Neil Heinen: What We Believe

From the election of Pope Francis to the impending visit of the Dalai Lama, religious figures and topics make their way into the news

By Neil Heinen

I've long believed that the vast majority of journalists are just not very good at writing about religion.

There is a pervasive sense of discomfort in reporting on faith issues, which might be understandable given the old saw about friends avoiding the topics of politics and religion were it not for the all-too-eager inclinations of journalists to write about politics.

I remember perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, when I worked in the newsroom at WISC-TV3, then news director Tom Bier making a concerted effort to cover more religion stories, in part because research at the time showed a renewed interest in religion by Americans in general, and in part due to the growth of many local churches and synagogues. As I recall, there were a few more faith-community-based stories than usual, but nothing approaching a "religion beat." The Wisconsin State Journal has a weekly religion column and it's well written. So is the Capital Times's regular religion column, though they cheat a bit by having my good friend and long-time editorial writing colleague—and now ordained United Church of Christ minister—Phil Haslanger handle the duties. Now he knows what he's talking about!

I thought about all this as I simultaneously considered the cover of this month's magazine and reflected on the extraordinary interest, from non-Catholics as much as Catholics, in the election of Pope Francis. Religion is a fascinating topic and it deserves more attention as a facet of life for millions—and, yes, that includes the antithetically bloody mess religious disputes have caused in so many countries.

One of the difficulties in talking to others, even those we are close to, about religion is the very personal nature of our spiritual selves. Even those of us who share a common religious tradition or upbringing have countless subtleties to our beliefs. It's risky to generalize about any particular religion, but I cannot look at the current Dalai Lama without thinking of the word "compassion." I can't say I had an instant connection to a similar value with the previous pope. I'm wondering if that's important, because my suspicion is that it is.

There is an undeniable power in the connection we make in our minds and our hearts between the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion and the man who is the Dalai Lama. It is as if the simple consideration of the Dalai Lama disposes us to be more interested in those values.

I remember having similar thoughts about Jesuit priests when I was young. I went to a Jesuit high school in Milwaukee, and mere mention of the religious order brings to mind rigorous intellectual pursuit—even ideas at odds with traditional Catholic teachings—and a commitment to social justice rooted in political activism. The Jesuits I knew were teachers and artists and they marched and they protested. I miss the vigorous role of the religious left in our country today. And while those days are likely not coming back, their memory for me explains my interest in the first few days of Francis's papacy, from his willingness to mix it up with the common folk to his welcome inclusion of women in a ceremony rooted in outdated symbolism.

We need not agree on any of this. And perhaps that's the point, if you, like I do, accept something said by a friend of Pope John II, Italian government minister Rocco Buttiglione: "I have one rule, the rule of liberal society, which is the rule of freedom. I respect your freedom, and you respect mine. Within this we can talk."

Buttiglione was talking about the complexities of the abortion debate, believe it or not. The Dalai Lama has nurtured that sense of respect for religious belief and freedom. Including the freedom to believe differently.

I wish it were shared more widely.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of his columns here.

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