By Daniel Cattau

In the early 1840s, long before there was a National Basketball Association or Dennis Rodman, Mormons were big news. The editor of the Chicago Democrat, curious about the strange group, wrote a letter to Mormon leader Joseph Smith, who was establishing a new Zion in a patch of swampland in western Illinois. Smith sent back the Mormons’ 13 articles of faith; number 11 was the right to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.

Two decades earlier Smith had received a revelation from God through the angel Moroni, who hand delivered the Book of Mormon, and after that the Mormons were persecuted, misunderstood, and often reviled. So they followed their prophet westward from upstate New York and landed in Nauvoo near the Mississippi River.

The Mormons had received a charter from the Illinois legislature to establish a city that soon rivaled Chicago in population. But many in the established churches considered the estimated 11,000 Mormon faithful to be heretics, and their practice of polygamy was offered as solid evidence. (Note to Dennis: Sorry, polygamy was abandoned more than 100 years ago.) The persecution continued, and in 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were jailed, then murdered by a mob. Instead of having its own NBA team, Nauvoo now has only about 2,000 residents–though plenty of historic sites.

This rich history of Mormonism in Illinois–not to mention the 23,000 Mormons now living in northeastern Illinois–made me think that the Tribune and Sun-Times missed an opportunity during the recent Bulls-Jazz championship playoffs. Especially when Rodman, who thought Mormons were a synonym for Jazz fans, blurted out that Mormons were “a*******,” as many newspaper accounts genteelly put it. (Bulls coach Phil Jackson wasn’t much more enlightened; in trying to explain Rodman’s comment, Jackson said, “He may not even know it’s a religious cult or sect or whatever it is.”)

The local papers did do some Mormon stories, including a couple of lifeless Tribune pieces on the 150th anniversary of the Mormons’ trek from Illinois to Utah. In one Daily Herald story a Naperville mother of five Bulls-loving Mormon kids expressed the sentiment of many, that the Bulls would be better off without Rodman.

But few reporters bothered to call Neal Cox, president of the Illinois-Chicago Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. When I tracked him down a few weeks after the Rodman incident, Cox, who’s on a three-year assignment in Illinois from his native Utah, was still unclear about the word lurking behind all those asterisks. “I was never sure what he said,” he said, without a trace of joking. My explanation didn’t seem to bother him. “We were grateful for the comment because it brought attention to the church. If we knew where he lived we’d like to send two missionaries to visit him.” Now that’s a religion story.

As a religion writer for more than 20 years, I’ve met few editors who have a good grasp of how to cover religion, so it isn’t surprising that religious communities are frequently grateful for any coverage they receive–good, mediocre, even Rodman-esque. David Tracy, a University of Chicago theologian and Catholic priest, writes in The Analogical Imagination that in our society religion is the one subject about which intellectuals, including editors and reporters, can profess ignorance without unduly embarrassing themselves. Religion just doesn’t receive the same attention as personal finance, cars, homes, movies, politics, or sports. I did a quick search of the Tribune’s archives for 1996. Michael Jordan brought up more than 2,100 entries, Dennis Rodman more than 1,600, Bill Clinton well over 1,000, Cardinal Bernardin the mid-300s, Madonna slightly fewer, Billy Graham 50, and University of Chicago religious historian Martin E. Marty a measly 10.

There was of course Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s battle with cancer, which the two major dailies covered to excess. The Tribune ran an uninspiring ten-part series on the state of Roman Catholicism after his death, and the other coverage at times lacked finesse and depth. Even heroes get the blues or get discouraged, but the media, in their relentless search for heroes, sometimes overlooked this–though the Tribune did quote the cardinal saying, “During my convalescence I found the nights to be especially long, a time for various fears to surface. I sometimes found myself weeping, something I seldom did before. And I came to realize how much of what consumes our daily life truly is trivial and insignificant.” Exploring the cardinal’s dark night of the soul more would have added complexity to what was generally a good-news story.

As the former religion editor of the Dallas Morning News, I was instrumental in expanding the religion staff from one to five full-time reporters and editors and pushed hard for what is now a six-page, self-standing religion section. Before that I’d often felt like a right fielder in a Little League game. Three days after federal agents stormed the Branch Davidians’ compound near Waco in late February 1993, my editors asked me to go back to other stories. I told a friend, “Now I know that when the Second Coming truly does come it will be a weather story.”

Of course the religion angle to the Waco story was underplayed throughout the crisis by nearly everyone. The government and the media framed it as a crazed-cult/hostage story, even though an apocalyptic sect doesn’t need an attack by armored tanks and tear gas to persuade it the end is near. The Branch Davidians knew it had already arrived, and they acted in concert with their beliefs.

In general Chicago’s editors don’t seem to have a clear idea of what they want from religion coverage. The Tribune–which has a virtually unreadable religion section that’s buried in the Friday Metro section–has only one full-time religion writer, Steve Kloehn, who only recently took the job (in the interests of full disclosure I’ll note that I talked to Tribune editors about the job; I’m now on the staff of a bioethics think tank in Chicago). I asked the 32-year-old Kloehn about the possibility of writing about the Rodman comment as a religion story. He said that week he was working on a death-penalty story tied to the Timothy McVeigh trial. “There’s no way we’re hoping to cover all the stories,” he said.

As a general assignment reporter, Kloehn had done a fine job as the main writer on the cardinal’s battle with cancer–as did Andrew Herrmann, the Sun-Times religion writer who moved on to the editorial pages. But I had the sense that Kloehn was still feeling his way around the beat. His experience is typical of many who turned out to be excellent religion writers: he was thrust into the position without much background or formal theological training and was learning on the job.

Kloehn describes his philosophy of covering religion as “looking at the key issues of the day and finding what are the religious undertones.” He said that the Tribune will be widening its coverage, which is sometimes perceived as too focused on the Roman Catholic Church. “It will be covered and covered well, but only as the events require.”

The Sun-Times now has a so-so Saturday religion page and a much livelier Sunday section and column by Tom Sheridan, a 25-year veteran of the paper who’s also a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. The paper’s only full-time religion writer, he seems to be in touch with the ordinary; one of the things he’s written about is Baba’s Place, a near-north-side Muslim cabbie hangout that happens to have a mosque upstairs. And he’s planning a story on Mormons. “I want to reflect the news of what happens in terms of the institutional religion of all cultures and ethnic varieties,” he told me. “Beyond that there are the stories of faithful people and the way it impacts their lives.”

In his first column Sheridan wrote about the difference between covering religion as an institution and writing about faith. Some religion writers are reluctant to talk about their own beliefs. Some are atheists, others lukewarm Protestants, a few are ordained priests and ministers. I have no trouble with reporters actively participating in a congregation as long as it doesn’t affect their judgment. And in some cases it helps to be something of an insider.

Certainly local religion coverage would be improved if reporters covered more national stories. The Tribune could have done a lot better with the Southern Baptists’ recent vote in Dallas to boycott Disney–the biggest Protestant denomination (more than 15 million members) against the biggest entertainment empire. But with local reporting supplementing wire copy it was hard to tell the difference between Southern Baptists and, say, people from Utah.

Over the last 40 years religion writing has gradually moved away from sermon topics to breaking news, trends, analysis, and interpretive reporting. Last year Robert Keeler of Newsday won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on a Long Island Roman Catholic parish. And papers such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press are expanding their religion staffs. But skeptics may feel substance is still sometimes sacrificed for glitz and style and that the stories still lack a hard-news edge.

Editors may believe that’s just fine because religion coverage is essentially about faith. The normal standards of evidence still don’t seem to apply, except when a televangelist is caught with his pants down or financial scandal strikes. A Roman Catholic prelate still gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the existence of heaven. A friend of mine who worked for a midsize Texas paper once referred to Mary as the “alleged virgin.” He never covered a religion story again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.