God on TV

"We believe in heaven and that Tim is with God," says a Catholic woman who lost her husband in the 9-11 attacks. In Denver, an anti-abortion protester shouts at a man accompanying his partner to an abortion clinic, "Turn to Jesus instead of your sulkiness."

"Their spirit, their whole being is in that space, so that makes [Ground Zero] sacred," says a woman leading a campaign to declare hallowed the site of the former World Trade Center buildings.

Welcome to the poignant and contradictory worlds of U.S. religious life. These are just a few of the arresting quotes from last fall's early weeks of the PBS award-winning show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. Program host Bob Abernethy brings a stately eminence to the weekly format of feature stories that explore two or three controversial issues, a look at religious headlines around the world, and calendar events significant to many traditions.

The first weeks took viewers deep into the issues of the day. The shows contained portraits of two widows (one Catholic, one Jewish) grieving the loss of their husbands, an interview about whether accused priests charged with sexual abuse retain their civil rights, debates on a U.S. pre-emptive strike against Iraq, video footage of abortion protesters explaining their confrontational work in front of abortion clinics, and reports from Taize spiritual communities in Europe and Chicago.

The excellence of the program lies in its presentation of the range and complexity of America's religious landscape. U.S. viewers will gain new perspectives on their own religious communities and insights into the often-unknown communal rites of their religious "others." They will ponder the momentous conflicts erupting between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others, yet also witness the shared commonplaces that bind people together across the many divisions of U.S. religion.

The program's user-friendly Web site also allows PBS to point viewers to an ever-more-diverse religious terrain. A real gem is the "Site of the Month," which links Net surfers to the rich world of American religious studies online. Several of those links provide resources for probing more deeply the question of the cultural and political functions of American religion.

GIVEN A PROGRAM brim-full of journalistic excellence, it's not easy to find fault. I can't help but wish, however, that Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly would use its feature stories to push further the limits of its treatment of religion.

The show often contents itself with kaleidoscopic display, or with the point and counterpoint of controversy and debate, so it doesn't quite break free from the limitations of the infotainment ethos pervading much of what passes as news and commentary on many cable network stations. The program needs to probe beyond its display of religious diversity in public life and take up the questions of religion's political and cultural functions. Of course, there is no single function of religion, but an exploration into its diverse effects and power in culture would promote greater understanding of religious life in the United States.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly might go even further by examining the views of Americans sympathetic to the "masters of suspicion" of religion: Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Many Americans—some within religious communities, some outside them—hold with Marx that religion is a kind of opiate for the disenfranchised masses, with Freud that it is a kind of infantile projection, or with Nietzsche that it is a disguised manifestation of resentment.

Also, why not examine the suspicions of feminists and others who see religious communities as prime sites of entrenched patriarchy and hierarchy in American public life? There are also the critics who trace human warfare and racism to the powerful function of religious beliefs in political affairs.

Or bring the question of religious function right into the present: How are religious myths and beliefs operating today amid U.S. mobilization for war and fervent patriotism? Pundits often speak as if the U.S. has separated church and state so well that only Islamist states allow religion a political function. While there are differences to be noted, U.S. power and politics are also nurtured by their religious moorings. It's time to explore questions of function like these, and PBS has the skilled journalists and programmers for the task.

Mark Taylor is professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly airs weekly on PBS.

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