Love Thy Neighbor

The religion beat in an age of intolerance
May 6, 2008

To watch Townsend discussing the religion beat, click here.

In the Gospel of Matthew, it doesn’t take long for the author to show his readers two different sides of Jesus Christ. One minute Jesus is sitting on a mountain, delivering a powerful sermon to a presumably rapt audience: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth….Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But just five chapters later, Jesus, again preaching to his apostles, changes his tune. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he says. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” That’s quite a change from the sandal-wearing, peace-loving hippie we’ve come to expect.

If even Jesus could be divisive, what can be expected of the sinners who call themselves his followers? And how about his contemporary American disciples, who sport anonymous Internet handles and spend their days trolling blogs dedicated to the disparagement of other faiths? What about those who insist that Jesus himself have a stronger voice in the U.S. Congress?

As a reporter covering religion at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the last four years, I’ve been a witness to attitudes and language on my beat that would make veteran political reporters cringe. Even the blog I wrote for the paper, The God Beat, became such a target for corrosive, hateful comments that I was forced to shut it down.

Of course, the spiritually polarized America we live in today is not new. Intolerance might as well have been the motto of the Puritans, separatists who crossed the Atlantic in 1630, fleeing religious persecution. Aboard the Arbella (or perhaps, some historians say, on dry land before they set sail), John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” As he made clear to his band of pilgrims, they were not voyaging to New England to set up a democracy. The idea was to found New Jerusalem, a Christian government that would complete an unfinished reformation.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop told his passengers, consciously echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. What Winthrop had in mind was a political system whose top priority would be, as the historian Perry Miller wrote, “the duty of suppressing heresy, of subduing or somehow getting rid of dissenters—of being, in short, deliberately, vigorously, and consistently intolerant.” The Puritans believed they, like the Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures, had a covenant with God. And they believed that fellow colonists like Roger Williams, who preached religious tolerance, could go straight to hell. Or barring that, Rhode Island.

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The United States is a young nation, and maybe it’s not so strange that these impulses toward exceptionalism and religious intolerance—paired as perfectly as a cold Budweiser and a Ball Park Frank—have passed so easily down sixteen generations from our Puritan ancestors. By now, they seem encoded into our red-white-and-blue DNA. And deoxyribonucleic acid (or more precisely, its role in evolution) happens to be the topic of Lauri Lebo’s The Devil in Dover (The New Press), an unapologetic indictment of intelligent design, fundamentalist Christianity, and American journalism’s insistence on objectivity in the face of clear untruths.

Lebo was the education reporter for the York Daily Record, one of the local papers near Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the local school board insisted that ninth-grade biology teachers at Dover High School read a statement to students questioning the scientific veracity of Darwinian evolution. At once, eleven parents sued the district, seeking to exclude intelligent design—the argument that life is so complex that it must be the work of a supernatural designer—from the science curriculum.

By the second page, we know exactly where Lebo stands. “From a front-row seat in a federal courtroom,” she writes, “I watched elected officials of a school board…try to force religion into science class through a backdoor called intelligent design.” Much of the pleasure in reading The Devil in Dover comes from that front-row seat, which Lebo shares with her reader. And her insider status extends beyond the courtroom. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District brought the world’s media to central-southern Pennsylvania, and Lebo’s book shows the value of a local reporter already familiar with the players as neighbors, sources, and, sometimes, friends.

One of the best parts of Lebo’s book is her intricate reporting of how the case ended up in Dover’s federal courtroom in the first place. The genesis of the story, it seems, was a student mural depicting the Ascent of Man. This four-by-sixteen-foot mural of a monkey’s step-by-step evolution into Homo sapiens stood in a biology classroom at Dover High School. The school’s janitor, Larry Reeser, was offended by it every time he walked in to clean the classroom because, as he told Lebo, “you can see the guy’s schwantz hanging out.”

In 2002, Reeser showed the mural to members of Dover’s school board, including Alan Bonsell, a newly elected board member and evangelical Christian who would eventually lead the fight to get intelligent design taught in the very classroom where the mural stood. “Board members looked at the painting and agreed that ape penises had no business in science class,” writes Lebo. Just before teachers returned from summer break, the janitor dragged the mural out to the school’s parking lot and set it on fire.

The Devil in Dover is filled with such details, and with mini-profiles of the main players that take the reader right into the muck of the debate. It’s not perfect. Subplots involving Lebo’s relationship with her evangelical father and a post-trial road trip of personal spiritual discovery (along the way, she gets a tattoo of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to symbolize her newfound stand against organized religion) feel like filler. Worse, they distract from Lebo’s more important story about the ugly rift that religion has created in America, and the responsibility of journalists covering that rift to write truthfully rather than just provide equal time to both sides (as if there are only two) in a misguided quest for objectivity.

Lebo’s point is one that newsrooms across the country struggle with when it comes to the religion beat. It’s impossible to say that one faith is right and that another—or no faith at all—is wrong. But it is possible, in the case of intelligent design, to decide between the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence in favor of evolution and a particular brand of Christianity whose fundamental belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is threatened by Darwin’s findings. For journalists covering this story, there are no sides to balance, writes Lebo. Like gravity, lightning, or tomato soup, evolution just is.

To give equal time to the creationist agenda, which challenges the foundation of all biological science, is to betray the journalist’s pledge to bring readers truth, however imperfect that truth may sometimes be. Because they don’t push back against such conservative Christian notions, Lebo argues, journalists are partially responsible for the fact that 45 percent of Americans believe that humans appeared on earth in their present form about six thousand years ago.

It was U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, one of the heroes in Lebo’s book, who dismissed intelligent design as “a mere re-labeling of creationism.” But by the end of The Devil in Dover, the author realizes with some sadness that creationists are not going to be swayed by one judge’s opinion. Instead, writes Lebo, Jones “received hateful e-mail messages so strident that following his decision, U.S. Marshalls watched over his home and family over Christmas.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Kitzmiller, the Dover High School parent who was the case’s lead plaintiff, received an anonymous letter at home. The writer reminded Kitzmiller that Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose 1960 lawsuit led to the ban on organized public-school prayer, was murdered. “I sure would hate to be in your shoes or your daughter’s shoes,” the letter continued. “God hates sin….[W]atch out for a bullet.”

Thanks in part to James Madison and his Bill of Rights, the Puritan vision of America as a rigidly intolerant society didn’t come to pass. The First Amendment ensured that the government could make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and America’s protection of pluralism remains one of its most beautiful features.

But beauty has been the root of some brutal fights, and theological skirmishes in twenty-first-century America are shaping up to be doozies. In the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, for instance, Catholics are deeply divided between traditionalists, who still believe in the authority of their bishops and the tenets of their church, and progressives, who prefer to live by the more liberal, post-Vatican II principles that they believe have come under assault by conservatives over the last generation.

One can also see the seams of the Episcopal church coming apart over the issue of homosexuality, which is really just the most visible symptom of a deeper theological division. According to Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of Religion News Service, “The chasm is so deep that neither side trusts the other or is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on anything. The traditionalists feel their way of life is being taken away from them by the tyranny of the majority, while the progressives think a bigoted minority is holding the Holy Spirit hostage. [And] even those fights aren’t about sex, or even theology, but about power, and who gets to make the decisions that will tie the hands of everyone else.”

Mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans—are fumbling around in the dark, desperately trying to attract new, and younger, congregants to their barren pews. Evangelical bodies, especially Pentacostals, seem to be the only churches gaining members. But it is also conservative evangelicals (along with traditionalist Catholics) who are most involved in the battle royale with secularists. The culture wars, as they are called, are a blessing for at least one group: journalists. “Heat is good for a story, and religion is consistently good for that,” says Cathleen Falsani, a religion columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the beat as a reporter for several years. “Religion is polarizing. Maybe that’s not the way it’s intended to be, but it is.”

Falsani, whose book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace will be published this fall by Zondervan, said complaints about her work escalated when she began writing in her own voice. “The worst ad hominem attacks on me personally have come from my own compatriots in the evangelical community,” she said. “That was angering and hurtful at times.”

Neela Banerjee, who covers religion for The New York Times, said there is a difference in the way those on different sides of the culture wars express their rage. There is, she said, “a great deal of anger between secularists and the Christian right. The former tend to be more upfront about their anger, while the latter…cloak their criticism in language of hating the sin but loving the sinner. Each sees the other as a profoundly dangerous influence on society.”

Eckstrom concurs. All parties, he says, feel their worldview is under attack—“on the one side by religious fundamentalists, who hate science and love war, and on the other by godless hedonists, who want to denude the Pledge of Allegiance and turn the country over to radical Islamists. There’s very little middle ground there.”

And where does this leave American Muslims? Since the September 11 attacks, no group of Americans has had a more difficult time balancing the reality of their daily lives with the promised protection of the Bill of Rights. Regardless of whether they, or even their parents, were born in the U.S., American Muslims face fellow citizens who are afraid of the next mass murder, and believe that Islam is intent on destroying America.

Like nearly every religion reporter I know, I’ve written a lot about the Muslim American experience in recent years. It’s difficult to explain to other Americans the fear this community lives with. One Muslim described it to me as a tidal wave they see growing on the not-so-distant horizon. They hope the wave will dissipate, but instead it grows and gets closer to shore, especially during election years.

Just a few weeks ago, in late February, I got an e-mail from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This was not unusual. Like most beat reporters, I get hundreds of press releases a day. Some I look at, some I don’t. From CAIR alone, I typically receive from one to three e-mails every day, and I had never acted on one before. But this one was different. It involved a mosque I cover in south St. Louis. The CAIR press release said that the FBI had been asked to investigate several comments on two blogs, which threatened a minaret being built outside the mosque.

I had covered the groundbreaking of the minaret—the first to be built in St. Louis. The mayor had been there to praise pluralism and throw a little dirt around for the cameras. In Muslim countries, the minaret is the tower from which the muezzin chants the call to prayer. But as I noted in the original story, this particular 107-foot minaret was symbolic, not functional.

Now I wrote a second story, which was maybe twelve column-inches long and ran the next day on the bottom of B2. It was workmanlike—it did what it had to do for our readers—and nothing more. I wrote that the author of a local blog, Gateway Pundit: Observations of the World from the Heart of Jesusland, had posted some photos of the minaret covered in scaffolding. One of the photo captions read, “Those calls to prayers ought to go over really well with the people of this South St. Louis neighborhood.”

I quoted the imam, who confirmed what I’d already written—that the minaret had no sound system or speakers and would not be used to call Muslims to prayer. I also quoted an FBI spokesman as well as a CAIR spokesman, and then detailed some of the comments that had alarmed Muslims and caused them to inform the FBI.

For example, one visitor to Gateway Pundit had written: “It is really hard on us white, nonMuslims to have to live with these folks taking over our neighborhood and community. Our government helping these people relocate into America’s heartland is like inviting the enemy into your camp. It’s totally disgusting.” On another blog, Little Green Footballs, a visitor named “Amer1can” upped the ante: “Would be a shame if it were to be vandalized or destroyed. Just a shame I tell you….wink wink STL youth.” Another visitor to the same blog added: “I suppose dynamite would be considered an extreme response.”

That was it. Twelve inches. Bottom of B2.

But of course, B2 doesn’t really exist anymore. Not on the Internet. The next morning, the e-mails started coming in at around nine. Many of them complained that I had written a story “planted” by CAIR, which was, I was told over and over again, a front for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a fundraising arm for other Islamist terrorist organizations. But it was only after my testy e-mail exchange with Charles Johnson, the proprietor of Little Green Footballs, that the real fun began—especially after Johnson posted our correspondence on the blog.

Over the next two days, I received more than one hundred e-mails from Little Green Footballs readers. One suggested I should look into a job at Taco Bell, since I was obviously going to be fired for messing with Johnson. (Little Green Footballs fans credit Johnson with taking down Dan Rather after his 60 Minutes story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service.) Another called me “a self-righteous numskull with the literary prowess of a dodo bird. A dodo bird that dropped out of college and is on drugs.” Still another suggested that there was “no way you could possibly be any more of a dick.”

In two related threads on Johnson’s blog, which ran to nearly 1,500 comments, my photo, bio, and home address were all posted. Someone ran my name through an anagram site and listed the results (Demon Shitty Town, Howdy Mitten Snot, Hindmost Yet Wont). Another participant wrote a song, to be sung to the “Toys ‘R’ Us” theme: “I don’t want to be a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist, because if I was. There wouldn’t be heaven after death.” And let’s not forget the haiku:

Tim shills for haters
While wearing moderate robes
He does not fool us

Besides being called ignorant, arrogant, balding, stupid, rude, fat (my new nickname was Burger Boy), lazy, and incompetent, I was depicted as a Satanic baby. My mother was insulted. I was accused of lying about my academic degrees, having a comb-over, being a paid agent of the Saudi government, and acquiring “numerous social diseases.” I was, apparently, a plagiarist and a terrorist. Someone did a search to see if I was a pedophile. Others stuck with more generalized invective:

Tim Townsend—you’re a smarmy little fuck, aren’t you?

Townsend really should have checked on Dan Rather’s career before he messed with Charles.

What a chickenshit little cocksucker. Another journalouse prick with a face for radio.

Finally, there were suggestions that I should be murdered. To his credit, Johnson deleted the death threats and the comments with my address. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Many of us like to think that the principles embraced by James Madison and the rest of the founders are the bedrock upon which succeeding generations of Americans have built this nation. The fact remains that a large percentage of our countrymen prefer the message that Winthrop delivered to the passengers of the Arbella. At the conclusion of his sermon, Winthrop warned that if the Puritans failed to found New Jerusalem in the New World—if they didn’t remain true to their covenant—God would reject them in turn. “If our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them,” Winthrop said, “it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it; therefore let us choose life, that we, and our seed, may live by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life, and our prosperity.”

Reporters who cover the fractured, volatile, weighty world of religion have a responsibility to be equally respectful of all beliefs. Whether someone is a Roman Catholic, a Jew, or a Raëlian, we are privileged to ask such people personal questions about their most profound thoughts and hopes. “As corny as this sounds,” says the Times’s Neela Banerjee, “I think I grow by talking to folks whose worldviews are deeply different from mine. My job is not to grab the quote that makes them sound silly, but the one that sheds light, perhaps new light, on what they believe.”

But again, journalists who cover religion also need to weigh that broad respect for belief against a larger truth. If a particular tenet of a particular faith has the potential to influence the public discourse outside the walls of the church, synagogue, or mosque, reporters are responsible for holding it up to the same scrutiny as any other idea tossed into the public square for debate. Which brings us back to The Devil in Dover. Toward the end of the book, Lebo sits down with Judge Jones and expresses her anxieties about the next round of “attacks on this country’s civil liberties.” Jones smiles reassuringly at the author and affirms his faith in the great American experiment. “Democracy is messy,” he tells her. “It’s supposed to be that way.” 

Tim Townsend is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.