over half of all media mentions of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ in late January deal with candidates and their use of religion and religionists’ use of candidates. We move on.

What does get mentioned? The Pope and the Vatican attract considerable attention over public issues, including nuclear armament, stewardship of natural resources, and other topics that are not simply in-house Catholic concerns—though some of these also do get covered.

Beyond that, most Christian news-making derives from the media’s and the public’s global concerns. This is covered quite fairly.

In the last week of January there was attention to Christian controversies and controversial activities in African nations such as Nigeria.

A couple of stories dealt with Christian expressions in China.

Almost entirely missing was news from the old homelands of Christendom, Western Europe and, newer homelands, North America. An article about Catholic conservative leadership in Poland was an exception. In many recent weeks Anglicanism received notice because of its burgeoning in the global South, shrinking in the North, and conflict as North and South meet, or don’t meet.

Our quick and impressionistic survey turned up virtually no news of Western Christian denominations, including in this past week, not even Southern Baptists and evangelical domains. The grand exception is the one we chose to bypass this time: the overt, aggressive, partisan, and complicating involvement of  ‘evangelicals’ in the American presidential campaign. Other traces? A discussion of ‘tithing,’ and the now-standard debates on sexual and familial themes, several of which engross denominations and parishes.

Far out-shining the spotlights on Christianity this week and most weeks in recent years, was coverage of Islam and Muslim institutions around the globe and locally.

Judaism ‘up close’ in the United States was noticed in several studies, while Israel was spotlit regularly.

Chinese religion turned up in two or three stories.

Domestic public life, in accounts which inevitably merged ‘public’ with ‘political’ concerns, received attention in court cases and controversies over ‘religious freedom’ issues.

Not without interest were the several stories about religion and sports, at a time when churches and ethicists under religious influence in general discuss the obsession with faith-and-athletics and the moral issues code-named “concussions” are up front.

And, stories about celebrities, entertainers, pop-cultural figures, and athletes, not a few of whom inspire debates about morals—usually tinged with and shadowed by religion—have their place.

The bottom line after a month of five Sundays and all the days between them is: Religion shows up constantly, globally, and often, locally.


Holy See discusses migrants, environment, gender at OSCE.” Vatican Radio, January 15, 2016, Vatican/Speeches.

Povoledo, Elisabetta. “Pope Francis and Hassan Rouhani of Iran Discuss Mideast Unrest.” New York Times, January 26, 2016, Middle East.

Sherwood, Harriet. “Christians flee growing persecution in Africa and Middle East.”The guardian, January 12, 2016, Christianity.

Wang, Ruth. “China Highest-Ranking Christian Pastor Gu Yuese Under Economic Investigation.” China Christian Daily, January 31, 2016, Church.

Beech, Hannah. “Expansion of Christian Church in the Birthplace of Confucius Creates Controversy in China.” Time, January 28, 2016, World.

Gera, Vanessa. “Poland’s conservative, pro-Catholic government says it plans to help finance a college founded by a controversial priest who also runs Radio Maryja, a station that has been reprimand [sic] by the Vatican for fomenting anti-Semitism.” U.S. News & World Report, January 29, 2016, News.

Winston, Kimberly. “Episcopal Church suspended from full participation in Anglican Communion.” Religion News Service, January 14, 2016.

Burke, Daniel. “7 types of evangelicals—and how they’ll affect the presidential race.”CNN, January 25, 2016, Politics.

Merritt, Jonathan. “Ted Cruz’s Tithing Problem.” The Atlantic, January 22, 2016, Politics.

Advocate.com Editors. “Is a Suicide Epidemic Ravaging Gay Mormon Youth?Advocate.com, January 31, 2016, Religion.

Schmidt, Michael S. and Eric Schmitt. “U.S. Broadens Fight Against ISIS With Attacks in Afghanistan.” New York Times, January 31, 2016. Middle East.

Estrin, Daniel. “Israel’s Cabinet voted Sunday to allow non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a move advocates said marked a historic show of government support for liberal streams of Judaism.” U.S. News & World Report, January 31, 2016, News.

Berman, Russell. “Bernie Sanders Bids for Jewish History.” The Atlantic, January 27, 2016, Politics.

Pratt, Timothy. “Georgia businesses assess costs of ‘religious freedom’ law.” Aljazeera America, January 26, 2016, U.S.

Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Sports gambling gets a moral pass from most Americans.”Religion News Service, January 22, 2016.

Image: Buddhist Temple in the city of Kaifeng, Henan prefecture, China. Credit: Lain / flickr creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com. If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-policies.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.
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