Jon Meacham, Sally Quinn Preach on NBC About Need for Religious 'Balance'

NBC's Today carried a series on faith this week, and finished it Thursday morning with two liberal journalists about a new website Newsweek is setting up on faith. It all sounded very much like soft-soap Episcopalianism, no doubt because the preacher on the set was Newsweek editor and Episcopalian Jon Meacham, along with Sally Quinn, a writer best known as the wife of former top Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Ann Curry began by saying Meacham and Quinn "started a conversation about religion over lunch one day, and that discussion hasn't stopped." Curry continued: 

"It's so interesting to think about how, just, what, 20 years ago, we would not speak about faith in America in any sort of big way.  We talked about basically the separation of church and state meant that we didn't speak about church because we felt it was going to inflame and cause problems.  What has changed?  What has changed fundamentally about America that now lets us talk so much about it?  In fact, have it influence policy in America.  Sally."

Quinn: "Well, particularly in Washington, it was embarassing.  In fact, I was interviewed, did a piece about religion in Washington about seven or eight years ago.  One of the great hostesses in Washington, Susan Mary Alice, said: 'Darling it is simply not done.  One never discusses religion.'"

Curry: "Because it gets you into trouble we think.  But now, there's, there's a kind of, is it an openness that we have?  Is it our yearning, Jon, for some kind of a connection in the post 9/11 years?  What is it exactly?"

Jon Meacham: "I think that's part of it.  I think it's also the recognition that church and state are one thing and religion and politics are another. And people are coming to realize that religion, like economics, like their partisan background, llke the geography, are forces that shape, make up who they are. And the idea that you wouldn't talk about something, forgive the pun, so fundamental to who you are, is sort of odd.  So I think it's a combination of the confessional culture.  The fact that, you know, you often have people sitting on the couches like this talking about how they, what they believe, and how they got to be the way they are. Plus, it's recognition that it's an enormously important factor in the life of the nation."

Curry: "82 percent of Americans call themselves Christian according to the stats.  And, and when you use the word fundamental, this is sort of really it, isn't it?  There is a rise of fundamentalism in America and-"

Meacham: "Well, there's a rise, if I may, there is a rise in kind of an evangelical belief."

Curry: "There you go."

Meacham: "And that's different than fundamentalism."

Curry: "OK"

Meacham: "Evangelicalism is the belief in the authority of scripture in the need to bear witness to your faith and a sense that God is part of everything and that's not something just on Sunday mornings."

Curry: "And what they do is that has influenced so much. For example, I know that, I just got back from Darfur and I know that evangelicals have been fund- have been so instrumental and, and, useful in making sure that, that moral question is at least discussed in America.  I mean they've used-"

Meacham: "One of our, exactly, one of our panelists, who, and Sally gets all of the credit for this.  She has been the driving force behind it, the voice in the whirlwind as they would say in the Old Testament. Michael Gerson, President Bush's former speechwriter who writes for Newsweek."

Curry: "Smart man."

Meacham: "Very smart man.  He wrote a piece for us a couple of weeks ago.  And he's going to be on the 'On Faith' conversation online saying that when he was in the White House, he would get calls from fellow evangelicals.  It was never about abortion.  It was never about school prayer.  It was about the Sudan, it was about HIV/AIDS in Africa.  So there is a change going on in terms of the issues in which people are engaged."

Quinn: "Well, I also think, there were two things that I think really changed things, certainly in Washington but, I think around the country.  One of them was 9/11 when people really began to search for some kind of meaning.  Wha-how is this happening?  What does this mean?  But also, politically, you cannot ignore religion when you are trying to make policy, or, or d-diplomacy.  Because it, it influences every single thing that we do.  If you look  at almost every country we're dealing with, particularly the Middle East, religion is the key factor here."

Curry: "And so if it's the key factor, there are still those who are worried about how much power religion will have on politics and on public policy.  I mean it's as though as if we can make the point that religion and faith  can, can give us a conscience and make us perhaps, make better decisions in our own lives and perhaps as a nation make better decisions, because we have a conscience.  The part that, there is however, still a discomfort as to how far that should go.  I mean, where, where do you see this going, Jon?"

Meacham: "We know, Abraham Lincoln, as usual, had it right.  He, during the Civil War, a minister who's on the Union side, came to the White House and said: 'Mr. President I'm so glad that God is on our side.'  And Lincoln said: 'No, no, no. I just want to make sure we're always on God's side.' And so, the great American achievement, which I think we need to project and preach, if you may, to the, if you will, to the rest of the world, is a balance.  Is that you can be fervently privately religious, but that when you go into the public square, when you go into politics, you have to realize that religion needs to just be one thread on the tapestry, not the whole tapestry."

Curry: "Because the tapestry includes many different kinds of faiths."

Quinn: "Which is exactly what our website is about.  On Faith is about trying to understand all different religions. And, Huston Smith, who's one of the great religion scholars said, 'You cannot possibly understand human's culture if you don't understand their religion.'"

Curry: "We don't understand the Muslim faith in America.  I think.."

Quinn: "No."

Curry: "...perhaps one can say..."

Quinn: "You will hopefully..."

Curry: "'s the least understood."

Meacham: "You will, that's right."

Quinn: "After you've, after you've logged on to our site..."

Curry: "You want Americans to understand it more."

Quinn: "Absolutely."

Curry: "Why?  What do you think, how do you think it will help us if we know more about Islam?"

Quinn: "Well, I just take my own personal experience because I was always an atheist until I met Jon who, who talked me out of being an atheist. But what I really understood was that you can't possibly know other people.  You can't possibly know people's yearnings their, their motivations, what drives them to do things unless you understand their religion.  And, and it's so interesting to hear about other people's religions.  To see things, that helps you see things from their point of view.  I think that's what's so valuable about what we're trying to do."

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