Who says religion is boring?

Glen Burnie writer explains believers, journalists to each other

By Jonathan Pitts

July 19, 2009

It was 1982, and a little-known punk band from Ireland was touring U.S. colleges for the first time, rattling from town to town in an old panel truck.

Mattingly, then a music writer for a small Illinois paper, was intrigued by the chorus from a song on their new album. The lyrics were, of all things, in Latin - gloria in te domine, gloria exultate - and appeared to have been taken from an ancient Mass.

In two days he spent with the band, Mattingly, a journalist who now lives in Glen Burnie, persuaded the lead singer to speak about his faith. It was the first time Paul David Hewson, better known today as Bono, went on the record about religion and the rise of U2.

The experience was telling, and not just because Mattingly learned Bono wrote "Gloria" in a "charismatic Pentecostalist frenzy," or that the band met frequently to discuss the Bible - the sort of nuggets that have made Mattingly, a columnist and blogger, one of America's most widely read religion writers.

No, when he pitched the article to Rolling Stone, the editors decided he must be making it up and took a pass. The piece ran only in the Champaign, Ill., News-Gazette and, later, in a Christian music magazine.

Religion, Mattingly says, "is the worst-covered major subject in American journalism," and he has built a uniquely robust career addressing that belief.

A former religion editor and writer at the Charlotte Observer and Rocky Mountain News, Mattingly writes a weekly column, "On Religion," that deals with religious issues, including pop culture, and that Scripps and the Newspaper Enterprise Association make available to more than 900 newspapers.

His blog, "Get Religion," which critiques the media's coverage of the subject, gets 40,000 hits a week from readers around the world, and he recently got back from a trip to Asia in support of Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion,a book released last spring for which he wrote a chapter.

"Around the world in seven days," he says with a weary shrug.

Mattingly lives with his wife, Debra, a librarian, in a bungalow in Glen Burnie's leafy Ferndale section. He commutes daily by MARC train to Washington, where he directs the Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, a program in which students from Christian schools around the country learn the business in the classroom and through internships.

"Terry has been extraordinarily creative in perceiving a real need and doing something smart about it," says Dave Van Biema, who has been writing about religion for Time magazine for years. "His approach was unusual, new and effective, and he deserves his props."

Speaking over burritos at a Mexican chain restaurant - a member of the Eastern Orthodox church, he vets his diet carefully, and the place lets you build your own - he says the media and religion have long been at odds, each viewing the other, at best, with a wary eye.

"Here you have these two powerful forces in American life, each protected by the First Amendment," he says. "They don't talk to each other. They don't respect each other. Sometimes they don't like each other. I live in both. And that has been my life."

He's one of a handful of people to have grown up in both camps, with an equal passion for both. The son of a father who was a Southern Baptist preacher and a mother who taught language arts, Mattingly grew up fascinated by writing, politics and the ways in which faith influences human behavior - including music, sports and the visual arts.

A voracious reader, he always wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

As a student at Baylor University's journalism school, he sensed early on that he might have a niche. In 1976, the same year Mattingly was campaigning for Jimmy Carter, the first openly "born-again" presidential candidate, an editor at the student paper asked him to cover a campus foreign missions conference.

"I went there, and saw all the [recruiting] booths and everything, but to my amazement, almost nobody showed up," he says.

He told the editor, who decided it wasn't a story. Mattingly disagreed. "At the largest Southern Baptist university in the world, a missions conference is a huge event," he says. "When nobody shows, that's a big deal. We were looking at the rise of the materialism that would dominate" the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Over the years, he experienced similar reactions from editors as he pitched stories on matters that to him seemed self-evidently important: the lavish lifestyle and rumored sexual peccadilloes of Rev. Jim Bakker, head of PTL ministries in North Carolina; anti-abortion rallies in Washington that attracted thousands more marchers than their pro-choice counterparts; and the arrival in Colorado of Focus on the Family, the ministry of James Dobson, then the second-most popular radio personality in the U.S.

In each case, editors either assigned a brief article or skipped the story altogether.

The longer he worked in journalism, the more he saw proof that the divide was deep, and he made the case in columns, lectures and eventually blogs. He reported on a 1980s study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College which showed that, while more than 40 percent of Americans attended worship services regularly, just 8 percent of journalists did, and that even though 85 percent of Americans saw adultery as morally wrong, only 15 percent of journalists did.

The gap persists.

"If you think the fact that 95 percent of American journalists are pro-abortion rights doesn't affect abortion coverage, I've got some land in Louisiana to sell you dirt cheap," says Mattingly, a registered Democrat who is against abortion.

For the record, Mattingly doesn't think the media, so often accused of leftist bias, "hates" religious people as much as it feels discomfited by them.

"It's not like [the editor] is sitting in the newsroom thinking, 'God, I hate Christians. Let's avoid all those stories.' It's more like [he or she] would say, 'Look, there's 30 people in my newsroom who went to that [pro-choice] march. It's all I heard them talking about for weeks! I don't know anyone who went to that [pro-life] march.'

"At worst, it might be, 'Man, who are these wackos? They make my palms sweat.' But in general, those who decide what is news demonstrably have little empathy for religion."

A chat with Mattingly ranges over a wild array of subjects, from football (the influence of NFL coach Mike Singletary, a born-again Christian, on Ray Lewis) to pop music (he plays a vintage Santa Cruz guitar) to baseball (he strictly avoided Orioles games until they restored the word "Baltimore" to the road jerseys), movies and literature.

"How strong is the Greek Orthodox religion of Nick Markakis?" he says, glancing up from a vegetarian burrito. "I'd love to read that story."

That's probably the slightest among the ones the mainstream media might have covered, in their fullest context, but didn't, at least until they had boiled over.

"How about the Catholic sex scandals? Is that a story?" he asks. "How about the Branch Davidian massacre? Was 9/11 interesting? And how about, like, the last three presidential elections, with their emphasis on" values?

By the time those stories boiled over, they were generally not even covered by religion writers.

In fairness, he's not shy about praising the work of the many journalists he feels have excelled at religion coverage: the late David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, whose 1990 series on how bias shapes religion coverage is "the definitive document;" a "hero," Russ Chandler of the same paper, and Peter Brown, an Orlando Sentinel columnist who wrote a book analyzing the lifestyles of American journalists and how they shape coverage of religion.

It was so complex and controversial, he says, it never found a publisher.

"I told him, 'Peter, if you'd given it the right title - Baby Boomer Urbanites From Hell - things would have been different,' " Mattingly says with a laugh.

As he sees it, Christians share the blame for the news-religion gulf. A seminary graduate, he says the students he works with from religious colleges around the country are so used to "getting ignored and beat up" by newspapers, they often show up in Washington hating and fearing the secular media.

He doesn't advocate "affirmative action for born-again journalists" but rather encourages young believers to get familiar with the profession so they can enrich it from within. Graduates from the four-year-old program are working full-time at newspapers from California to Tennessee.

Monklike in his full beard and glasses, he pads into the tiny study in his home's basement, a room that evokes the impishness with which he sometimes views his work.

"I Strangled Shirley MacLaine In A Previous Life," reads a bumper sticker on a cabinet.

"Dude, she can be annoying," Mattingly says of the actress who claims to have been reincarnated many times.

Soon he'll be banging out next week's 750-word column - he hasn't picked a subject yet - and he's devouring Harry Potter's Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures, a new tome by a friend, John Granger, that argues J.K. Rowling's books are, in effect, Christian apologetics in disguise.

David McHam, a longtime journalism professor at the University of Houston, says an underrated facet of Mattingly's work is his reporting.

"He has an insatiable mind, and he knows how to get the good stuff," McHam says. "I don't know how he does it every week."

To Van Biema, the work has paid off over the years, as Mattingly's critiques have helped sensitize mainstream religious coverage - even now, at a time when newsroom cutbacks are making religion writing a rarer commodity than ever.

"He has plenty of indispensability left in him," the Time writer says.

And Mattingly sees more to be done.

Take that huge, growing Pentecostalist movement in and around New York, largely uncovered in the media, that reflects how immigrants continue to change America. Or that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, sees himself as the "Twelfth Imam" - a fact that has apocalyptic implications, given that nation's pursuit of the bomb. Or last week's closing of Catholic High in Towson? "How come The Sun didn't get into the demographics of that parish?" he asks.

Meanwhile, U2 is coming through Washington this summer, and Mattingly hopes to persuade Bono, with whom he's still in occasional contact, to sit down and speak about faith with journalism students.

He turns to his computer, clicking on an article about Sunni Islam, a topic he says the media still hasn't gotten right, even after covering a war it could have helped explain.

"And people say the religion beat is boring?" he says, shaking his head. "Dude, on what planet?"


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