WASHINGTON – Sally Quinn, a Washington Post journalist who founded and moderates “On Faith,” a Post website on religion, said she learned years ago that in Washington social circles, people don’t discuss religion. They are “stealth religious.”
Speaking at the National Press Club in early December on “Why Journalists Must Understand Religion,” Quinn asserted that because “95 percent of people are motivated by religion,” religion has an effect on every part of daily life.
The daughter of an Episcopal father and a Presbyterian mother, she told them at age 13 that she was an atheist.
Seeing photos of her father’s World War II unit liberating the Nazis’ Dachau concentration camp in Germany, she thought there couldn’t be a God. That “destroyed her childish notion of faith,” she said.
After her marriage to Ben Bradlee, the Post’s vice president at large, they had a son born with serious health issues. But she said that didn’t bring her back to religion either.
It wasn’t until after 9/11 that she became interested in Islam and began a journey that later took her around the world to 13 countries in three weeks to learn all she could about the world’s religions.
She realized that religion has enormous consequences and no one was covering it. “You can’t ignore this,” she told Don Graham, the Post’s chairman.
Four years ago Quinn started the website “On Faith” – http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith – with renowned religious figures as panelists. She said she is not adversarial, that she wants to hear what people have to say. She asks people, “What is God to you? What gives meaning to your life? What is the divine?” No two people have ever given her the same answer.
Quinn said she is a changed person from who she was four years ago, and she has learned to respect people’s beliefs. She said she likes the quote, “I don’t know, but you don’t either.”
She learned that she wasn’t an atheist but was ignorant about religion.
“You can’t be educated in the world today if you don’t know religion,” she said. “All that happens today is impacted by religion.”
She gave examples: gay marriage; gays in the military; the Tea Party, religious right and evangelicals; health care reform with the Catholic bishops and nuns publicly at odds; the controversy over a proposed mosque near ground zero; the presidential campaign and the question of President Barack Obama being Muslim; and the pope’s recent remarks about condoms and AIDS.
She discussed the minister in Florida who in September threatened to burn the Quran, and how that went viral on the Internet.
Another example was an 11-second video showing ants on a crucifix that had been part of a National Portrait Gallery exhibit in Washington and went viral in early December after the clip, on display since October, was pulled by the museum Nov. 30. The museum’s action followed strong criticism by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who called it offensive to Christians.
“Religion is important for all of us, but particularly journalists. The most humbling thing in the world is to cover religion,” she said, adding that she feels so inadequate.
Quinn believes religious education should be mandatory. “How can you be a history major, or an art major, or a music major, without studying religion?
“There is more evil done in the name of religion in the world,” she said, “and also much good done in the name of religion in the world.”