waking-up our religious sensibilities

Yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture by Ari Goldman on ‘Covering Religion’ at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. Goldman talked about why, in his view, religion is the most important “beat” there is to cover today. Religion has become a major part of nearly all the issues and stories that headline our papers these days. Even here in Canada our papers shout headlines about the US presidential race, where religion has come to play a major part in voters’ decisions. Understanding religion, said Goldman, is key for understanding why people do things, it helps us understand their motivations and see why stories have evolved in certain ways.

He focused on the importance of learning about and reporting on different religions in order to show people why and how the Other is not scary. Journalism, for Goldman, ought to primarily take on an educational function, teaching people something. Goldman emphasized that he does not take a neutral stance on the notion of faith, he always advocates for faith as something that can do a lot of good, something that ought to be encouraged.

great awakening coverDuring the question and answer period I asked about how moderate religious voices can get their stories heard by media who primarily focus on the sensational stories of religious fundamentalism and extremism. His simple answer was: “you can’t, you’re sunk.” I pushed back a little, asking him to instead say something about how groups such as Sojourners, with Jim Wallis as their main spokesperson, have managed to change the discussion of what constitutes a religious value, reminding people that issues of well-being such as poverty, immigration reform, and peace are moral issues for religious people, and not just the issues that the loudest evangelical, fundamentalist voices proclaim to be “moral”. Goldman got an excited look on his face and enthusiastically jumped in to say how much Sojourners really has shifted the debate in the US. He helpfully pointed out that they have shifted the debate by positioning themselves against the voices of the extreme right, saying that the religious right does not speak for all people of faith.

The monologue of the religious right in the US is indeed over, and voices proclaiming that people of faith care about what goes on in the world, care about the well-being of the world, because of their faith-based values are getting heard more and more.

In his soon-to-be-released new book The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis of Sojourners makes a case for the notion that the US is in the midst of another Great Awakening, a religiously-fuelled movement toward change. Spiritual revivals in the past led to the abolition of slavery in the US, the end of slave trafficking in the UK, the beginning of publicly-funded health care in Canada, movements toward democracy in Latin America and the continuance of hope for people in Tibet.

Wallis describes in his book how religion has led to revivals in the past, what is changing today, provides some theological foundations for Christians to base their movements toward change on, and then presents a possible new framing of public dialogue with a moral centre. His writing is accessible, yet not simplistic, and he grounds his work in solid theological concepts that are central to Christianity, rather than a generic humanist stance.

And I think that perhaps Goldman’s analysis was just a little bit off, because what is going on under this new awakening is not just people standing up against evangelicals, but evangelicals themselves standing up and saying that a few loud voices are not representative of what they, as people of faith, believe. The Great Awakening will hopefully help people better understand the shift that is going on, and set it carefully amidst a long tradition of people of faith who refuse to separate what they believe from how they live their lives.