Religious Correctness and the American Press

Susan Jacoby

The Press Of The Past Was More Progressive

Before I address the way today’s press does—or, more frequently, does not—incorporate a nonreligious perspective in its coverage of public issues, I would like to treat you to a sample of the kind of coverage that the “secularist perspective” received 125 years ago. On May 23, 1880, agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll delivered his famous lecture “The Gods” to an audi­ence of more than a thousand people at Booth’s Theater in New York City. This is how the New York Times reported the story, beginning with a three­-tiered headline usually reserved for major disasters such as war:

Col. Ingersoll at Booth’s

The Great Infidel Preacher Roundly Hissed

Some Things Which Even Sunday Evening Amusement

Seekers Would Not Stand—the God of the Bible Ridiculed

and Denounced

Public interest in Ingersoll was so intense, the Times reported, that no one who had a ticket was willing to sell it to a scalper regardless of the profit to be made. The audience was eminently respectable, consisting “half of ladies,” but the article noted a “remarkable absence of persons of prom­inence” (presumably personages like the newspaper’s own­ers). The hissing mentioned in the misleading headline seems to have been confined to representatives of the American Bible Society, who were handing out free copies of the King James Version outside the theater.

But the Times then went on to chronicle Ingersoll’s two­and­a­quarter­hour lecture—Victorian­era audiences did not have sound­bite attention spans—that seems to have been interrupted every few minutes by peals of laughter. (During this period, newspapers still adhered to an old journalistic convention of reporting the audience’s responses with paren­thetical references to boos or applause.) Here, in part, is the newspaper’s account of Ingersoll’s speech:

“If you want to make a fortune in a Christian nation, invent a gun that will kill more Christians in a given time than any other.” [Shouts of laughter] He was satisfied that no American Indian had ever been truly converted, because he never heard of an Indian scalping another on account of his religious belief. [Renewed laughter]. . . Col. Ingersoll then turned his attention to the teachings of the Churches on the subject of salvation. “The Catholics,” he said, “will give you a through ticket to heaven, and they will attend to your baggage, and keep it too. [Great laughter] The Protestants, on the other hand, won’t even tell you what train to get on.” He read and ridiculed the Catholic creed. One thing he liked about this Church was purgatory. It was a place where a man could make a motion for a new trial. [Laughter] . . . Protestantism was next handled without gloves. The Episcopalian religion, he said, was founded by Henry VIII, now in heaven, [Laughter] at the same moment that he put off his wife Catherine and took up Anne Boleyn. For awhile the new religion was regulated by law, and God was compelled to study acts of Parliament to find out whether a man might be saved or not. [Laughter]

This should give some sense of the tone of an article that filled three full columns. From a journalistic perspective, one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that headlines don’t necessarily reflect the contents of a story. In fact, the story itself makes it very clear that this large audience of “Sunday­evening amusement seekers,” far from disapproving of the mockery of the “God of the Bible,” thoroughly enjoyed Ingersoll’s lecture.

Challenges to religion were news in the 1880s, and Ingersoll was the most famous orator in the nation in an era when orato­ry was still a major form of public entertainment as well as an informational medium, so it is not surprising that the Times gave the speech major coverage. But what is most striking about this story, in my view, is that it accurately reports the contents of a speech that would probably not be considered fit to print today—if there were an equivalent of Robert Ingersoll in twenty­first­century America. In a number of important respects, the American press today offers greater obeisance to religious institutions and is less willing to give fair coverage to a secularist perspective on public issues than it was in the nineteenth century. How truly astonishing that is in view of the fact that, even though America is the most religious nation in the developed world, the proportion of religious skeptics is surely larger than it was in Ingersoll’s day.

One important reason for the change, I believe, can be found in America’s post­-World War II adoption of an unofficial civil religion of stultifying tolerance, in which saying anything negative about anyone else’s religion—and especially, making fun of anyone else’s religion—is socially, culturally, and polit­ically beyond the pale. The press—including most of the print media and all of television—is both a creator and a mirror of public attitudes in this regard. Columnists like Christopher Hitchens can get away with writing mean and funny things about Mother Teresa in Vanity Fair, but I assure you that it is not possible to write anything remotely satirical about religion for a mainstream newspaper or mass­circulation magazine. In some cases, it isn’t even possible to discuss, in an absolutely straight­faced and even­handed manner, the doctrines that some churches openly proclaim.

I offer one example from my own experience. Some years ago, when high­tech infertility treatments like in vitro fertil­ization were just entering the everyday practice of medicine, I was asked to write a story on the new procedures for a mass­circulation women’s magazine. A portion of the article was supposed to discuss the objections of some religions to these treatments, so I explained why the Catholic Church opposed even the old, low­tech artificial insemination of a woman with her husband’s sperm. I won’t bore you with the details of Roman Catholic doctrine in the realm of human reproduction, but it basically boils down to the belief that conception must take place according to “natural law,” which means that the only moral way to conceive a child is for the man to actually put his penis into the woman’s vagina. Masturbation, the usual way of obtaining semen for artificial insemination, is considered a mortal sin.

However, the Church was sympathetic to the pain of infer­tile couples, so some priests and Catholic doctors devised an ingenious way to satisfy the demands of “natural law” and to allow artificial insemination at the same time. The husband would be permitted to wear a condom—as we know, generally prohibited by the letter of Catholic doctrine—while having intercourse with his wife, but he would prick a hole in that con­dom so that some of his sperm would “naturally” get through. Meanwhile, the condom would retain most of the semen and would be rushed to a lab where the wife would be inseminated with it to improve her chances of conceiving. This was sup­posedly “natural” because there was always a possibility that the sperm fertilizing the wife’s egg, if indeed conception occurred, made it through the hole “naturally.” I am not mak­ing this up—although my editor at the women’s magazine insisted that I must be until I showed her my notes from an interview with a doctrinal specialist at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The whole passage on religious objections was then cut from the story because, the editor said, “it would hold Catholicism up to ridicule.” In other words, it was neces­sary to protect the Church from the comical implications of its own teachings. No, Ingersoll’s speeches poking fun at the log­ical inconsistencies of various religions would not be included in the news considered fit to print today.

The question is why. Why, in a society in which we are constantly told by religious conservatives that “Secularists are running everything” is it so difficult not only to gain a respectful hearing for a nonreligious perspective on public issues, but to apply the same standards of reportorial scruti­ny to religious as to governmental and financial institutions? Perhaps the first instance of a major newspaper investigation into the dark side of a mainstream religious denomination was the splendid 2002 series in the Boston Globe on sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests over a thirty­year period that was accompanied by a thirty­year cover­up on the part of officials of the Archdiocese of Boston. Many Church leaders attempted to portray the Globe, and the press in general, as anti­Catholic—but that didn’t work because many of the reporters who broke the story were themselves prac­ticing Catholics. Moreover, the greatest indignation over the cover­up was later expressed by devoted Catholics who felt betrayed by the church they loved. The Globe received the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service for 2002.

This attempt to portray critical reporting on religious insti­tutions as antireligious also leads back to the false notion of “tolerance” that took hold after the Second World War. The Founding Fathers’ concept of tolerance was restricted to religious liberty—the freedom to believe as one wished and to practice one’s own religion without interference by the state. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans insulted one another’s religion quite frequently; what they did not do for the most part, thanks to the Constitution, was put one another in jail or kill one another over religious differ­ences. But the Founders’ idea of tolerance never implied what so many Americans mistakenly believe today—that religious institutions and religion itself should be immune from criticism.

In the political realm, the press’s acceptance of this wrong­headed notion of tolerance has led to an equally mis­guided refusal ever to make an issue of a candidate’s religious beliefs. I recently had a conversation with a newspaper editor who told me that it was important for those disagreeing with President Bush’s attempts to meld church and state to avoid criticizing his beliefs when they criticized his policies. But many of the president’s policies are the direct results of his religious beliefs—beliefs that he has a perfect right to hold as a private citizen but that have immense public consequences and therefore deserve critical scrutiny when they are held by a president of the United States. To cite the most obvious exam­ples, the president’s form of faith, like that of religious conser­vatives who control the House of Representatives, has had an enormous influence on public health policy touching on any aspect of human reproduction, including embryonic stem­cell research—in which the United States is already falling behind because of religiously driven restrictions written into law. The death penalty is another important public issue that for many, arguably most, of its supporters is rooted in highly specific religious beliefs. Here again, the press has largely ignored the religious implications of the story. In January 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—who has been singled out by Bush for special praise—made an extraordinary speech at the University of Chicago Divinity School in which he laid out the religious basis of his support for the death penalty. It is important to note that this speech received no national press coverage until May, when it was reprinted in First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life. Sean Wilentz, the direc­tor of Princeton University’s American Studies program, then wrote a critical column about Scalia’s speech for the op­ed page of the New York Times. Let me refresh your memory about what Scalia said. Quoting from the famous epistle to the Romans from the evangelist Paul—that great authority on representative government—the justice made it clear that he, too, believes in the divine, not human, origins of and sanction for the death penalty:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God . . . if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:1–4)

Then Scalia went on to observe that it:

is easy to see the hand of the Almighty behind rulers whose forebears, in the dim mists of history, were supposedly anointed by God, who at least obtained their thrones in awful and unpre­dictable battles whose outcomes were determined by the Lord of Hosts, that is, the Lord of Armies. It is much more difficult to see the hand of God—or any higher moral authority—behind the fools and rogues (as the losers would have it) whom we our­selves elect to do our own will. How can their power to avenge—to vindicate the “public order”—be greater than our own?

If there were any doubts about the explicitly Christian nature of Scalia’s vision, he erased it with his contention that “the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition [of capital punishment] has taken its firmest hold in post­Christian Europe, and has least support in the church­going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”

I quote his speech at some length to underscore the mal­feasance of the press in initially ignoring the speech. This represents such a radical departure from any views ever expressed by a sitting Supreme Court justice that it should have been the subject of editorials in every major newspa­per—not relegated to one belated op­ed piece. A Supreme Court justice, sworn to uphold a constitution that separates church and state, presents not only a religious rationale but a specifically Christian rationale—excuse me, specifically right-wing Christian, since his own Catholic Church has condemned the death penalty—for his decisions on an import­ant public issue. Again, I believe that the misplaced idea that one must never, ever attack a public official for his religious beliefs is the most important underlying factor in the silence of the press. Can you imagine, by the way, what an outcry there would be from the right­wing media if a Supreme Court justice had agreed to deliver the keynote speech to a meeting of the Council for Secular Humanism and had declared atheism to be the basis of his judicial thinking?

One reason the religious right has had particular success in placing the press on the defensive during the last twenty years is that an increasing proportion of journalists, like younger Americans in general, know less and less about history. Of course there are exceptions. But the fact is that the religious right counts on a good deal of historical ignorance to support its portrayal of an America that was once a country in which government and religion walked hand in hand into the sunset, in which there was no conflict between religious and secular values. I would like to insert a secularist virus into the com­puter of every editor and writer—an icon that would pop up whenever a reporter typed the word religion, with a quotation from an 1817 letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson lived long enough to view the first cycle of American reactionary religion—in this case, reac­tion against the Enlightenment ideals held by so many of the nation’s founders. Adams was commenting upon attempts to suppress more liberal versions of Protestantism by the old­line Calvinists who still controlled his own state of Massachusetts and much of New England.

“Oh! Lord!,” he lamented. “Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland, Pensilvania, New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would.”

Those last two lines should be burned into the brain of every member of the working press in America today.

©2004 Susan Jacoby


Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and executive director of the Center for Inquiry–Metro New York.

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press). Her most recent books are The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Vintage) and Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press).


The Press Of The Past Was More Progressive Before I address the way today’s press does—or, more frequently, does not—incorporate a nonreligious perspective in its coverage of public issues, I would like to treat you to a sample of the kind of coverage that the “secularist perspective” received 125 years ago. On May 23, 1880, …

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