Perhaps the most prominent journalist covering religion in the United States says there will never be a shortage of good stories on his beat."This is an enduringly religious country," said Gustav Niebuhr, who covers religion for The New York Times. "Americans are always rediscovering their faith and the ways faith interacts with society."There is official separation of church and state in the United States, but never any separation of religious experience and culture."Niebuhr's keen eye and appreciation for the subtleties of a religious landscape that ranges from religious fundamentalism to the latest experiments in New Age spirituality have won him a string of prizes and, more importantly, the respect both of his colleagues in the secular press, and of staff in the religious press and in the denominations he regularly covers."Those of us in the church press depend on the integrity and professionalism of reporters like Gus Niebuhr to tell our stories, and it certainly helps when they can write with the sensitivity and skill that he has at his command," James Solheim, director of Episcopal News Service, told ENI. "He has made huge contributions to a better understanding of religion in American society."Later this month, Niebuhr will collect an award in recognition of his reporting from the Presbyterian Writers Guild which has chosen Niebuhr, aged 44, as "Distinguished Writer of the Year." Niebuhr will receive the award during the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Long Beach, California.During a recent interview at The New York Times' offices in mid-town Manhattan, Niebuhr said he was in "august company," as previous winners of the award—all members of the Presbyterian Church—included writers of fiction and poetry.Asked by ENI how the Reformed tradition of Protestantism affected his outlook as a journalist, Niebuhr said he always tried to represent those he covered in a fair and accurate way and to place them in a greater historical context—not always an easy task given the vagaries and deadline pressures of daily journalism."Being aware of the connection between people and ideas, particularly the larger context and the source of their ideals, is very important," Niebuhr told ENI. "Context and history count for a lot."A good religion writer, he said, must not only be a fair and accurate reporter, but also be a good listener, and acknowledge "that you are getting a larger story bits at a time."Niebuhr said he drew inspiration from the writings of his grandfather, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, and his great-uncle, ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, because they helped him "think about the larger issues of society."Niebuhr did not even set out to be a religion writer. After attending Pomona College in California and earning a graduate degree at Oxford University in England, Niebuhr began his career in 1980 working for a small newspaper in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts "covering schools and barn burnings."He later covered local politics and the shipping industry in New Orleans. Then in 1985 a friend from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution told him the newspaper had an opening for a religion writer. "I'd never even thought about it before," Niebuhr said. "Then it hit me—I knew all at once I wanted to do it."It took Niebuhr nine months to persuade the Atlanta newspaper to hire him. It did—and in quick succession Niebuhr worked there, then at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post before being hired by The New York Times in 1994. As he surveys religious institutions today, Niebuhr said that the durability of religious institutions—including some which have faced financial and institutional problems in the recent past—should not be underestimated."I don't think [mainstream Protestant] denominations are going away," he said, pointing out also that the "World Council of Churches is enduring, and people have not given up on the ecumenical ideal."Indeed, a sense of history and shared identity continued to be sources of strength for US churches, even as—in the case of the United Methodists, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians—disagreements over homosexuality seemed to test denominational unity."I think their historical identity makes them durable, as does the fact that they offer a spiritual home to people," Niebuhr said, adding that within all of these denominations "there is great diversity" and their members took great care to see that contentious issues were played out fairly.But Niebuhr acknowledged there was less denominational loyalty in the United States than there once was. In fact, Niebuhr himself—raised as a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC)—is typical of many of his generation who have changed their denomination. But, he said, once people found a new spiritual home, they tended to stay committed to their new church."None of this is to say that anything in American religion is simple or follows formulas," he said. "But the evidence points to the US remaining a seriously religious country, and that's across the [theological] spectrum."
Copyright © 2000 ENI.Gustav Niebuhr's religion columns can be accessed at The New York Times Web site, or click here to read his latest Religion Journal entry " The Early Antislavery Voice of 'The Last Puritan.'"A January 8, 1999 speech Niebuhr gave at Calvin College on " The Church and the Challenge of Contemporary American Culture" is available in RealAudio format here. (Be warned, however, that the speech hasn't been "cleaned up"—there's three and a half minutes of silence before the speech begins.)Trace the Niebuhr family's spiritual tradition by reading up on H. Richard Niebuhr, who has shaped the understanding of Christian ethics and popular culture, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who has outlined the relationship between politics and diplomacy.
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