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NPR’s religion reporters are not anti-religious

posted by John Schmalzbauer

Last month, conservative trickster James O’Keefe caught NPR fundraising executive Ron Schiller saying this: “The current Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian—I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move.” Yesterday, these secretly-taped remarks were made public, leading to the resignation of both Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation).

Though Ron Schiller’s remarks will be used to defund NPR, they do not represent the network’s coverage of religion.

Far from hostile to evangelicals, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty has sojourned among them. Raised a Christian Scientist, Hagerty writes candidly about her own spiritual journey in Fingerprints of God, describing what sounds like an evangelical epiphany. This incident turned out to be one stop along a long and winding road.

In 2004, her name appeared on the website of the evangelical World Journalism Institute. While Hagerty denied any affiliation with the group (which used her name without permission), she was criticized by several atheism blogs.

Whatever Hagerty’s personal religious views, the episode revealed something important: The evangelicals at WJI had no problem with NPR’s religion coverage. This fact goes unmentioned in World magazine’s story on Schiller’s tea party remarks.

In recent years, Hagerty has received funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Like Templeton’s funding in the social sciences, Hagerty’s grant has attracted criticism from progressives. Whatever the implications of a Templeton fellowship, it is not a sign of anti-religious bias.

For the record, Hagerty gave a nuanced presentation on religion, politics, and the press at a panel I organized for the 2008 meeting of the American Society of Church History.

Other religion-friendly NPR reporters include Cokie Roberts, who I interviewed back in the mid-1990s. Educated by Sacred Heart nuns, Roberts said “Catholicism is part of my fiber and being.” Later in the interview, Roberts criticized Democrats for their tone deafness to religion. The daughter of Louisiana Democratic politicians who were also devout Catholics, she knew what she was talking about.

In the days ahead, religious conservatives will criticize NPR executives for their anti-religious biases. When they do, they should not ignore NPR’s religion reporting.

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2 Responses to “NPR’s religion reporters are not anti-religious”

  1. avatar Paul Harvey says:

    Aside from their national reporters, local NPR affiliates do a lot of great religion stuff that doesn’t often get mentioned anywhere. I wrote about that here:

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/3784/%E2%80%9Cliberal_nazis%E2%80%9D%3A_the_republican_crusade_against_npr__/

  2. Paul: Forgot about your great piece on local NPR in Colorado Springs. If ever there was a place that deserved in-depth religion reporting, it was the Springs.

    Your piece reminded me of the way our local public television affiliate (Ozarks Public Television) explores the cultural history of this part of the world. Ozarks Watch video magazine is invaluable. Thanks to digitization it is available online. I hope that it never goes away. Commercial television stations don’t have as much invested in that kind of program.

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