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Interest in Religion Outshines Previous Media Neglect

IN recent days we have seen some remarkable religious coverage in major newspapers and magazines.

Newsweek had a portrayal of Jesus on its cover and a lengthy section offering new scholarly insights into the ``Gospels at the core of Christianity.'' Time offered a two-page spread expounding on the complex reasons underlying Christ's crucifixion. U.S. News & World Report had the cover story ``Spiritual America: In God We Trust,'' a major examination of religious faith in America. It was based on a poll that found America one of the most religious countries on earth. The Wall Street Journal led with an editorial praising the return of religion to the public discourse after a time of eclipse.

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It is easy to dismiss all this as nothing but a flurry of seasonal stories keyed to Easter. But editors of major publications are smart people. They know that a dull cover story that does not grip the readers' interest can lose tens of thousands of street sales on a single issue. They are putting religion on the covers because it sells - because there is new and major public interest in the topic.

Perhaps there is no greater confirmation of this than a recent Nieman Reports that devoted the best part of an issue to ``God in the Newsroom - 15 Articles on Coverage of Religion.'' Nieman Reports is the magazine of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which is devoted to journalists and journalism and is center for the prestigious Nieman fellowships.

It is good that journalists are taking a look at the way they cover religion for, with some exceptions, the attention they have devoted to it in the past has been slender. As New York Times religion correspondent Peter Steinfels explains: ``Only something like 50 of the country's roughly 1,550 dailies have reporters covering religion full time,'' although in fairness these include many of the major outlets. The religious coverage of television news is much bleaker. No network, says Mr. Steinfels, has a full-time religion correspondent ``or anything comparable to the expertise devoted to science, and health reporting, let alone weather and sports.''

This journalistic neglect of religion may be changing as public attitudes change. Writing in the religion issue of Nieman Reports, Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox says a ``religious renaissance of sorts appears to be going on all over the globe. Ancient faith traditions that some scholars were sure had been either gutted by secularism or suffocated by repression have gained a new lease on life. Buddhism and Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Shinto, and many smaller sects are back in action as vigorous and controversial players on the world stage.''

Whatever the future, can it be that Americans, always a religious people (95 per cent say they believe in God or a universal spirit; 60 per cent say they attend religious services regularly, according to the U.S. News poll), are turning to religion with deeper commitment because of their concern that their country has lost its moral compass?

They are beset by drug use, crime in the streets, violence on TV, abuse in the home, the breakdown of the family. Is there now a burgeoning perception that if government cannot solve all this, maybe religion can?

Says one religious leader: ``Healthy, traditional families are becoming an endangered species ... what could be more basic than love at home, when annually in America there are four million reports of domestic violence, rivaling the number of births annually in America?''

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A few weeks ago, Time magazine's Hugh Sidey wrote a feature about George Bush's post-presidential life. The ``Grandfather in Chief,'' he called Mr. Bush, painting a picture of a man in love with his grandchildren and determined to make time for them.

Bush says: ``I firmly believe that the biggest danger to us is the disintegration of the American family.'' The American people seem caught up in a global religious revival. Maybe we are getting our priorities in order at last.

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