Jon Meacham is executive editor at Random House, former editor of Newsweek magazine, and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008).
Randall Balmer: Well, John, always a pleasure. I guess my first question is, how do you do it? How do you do everything you do and have done–you know, winning the Pulitzer Prize at the age of six and things of that sort?
Jon Meacham: That’s very kind. I am incredibly lucky, incredibly fortunate. Thank you, professor. I am really about 72. I’m just sort of trapped in this body.
Meacham: And rightly, and rightly. I went to an Episcopal Montessori which is kind of redundant when you think about it. Sorry. I gotta remember who we’re talking to. We could probably have a quorum here. We could make new policy for the Episcopal Church. Given there are so few of us left, to have two in one place is remarkable and we haven’t thrown anything at each other yet.
I went to a little school. Went to a prep school in Chattanooga that managed to produce both Pat Robertson and Ted Turner. So we had a foot in every conceivable camp as you can imagine. And then went to Sewanee which as you know is kind of a combination of Brideshead Revisited and Deliverance, which is a very odd southern college, which I love and adored and we spend an enormous amount of time there, but it is an eclectic little place.
And what was so important there and what was important to me all the way through has been politics as the way we are when we’re outside our houses, beyond ourselves. Which is also religion and its role. I grew up an Episcopalian and take religious history incredibly seriously, as well as devotion, which is more of a private matter. But occasionally when people ask me, “Why are you interested in religion,” I say, “Well, why are you not?” And that’s the more interesting question.
If you don’t understand the force that determines how time is told, no matter what you believe, then it’s rather like saying I don’t think I’m gonna worry about how economics works. It’s unilateral disarmament, it seems to me, intellectually. And emotionally perhaps. But again I think that’s more of a private matter.
And so I grew up on the Civil War battlefield. That was another part of it. Missionary Ridge where Arthur MacArthur won his Medal of Honor charging up, breaking Bragg’s line and that’s how Sherman got to Georgia. You could still find minié balls in our yard literally in the 1970s and ‘80s.
So to me history was very tactile. It was very much part of everything around you and so the idea that I would make a living being able to write about it and joining these interests, the political and the religious and the literary, is an incredibly fortunate circumstance for me.
Balmer: And then you went to work for the Chattanooga Times.
Meacham: Yes. Then I went to work for the Chattanooga Times which was Adolf Ochs’ first and slightly less successful investment than his second one up here, this local paper the New York Times. But the man who made the New York Times into what it is in 1896 bought the Chattanooga Times and ran it and the family kept it until 1997 or so. It was an incredibly important force in Chattanooga, which is part of a border state, but border state cities certainly had their woes in the civil rights movement. The Times was hugely important in being a force for a kind of progressive and enlightened politics in what could have been a very volatile and violent situation given the violence and the volatility that was prevalent throughout this time.
The man who gave me my first job basically was a man named John Poppo, who was the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times. He had been the first full-time national correspondent of the New York Times to cover the South, and he was a great reporter for one thing, but the other reason is he talked like this [impersonation]. And his voice sounded like sorghum sugar shot from a Gatling gun.
And so he could sit there and talk to these sheriffs and just say the most amazingly profane and confrontational things and they would all be completely charmed. So that was an early lesson in the effectiveness of Southern manners.
He was the fellow who had a famous picture of him in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse during the Emmett Till trial in 1955. And Poppo’s a little guy, very elegant, very dapper, but not of great stature. Talking to Sheriff H.C. Strider, straight out of central casting, who was trying to throw all the Yankee reporters out of the courtroom. And Poppo was standing there saying, “There’s no God-damn way that’s gonna happen.”
And so I grew up with the sense that journalism could make a difference and an immediate difference. I was there for a couple of summers when I was in school and then about two years, I guess, after that I then went to work for the Washington Monthly. We stole this line about the nation. Washington Monthly pays in the high two figures. I was the last $10,000.00 a year man. They raised it to $11,500.00 after I left. I worked there for two years and then came to New York for Newsweek in ‘95.
Balmer: Journalism can make a difference. Let’s talk about journalism and then I want to circle back to religion here. We live as you know better than anyone in this room in difficult times for journalism. Can you talk a little bit about the makeover of Newsweek in recent years, of where things are going, the challenges that certainly persist in the world of journalism?
Meacham: There are a few. Since you mention it. To me this is a fascinating era. I guess everyone believes their own era is the most fascinating, and there are fewer sentences more ignored in Holy Scripture than, “There is no new thing under the sun.” But there it is.
And so we are living through two great transformations. One is in terms of readers and the other is in terms of basic economics of publishing. The two are not necessarily connected. There are more people than ever reading journalism, consuming news. It’s just more people than ever, we’re not able to account for them in a way that we can convince advertisers who support our news gathering and our thinking to support us in the same way that they have really, I guess, for a century. I guess that’s a fair marker.
So we have, broadly put, anyone who has a blog, anyone who writes anything at all who has the capacity to reach more people than at any other time in human history. And I use that quite advisably. Literally that is true. You have something to say and it’s on the Internet and it rises through whatever means to wide attention, more people will see it than anything else. Ever.
What we have to decide, what we have to figure out I should say, is what is the role of an editor and an institution between these shifts in terms of economics and the way people read. People tend to, as you all know, they tend to be interested in subjects as opposed to institutions or in particular columnists or voices. Very few people, I suspect, of the traditional student age here think, “I really want to know what the New York Times has to say about this.” They want to know what Tom Friedman has to say about it. They want to know what’s happening and whether the Times is doing it. But what’s changing generationally—and it’s not true for everyone obviously—but what is clearly changing generationally is a broader tendency to identify with individual voices, individual subjects.
So where does that leave the institutions that have helped shape the public debate for more than a century? Time magazine is 85 years old. We’re 76. The Ochs’ New York Times is 113. Go down the list. The networks obviously.
What we decided at Newsweek is that we have to find a way to allow readers and to have readers think of us as I just described people have a hard time doing. That is, I want people to want to know on Monday or whenever day it is that they happen to check in online what’s on Newsweek’s cover. In the reader’s view, “I trust that there are some people whose names I know, some people whose names I don’t know, who are thinking, who are working very hard, who have something intelligent to add or have found something out that’s important to add to the conversations I care about.” And sometimes that’s about opinion journalism and sometimes that’s about straightforward shoe-leather journalism. I can point to the last six months of Newsweek covers and stories and show you examples of each kind. They key thing is that we are struggling–and when we get it right it’s fantastic, and when we get it wrong it’s not, just to say the least–to be surprising, to be interesting but not puzzling if that makes sense. And it’s a great fight and it’s hard. It’s hard to shift your thinking from the situation where a lot of places were, which is where we will take note of news event “x,” add a certain detail, add a certain thought and expect that not only will the readers be there, but those readers will support an economic structure that allows us to do this.
And I know this is slightly counterintuitive, or seems perhaps contradictory, but I’m convinced we can win this battle with readers. I have complete faith in extraordinary people who work for our organization and who work for many of the organizations that are very much part of the American and the global journalistic community. But with this parallel crisis going, and I use that word advisedly, this parallel change in terms of the economics of publishing, the great hope, and what we have to fight for, is to have time to convince the new readers and keep the familiar ones, engage them in a way that we can then demonstrate to advertisers.
It’s pretty straightforward. I mean if we don’t do that [claps hands] then the market will explode.
Balmer: And what do you think about the proposal that was raised I believe in the Op-Ed page of the Times about making news organizations into nonprofit organizations?
Meacham: You need about $1 billion to do that as an endowment. If anyone has anything, I’m here and I can wait afterwards.
I think there’s a lot to it—Harper’s has been a foundation. The Washington Monthly is now one. A lot of publishers will tell you even though their institutions may not be nonprofits officially, they certainly are unofficially.
So there are precedents for this. One of the things you hear about that is, “If a newspaper became a nonprofit would you have the standing to challenge the government, to challenge institutions that might be able to cut the legs out from under you by revoking your status or something like that?”
It’s an interesting question. It doesn’t seem to affect Amnesty International much, that fear. It doesn’t appear, you know, if you think about the number of groups that are quite good at challenging authorities, so I think that argument is not ultimately decisive.
It is true that once a generation or more you end up with something like Bill Keller of the New York Times sitting in the Oval Office telling George W. Bush that he’s gonna run the story about NSA wiretapping, or you end up with Katharine Graham deciding, as her company’s going public, to publish the Pentagon Papers knowing that her licenses could be taken away from the TV stations. That’s a case where the private sector—there’s ways for them to fight back.
So it’s a real question. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet and God knows we’ve looked for them. If anyone had figured this out we would be very excited and we would shamelessly emulate them. You all would probably be better at this than I would in terms of analogies. Is this the telegraph to the telephone? Is this the telephone to the Internet? Is this horse and buggy to—you can get lost in analogy land but it is certainly a transformation. But one thing that won’t go away, and I don’t mean to sound—well, with you I certainly couldn’t sound—I don’t want to sound preachy. Hahaha! That’s a good one.
I apologize. The country’s gonna be worse off and the world’s gonna be worse off with fewer voices. The more voices the better.
Balmer: Now coming back to the coverage of religion, and let me just check my impression with your understanding of the situation. My impression has been over the last couple of decades, or maybe decade and a half, there really was I think a great improvement in the coverage of religions. Many news organizations have dedicated reporters or at least reporters who sought to educate themselves on religion and to do so in a much more sophisticated way.
However, my impression is also that with these deep cuts, and looking at my address book, a lot of the people who used to call regularly have been laid off. And these are the more specialized reporters who lost their jobs in this turndown. Am I right about that? And where do we stand in the coverage of religion?
Meacham: That’s interesting. Let’s take the first part first. I agree with you. I think that for a long time religion was church picnics, sermon topics, and an occasional convention of a denomination for a very long time. People began to take it more seriously. My sense is that change began, and you know more about this than I do, the first time the word “evangelical” appeared on the cover of Newsweek was 1976.
Balmer: The year of…
Meacham: The year of. Right. Exactly. The year of the UN and it was about President Carter, obviously. People forget the Democrats were the ones who brought the religious right to the party in many ways. And suddenly there was this force, you know, the Moral Majority’s role—both their role in 1980 and their amazing capacity to talk about their role and possibly one would argue potentially exaggerate.
Cal Thomas as you know can tell you many, many stories about that. Cal was Jerry Falwell’s press secretary. Of all the jobs I would not want. Radar operator at Pearl Harbor, Jerry Falwell’s press secretary. And maybe not in that order. Clearly he became a force to be reckoned with. You could tell from the way moderate Republicans had to suddenly start dealing with religious conservatives and then the Republican Party, and we all know that story.
I think I’m right in saying that the broad media discussion of religion moved from very simple church topics and Billy Graham—Billy was always there. You all may know this anecdote but one of the reasons we know so much about Billy Graham is he was conducting revivals I think before New York in ‘57.
Balmer: It was Los Angeles ‘49.
Meacham: Los Angeles in ‘49. William Randolph Hearst sent a telegram saying, “Puff Graham,” to his editors—and kind of, like, “Jesus wept.” Those are two big words in retrospect. And so he was always a cultural figure. But then I think it was the political introduction, the clear political intersection that really brought it. And then people started writing about it as a political matter which drove religious people crazy because they didn’t really know the nuances. And the news magazines for, I guess certainly the late ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, would do stories about religious figures. Paul Moore was on the cover of Newsweek, largely because he and Oz [Osbourne] Elliott were best friends, but there were other reasons too. ‘Is God Dead?’ was on the cover of Time magazine in 1965. One of my favorite things to say when people ask me, “Why don’t you news magazines do news anymore?” I always ask, “Was ‘Is God Dead?’ tied to an event?” Was there a peg for that? Something happened that week? And then they looked nervous. [Laughter]
Then it turned historical because we found something out. And this is a confession, this may surprise you all, but commercial factors played a small role in the news magazines’ attention to historical religion. For a long time—I’d argue the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, up until about 2004 or 5—if you put the word “Jesus” on the cover of one of these magazines, sales would go up substantially. And not that I would ever have participated in that, but I wrote seven of them. [Laughter]
And my joke was for years—which dates me now at this point—that the perfect news magazine cover at a certain point would have been, “The New Science of a Gay Jesus. Plus What It Means for Your Health.” Those were all the words right there that worked for a time. And that began to taper off.
So I think where we are now is—I hope where we are now—is a place where we can write about ideas in culture and religion as a force. That’s certainly what we try to do. Professor Taylor very kindly helped us with a story that I wrote last Easter on the decline and fall of Christian America which was about the same themes as the 1965 Times story.
A quick story I want to tell you. I wrote a very tough cover story on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ on Ash Wednesday 2004. And I thought the movie was anti-Semitic. I thought it chose the most historically implausible and the passages most hostile to the Jewish people in the role of the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, and so I wrote a piece saying much of this.
It did not go over hugely well in my home region. These were the days before BlackBerries. I came into the office on the Monday after we published the piece and I had email from an evangelical in my native South that simply said, “Dear Mr. Meacham, I am praying for you but I hope you go to hell.” So he gives you some sense of what one is up against.
Balmer: That’s right. I can’t resist a quick anecdote about Cal Thomas since you brought up Cal Thomas.
Balmer: When I was down at the Carter Center doing research I came across a letter from Cal Thomas to the Carter White House in 1979 begging for a job.
Meacham: Yes. So he was already trying to get out. That’s interesting.
Balmer: Getting back to religion reporting, your sense is that where we’re going right now is that general interest reporters are gonna have to take up this beat?
Meacham: Yes. Now that’s an interesting question. That word. To what extent are traditional news organizations gonna be able to support a beat system? One can argue that’s one of the things that got us into this situation where you have people who may or may not be expert in something assigned to something and they may or may not bring passion to it and intellectual interest.
It’s so important, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about its importance anymore. I think there may have been a time when you could have walked into a lot of newsrooms and said, “This is a hotbed of secularism.” Most of the people I know in the media are socially liberal and fiscally conservative by and large. And they are probably center or left in the country but they’re not hard left. And there are a lot more conservatives than you might think or certainly get the impression of that.
I think the one thing about religion, as different kinds of journalists now have to write about the issues, a significant thing for editors to work on will be getting over—most people bring a personal, one could say baggage, one could say experience, enthusiasm, lack of enthusiasm. You hear the word “religion” and you tend in your mind to go to some personal experience in the past. Some horrible Sunday School you were dragged to or something else. Or the crazy grandmother who made you read the Bible. Whatever that one might be. More so than going to cover a school board meeting or something.
So it is a much more emotional issue not only for the audience but for the journalist. And there are some who argue it should be covered as clinically as a water board meeting. My personal view is that the ideas are so potent, the trends in terms of how people think, act, vote, behave, marry, divorce, raise their children, whatever it may be, are so critical that you have to get inside the world in order to understand it fully and to do justice to it. To explain it not only to people who are on the outside looking in but to people who are on the inside.
Balmer: I’d like to talk a bit more in substance and I think we’re gonna have time for questions so I’ll not pursue this very much longer but I want to talk about American Gospel which is a wonderful book.
Meacham: Thank you.
Balmer: I use it in my classes.
Meacham: My children thank you. [Laughter]
Balmer: I guess I want to ask you how you came to that and to ask to what extent it was topical. In the sense that you were addressing issues that were very much and are very much still in the arena of public discourse.
Meacham: That’s a terrific question. I wrote that book because I drove my agent crazy at a lunch. I went on and on because one day in August of 2005 there was a story on the front page of the New York Times about the intelligent design debate in Pennsylvania. And the Times were doing a series on this, and a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist was reported to have told a student questioner in a forum not unlike this that you could not be a believer and be a scientist. That would come as news to Galileo for instance so that’s one thing.
The same day, inside the paper, about Page A18, there was a story about Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. And I thought, you know, almost everybody I know is on Page A9. It’s somewhere between. These are the extremes and it didn’t track with my personal experience, frankly.
I had come off the Mel Gibson experience. Billy Graham came, as you remember, in 2005 to New York and it was a large cultural experience here. Showed how good he is at the media elite. He saw all the anchors. He saw everyone and so that was in the air a little bit.
And then there was the moral values poll. The exit poll in 2004. Now if we’ve learned anything in the last eight years, surely to God it is that we don’t pay attention to exit polls but a plurality, I think it was 34 percent of voters in 2004 said that moral values had been the most significant issue on which they had voted and everybody’s heads exploded. What could this mean?
And so you had all this churning. This topicality, I thought. And again, I’m a believer. I acknowledge that. I’m not a very good one in many ways. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “It’s not the duty of a Christian to succeed but to fail cheerfully.” And I fail all the time and I’m very cheerful most of the time.
And my church, our church, is in endless chaos. The Episcopal Church. We used to just fight about whether it be gin or vodka and now it’s more complicated, but those were happier days actually when we did that.
Balmer: That’s right.
Meacham: But all that was going on. Politics, liberal stuff was going on. The cultural stuff was clearly going on. And there didn’t seem to be a lot of folks in the middle saying, in the classic Anglican tradition, “you know, I’m not sure either extreme has this right.”
Jack Danforth has, Madeleine Albright since then. You have. And I was thinking how to tell that story. So I was at this lunch boring this poor woman to death with this long rant and she finally said, “Well, just write a book about it.” Fine. And so I started thinking is there something to say about it? And I hit upon the idea of using American history because I was trying to think, how do you maximize your potential audience on an issue like this? Because I wanted believers to read it and I wanted nonbelievers to read it and believe it. Both.
And so I thought, well, history is the one thing on which both those groups might begin to agree because it appeals to a rationalist belief in empirical evidence based on something that falls into the realm of reason, known facts. Abraham Lincoln said these things about God so you can’t really get around that. You’d have to debate that.
And it appealed to, for lack of a better term, the conservative part of original intent and “the past was always better”—that myth, I think. So doing something historical felt to me to be the best way to the most people.
Balmer: And I have to ask about the Treaty of Tripoli.
Meacham: I love the Treaty of Tripoli.
Balmer: How did you come across it?
Meacham: Article 11, I think it was. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli was that a government of the United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian religion and so therefore shall have no freestanding claim of controversy against nations which do not, Muslim nations.
Balmer: Or Mussulman as they call it.
Meacham: Mussulman, that’s right. Later we’ll do a more dramatic reading of this treaty if you all want to stick around.
Balmer: How did you discover this? I’ve read in this field for years and the Treaty of Tripoli has never come up.
Meacham: Really? I broke the Treaty of Tripoli news for you?
Balmer: I think you did.
Meacham: I’m gonna tell my kids to comp that. Just running through the church/state stuff. I don’t remember exactly where but it was funny. It was 1797 so it was right after Washington had left and Adams had become president, and it was negotiated by a man named Joel Barlow. I’ve always loved this description of him: everyone describes him as a “poet diplomat.” I aspire to be a “poet diplomat.”
He was a great friend of Tom Paine’s and had written this into this Barbary pirate war treaty, and it had been left out of some published versions so therefore some more conservative folks have said, ”Oh, well you can’t”—that it wasn’t real. It was read out loud to the senate. It was published. It was voted on that way. And it was a clear statement of the secular nature of the federal establishment early on.
And we forget sometimes—if I can maybe anticipate something. I would argue that one of the most wondrous things about the American founding is the devotion to liberty of conscience. The right to believe or not believe.
Now it’s part of the air we breathe so we don’t acknowledge what remains a great victory because it should be part of the air we breathe. But in the context of the time, when kings were seen as ordained of God and divine right, the idea that this group of quite, I think, religious folks were able to find this balance between grounding human rights and the divine (“endowed by their creator” and “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”), which made those rights inviolate and put them beyond the reach of either the hands of the king or the hands of the mob, while creating secular government, is arguably one of the greatest achievements in human history.
Balmer: Utterly unprecedented.
Meacham: Yeah, yeah.
Balmer: Picking up on that, I want to talk about your essay, “The End of Christian America.”
Meacham: Get in line.
Balmer: Just to refresh folks’ memory on this, the peg was the survey that showed a decline in the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christian from 86 to 76 percent since 1990. You point out, thank you, that there are twice as many atheists as there Episcopalians in America.
You talked about Americans describing themselves as spiritual rather than religious, and then I want to read a couple of excerpts here. “I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called ‘the garden of the church’ from ‘the wilderness of the world.'”
When I usually talk about this I often emphasize that Puritans did not have romantic views about wilderness. He wanted to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world.
You go on later, “The decline and fall of the modern religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and for many believers may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life. The American culture of religious liberty helped create a busy free market of faith. By disestablishing churches, the nation made religion more popular, not less.”
And finally, “The American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two. History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other.” And I’m not sure what my question is other than to have you comment further on that.
Meacham: I agree with everything you just read.
Balmer: You agree with everything. Yes. Okay. But this article created quite a stir and a lot of negative attention as well as, I’m sure, positive.
Meacham: Right. But no, the positive I’m still waiting on. It produced my favorite headline ever which I have on my office wall that says, “Christian Media Calls for Meacham Firing.” So that was a good one.
It did because people thought I was saying that Christianity was dead. Which, no—if you would read the thing you would see what I was saying. I think the attempt to create an enduring religious right in the political life of the nation that is decisive, a decisive force, is over. Is over for now. It’ll come back obviously because everything does. But in the way of our country, in the way of the Madisonian construct, we’ve had this battle. We’ve had this argument.
And I believe we are a center-right nation. The other side gets mad at me for that. Culturally I think that our tendency is to be conservative. And so it makes it all the more remarkable in many ways that an explicitly religious political force has found itself spent after 30 years. And I believe very firmly that if one is a Christian—we’re talking a lot about Christianity here because that’s the predominant force in these terms—if you believe all this stuff you believe, you’ve pledged to things that would make these folks just go crazy. If you believe that it is quite possible that the Son of Man is gonna come descending upon clouds of glory possibly one day when you’re crossing Broadway, doesn’t that put everything else into context? To some extent.
I mean, we say the Lord’s Prayer. I say the Lord’s Prayer every day with my children, but it’s quite apocalyptic when you actually pull the thing apart. “Thy kingdom come.” That’s a prayer, in terms of the kingdom theology of 1st century Judaism, for the apocalypse. Or for a Davidic Son of Man military figure to emerge, carry on a battle that would be both against ghosts and spirits and on earth in order to bring about a general resurrection of the dead and an upturning of everything we know. Good night, sweetheart!
You know? There’s great contrasts in this and so I take it very seriously. I think that to some extent we have domesticated religion in this country, and it’s not about prayer breakfasts. I’m not being unkind. I’m not being harsh about this, but religious faith in all the great world religions, with possibly some exceptions of ones that began in the East, are difficult and contradictory and about the final, final things.
And we have been lucky, as Karen Armstrong and others have argued, to have distilled a message of care and concern for one another from those traditions, but you can’t separate them. You have to at least intellectually engage with the fact that religious faith often calls on followers to do reprehensible things. If you take it literally.
And that’s why most people, it seems to me, most sensible religious believers don’t take it all literally. You read Leviticus in context. You read Revelation in context. You read the Gospels in context. These were documents that were not FedEx’d down from heaven. They were written in a time and a place by men and women, followers who had particular concerns and particular passions and particular insights at that given moment.
And so to therefore take something written in haste during a great captivity or during a great time of crisis in the life of a small community and say, “Therefore here we are in the 21st century and we’re gonna do exactly this,” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Balmer: Let me invite folks to come up and to ask their own questions, and as you’re doing that I’ll lob one final topic question in your direction. What is your take on the Vatican’s overture to Anglicans and Episcopalians?
Meacham: Don’t they have enough problems? [Laughter] Without having all of us over there? I thought it was interesting. I almost admired the Vatican’s basically saying, “Look, you’re essentially Catholics so just come on over. And we’ll let you keep your costumes and your stage sets.”
Meacham: That’s what it was. You can keep your costumes and you can keep your stage sets and—
Balmer: And your wives.
Meacham: And your wives. Yeah. Depending on the day that’s a good or bad thing for me. My wife would say the same. Only the other way.
I think it’s most harmful, frankly, potentially harmful, not in the United States or in England even but in the developing world where moderate Christianity has a hard enough time. And if you’re a Christian denomination trying to take your place in the world against forces of potential extremism in another faith, to be invited to join an even harder-line group seems to me unfortunate.
Balmer: Open it to the floor. There are microphones up here please.
Audience Member 1: Hi. I have a question about the future of print media. You touched on this a little earlier, but isn’t there the feeling that print media can be compared to the Titanic because it’s doomed? So do you agree? Do you agree with that kind of logic?
Meacham: I haven’t seen that at all. I’ll give you my opinion. For what is it worth. We are not doomed. We face a challenge that requires us to rethink how we do things, how we gather news, how we present it. How we gather it and how we get it to folks.
And we also have to redefine to some extent what we mean by news. News is largely a commodity. If you’re in a community, if you’re in the broad community of people who are likely to be most engaged you’re probably gonna know the headlines through the day. And at night you’ll catch up with them all at once very quickly.
So where does that leave a magazine? My friends in the newspaper business can speak for themselves. They have plenty of things to worry about too. I sometimes turn the phrase “news magazine,” which is a term coined in the 1920s by the co-founder of Time, Briton Hadden, into thinking that we do best in my shop when we think of ourselves not as a news magazine but as a magazine about the news. About things that are going on and that we are adding whether it’s our perspective or facts or a narrative that you did not know.
Simply taking note of things and figuring that our presentation is marginally better than someone else’s will not surprise you, engage you. Horace said the function of poetry is to delight and instruct. And at our best we can entertain and instruct. I think that, Lord knows, people make mistakes. We will always because we’re human. We’ll always be vulnerable to that.
But I think people will always need a place to go to or have something come to them on a device of some kind that will offer them ways to think about the world and things they care about that they might not have thought of.
Audience Member 1: And does it involve doing away with print?
Meacham: Oh, physically?
Audience Member 1: Yeah.
Meacham: I don’t know. The cool thing to say is, “No.” But I’m not very cool, as you can see. So it’s hard for me to imagine that the world Gutenberg gave us goes away in my lifetime. I think I’ll still be reading things on paper.
Will my children, who are all under the age of seven? They will because I’m gonna give ‘em everything I’ve got that hasn’t been thrown away. I will inflict many, many books on them. My wife’s convinced because I’m a high church historian all of my children are gonna become atheist fortune tellers out of a pure reaction.
But the question you ask is hugely important because in terms of digital technology, and forgive my possibly overly facile analogy here, one way of looking at digital delivery of the printed word is that we are kind of where a Sony cassette/Walkman was. You may not remember that in here but that’s okay. Professor Balmer will explain.
There was this thing called a Victrola. There will be I think an interim step which would be a CD Walkman. And then it seems to me there’s gonna be an iPod and I don’t know whether it’s just gonna be like a Kindle or like the Tablet coming from Apple, HP has one, Sony has one.
So the question is, and this goes to your print question: will the magazine genre—that is having an editor, a designer, putting together pictures, words, graphics, using typography to make some kind of intellectual or editorial point, which is what a magazine is—will that genre survive? Is it translatable? Is it deliverable, producible in an electronic way?
We may be living in a world where very soon there’s electronic paper and, yes, Newsweek is beamed to you. You look at the page and you push it and it comes and goes. The idea that we would have been expecting we’d be so comfortable with iPods, etc., even five years ago, ten years ago, certainly was fanciful.
If we’ve learned anything in the information revolution starting in the late 1980s going forward, it’s that nothing should ever be dismissed as fanciful. The Jetsons were right.
Audience Member 2: I was wondering, how many books have you written? Which one is your favorite? And I’ll ask the second question to save time. Do you have any World Series predictions?
Meacham: I know. It’s 27 minutes until the first pitch. Not that I’m watching the clock. We have a bet in the office, actually. The editor of the front of the book says the Yankees in six. The man I think is probably right says the Phillies in seven. You know, baseball’s interesting. Baseball has changed. But then it hasn’t, you know? So in all these questions it’s important to look around and see there are institutions that can adapt and change and still be very much a part of the fabric of the nation.
Favorite book. No, I don’t and I refer us to one of the great Lyndon Johnson stories, when he visited Vietnam I think in ‘65, maybe ‘66. He was on an airstrip and he was turning to walk to an airfield helicopter and thought that this was his, and he got in and the aide said, “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” And Johnson said, “Son, they’re all my helicopters.” [Laughter]
They’re all my books so I love them. Very lucky. Thank you.
Audience Member 3: In my academic work on religion a dilemma that I kept having was whether the best way to approach something that had to do with religion was seeing it as being about religion, per se, or seeing through the lens of something else such as economics. And even formed by some knowledge about other religions and that sort of thing.
When I see these questions now about journalists and I see the firing of religion reporters, I wonder whether a dedicated religion beat really is the best way, or whether the way is to have reporters on other desks at other beats more informed about religion. And I just wonder how you think about that topic. In some ways I think that the religion desk is kind of best suited to following the picnics.
Meacham: Yeah, yeah.
Audience Member 3: Because they’re not following economics and politics and all the things that are enmeshed, what makes religion more explosive.
Meacham: Right. I think that is a great question. I’ll get in trouble with this but why not. To me to think of religion as an academic question through some other lens—religion as a sociological portal—is a little like political science which is sort of history without the fun. [Laughter] Let’s take all the characters out and all the cool stuff and make it a science—there are other analogies I could use, like the old movies and you go through cutting the interesting parts.
But anyway I think you’re exactly right about the desk. I’m sorry I didn’t answer earlier, but this goes to the point of a liberal education. The journalists who are gonna survive, thrive, and do very well in this era are a lot like the journalists who have survived and thrived and did well in others, which are people who are able to think holistically about something and not simply through a narrow lens.
If you’re a business reporter now the best business reporters are great biographers with a great eye for human drama who understand the politics of something. They don’t just understand the numbers. That’s a critical part of it, but the great people we read are people who are able to take a view that a humanist would have taken four or five, six centuries ago.
And so a liberal education I think is the best way to do that. I would think that—that’s what I had, so take that into account. I think you put your finger on it. If you’re gonna write about politics you have to understand that economics, religion, geography, partisanship, someone’s health, someone’s spouse, someone’s family are all relevant.
Now this is a man who writes biographies talking, so I would say that. But if you think about the books you’ve read and remember and the pieces you’ve read and remember where there was a clear authorial voice that came through, I bet you those folks were, if not literally then figuratively, “liberal arts reporters.”
Audience Member 4: I have a question about the discourse in the United States around Islam which seems to me to be going in a direction that is not conducive to pursuing good relations at a time when they are particularly important. Just to give you an example of what I am talking about, at a town hall during McCain’s 2008 campaign in response to a comment about Obama being an Arab, the response that was given was, “No, he’s not. He’s a good man.”
And the implication there to me is that the two are mutually exclusive. And what struck me was that the focus in the media and in general was on the question rather than the response. I’ve heard similar things from other politicians as well and I was wondering what are your thoughts are, and how the media can contribute to a discourse that is more conducive to fostering better relations with Islam.
Meacham: That’s a great question. I don’t remember the incident. I remember vaguely. I will say this for Senator McCain. I don’t know if you’ve ever been out on the presidential campaign trail. It’s madness. And we should basically get to the end of the campaign and then take people who didn’t run because they’re better rested and they’re saner.
John McCain was standing there. He had some person say something that as he heard it I’m sure it was something along the lines of the birthers or the terrorist accusations. Remember that terrible look on McCain’s face when he heard “terrorist” late in the campaign? So I wouldn’t parse—and I know McCain. He doesn’t think that.
There are two great questions of our time. Right? One is, will China just come and take everything? That’s one. The rise of China and whether it will have traditional nation-state ambitions that will affect the balance of power.
And the other is a tangle of issues that are related but not causal involving a part of the world in which extremism from a very few, by a very few, and their quite violent ambitions have defined now a decade-long struggle. It is in a way shocking to me when I think back and I think how little we knew about Islam at all on the 12th of September in 2001.
And that just goes to your point—that that context would lead us, that we would have to learn about it in a context of an unimaginable terrorist act. And so I might argue that what’s remarkable is that it hasn’t been worse, which is not the premise of your question. But I remember us being so ready when we did stories on it for the wave of hate crimes and terrible things, and there were some, and it was horrible. But I think by and large the country—America and I think the press—has done a better job than not in dealing with those kinds of concerns.
But the harsh view of that would be to denounce all of Iran. Terrible regime, terrible country, what are we gonna do about it. But it’s a really complicated country, as we all saw in the aftermath of the elections. So the Islamic world is a lot like our own world domestically, geographically here in that it’s really complicated.
And I think the more we can do to foster a climate in which complexity is acknowledged and understood then the fewer birther nuts and “palling around with terrorists”—is that Palin’s line? God Almighty, you know, it’s embarrassing.
And I think the broad reaction to Governor Palin goes to these points as I understand them. I mean she’s about to hit us with a book tour.
Balmer: Right. And how will you cover that?
Meacham: We’re thinking about getting Levi to go blog it. [Laughter]
Balmer: And with an eye on the first pitch at 7:57, perhaps we’ll take this as the last question.
Meacham: Thank you.
Audience Member 5: I just was gonna say that I liked American Lion a lot. I spent a lot of time on beaches reading it. But when you talk about complexities—
Meacham: Maybe the youngest reader of that book.
Audience Member 5: I don’t think I am. My question this time is about complexities. America is a complex issue especially when it comes to religion. My question is on religion in America. I studied religion as an undergrad and it seems to me that the faithful are becoming more faithful and the faithless are becoming more faithless. We see these really feeling religions like Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, and in some sense Catholicism, growing, and at the same time you get books like The End of Faith topping the New York Times bestseller list. And I was wondering how you would characterize modern religious life in America. Do you agree or am I totally off base?
Meacham: No. You’re not totally off base at all. You’re not even vaguely off base. I think that the faithless being more faithless and the faithful being more faithful—you could probably argue that with integrity. There are a number of unaffiliated people in that survey we talked about that want to be spiritual without being religious and all that. My bet is that the people who are buying Christopher’s book or Sam’s probably know what they think going in. Sam Harris is a friend and I’ve said this to him so I don’t mind saying it publicly. His first book is really formidable. It’s an intellectual argument about the kind of extremisms that led to September 11 and beyond. The second book is one that basically calls me an idiot on the first page and then wants me to give him $17.00 so he can do it for 80 more pages. Saying that anyone who is religious is hopelessly stupid, superstitious. It’s a polemic, it’s not an argument.
And so I don’t think a lot of mega-church followers are thinking, you know, I’m having some doubts about the Trinity. I think I’ll go read Sam Harris and see if I can work this out. Maybe there are but I don’t know. I doubt it.
You bring out something I hadn’t thought of in this way. I wonder if the rise in unaffiliated—which is a 10 or 11 percent spike—is in reaction to this. Where if you’re in the pews, if you’re in these communities, you are becoming ever more devout, which is a testament to Father Balmer and his fellow clergy. And the other is a reaction to that. And then on the other side they feel uncomfortable with the heat of the rhetoric of the atheists. We did a piece on Dawkins the other week. Dinesh D’Souza has a book out on the scientific evidence of the afterlife. It’s not even a one-liner. [Laughter] It is the case. So I think that might drive a small group.
But I’d argue, in closing, that one of the frustrations—and this is taking off my journalist hat and talking as me—I think one of the frustrations for people who come from the kind of religious heritage that Randy and I do is we just feel as though we are so eminently reasonable, and why can’t anyone else see it? And maybe they do and they think, “Oh, we don’t know if…”
I live in my personal life in a great tension between intellectual conclusions that make me think that a way I spend a great deal of my time is hopelessly superstitious. I have made the decision culturally that this is the faith of my fathers and it leads me to do better things than I would otherwise. If it led me to do worse things I would reevaluate.
I am more generous because of it. Maybe it’s a low bar . And we don’t understand—I don’t want to speak for you. Episcopalians don’t understand and Unitarians don’t understand and Methodists don’t understand—why don’t more people who we know are like this, why don’t they come to the party? There’s an enduring mystery and one that mainline Protestantism—or what did Father Neuhaus used to call it? “Dead line”—something-dying Protestantism—”oldline.” We stand in this kind of mushy middle and that’s a tough marketing message. Come, doubt with us. [Laughter] But it’s where reality is for me anyway. And I think for a lot of people.
Balmer: Please join me in thanking Jon Meacham.