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by Christian Smith
Religiously Ignorant Journalists
Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.
What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university's PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.
"Evangelicals" is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as "evangelists"—as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau—or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Hey, aren't all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them—scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce "evangelicals" at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at "evangelics" and "evangelicalists" they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as "them." These are the knowledge-class ...