Mark Oppenheimer on Religion and Fatherhood

A short interview on big subjects

Mark Oppenheimer, author of the bi-weekly 'Beliefs' column for The New York Times, writes about American religion and fatherhood, two topics he has spoken about this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. In graduate school, I studied religion reporting under him at NYU. We caught up on his work this week.

Reporting out a story will sometimes change one's ideas about how the world works. Have you had that experience on the religion beat? What particular article were you working on? How did your thinking change?

I think that if you're doing reporting right, it will always change whatever your preconceptions of a story were. In my case, reporting a story deeply usually tends toward more sympathy for the characters. I think most people are basically honest and mean well, and reporting often tempers my cynicism. The great example would be my reporting on David Blankenhorn, the head of the Institute for American Values. As you may know, he was the major witness in the Prop 8 trial in California, testifying against same-sex marriage. He eventually did an about-face on that issue, something he and I talked about in a radio documentary I did on him. Now, when he was against same-sex marriage, I disagreed with him. But after talking with him, I came to believe that he was never the anti-gay homophobe some of his opponents saw. He was doing what he thought was best for children, and he was careful never to vilify gay men and lesbians — much more careful than his comrades on that side. I'm glad he changed his mind, but I regret how much unwarranted ad hominem abuse he endured before he did.

I was particularly intrigued by your article about Christians who play football–how they reconcile their faith, with its emphasis on humility and turning the other cheek, with their sport, where hitting opponents as hard as one can, to the point of trying to hurt them, is the norm. How was that article received in our football loving culture? Did any of the feedback help you to better understand the phenomenon?

That's actually an article where my initial suspicions were only confirmed and amplified by my reporting. Football lovers like to think that team sports, and football in particular, promote virtue for those who play them. It's clear the opposite is true. The research shows that participation in high-level athletics makes one less moral, more interested just in winning. And my interviews with Christian coaches were horrifying: they all justify to themselves all kinds of violence on the field, as well as dishonesty. Take an issue like lying to a referee: "Yes, I made that catch! I didn't drop the ball!" Now, you'd think a "Christian" player would put some premium on telling the truth. But they all rationalize lying, in part because everyone does it. As if God's rules can take a back seat to the custom of the sport.

Religious believers often feel that they're treated unfairly by the media. Do they have a point? What aspects of religion do journalists regularly get wrong?

Most reporters have a superficial knowledge of whatever beat they're on; that's true of me every time I wander from the religion beat, where I actually have pretty deep knowledge. So reporters get religion wrong, but they get a lot of things wrong: labor relations, war, etc. I don't think there is a special animus against religion. One could argue there is special gentle treatment for religion. Religious believers say things all the time for which there is no real evidence — that's what "faith" is, by definition — and reporters don't call them on it, unless the religion is new and thus seems weird, like Scientology. But if a religion is old and traditional, like Judaism and Christianity, its adherents get to go on about the Rapture, or the Resurrection, or whatever, and reporters never insert paragraphs like, "Asked for evidence that the Rapture would someday come, the minister could only point to the Book of Revelation."

In recent years, you've written a lot about fatherhood. There is a tension between preserving your family's privacy and exploring this aspect of life along with your readers. How do you decide how much to share? Do you think your approach will change as your kids age?

always ask myself if I'm writing something that will embarrass my children someday, and if so, I don't do it. Same for other family members, of course -- I don't write things that would embarrass my mom or my wife.  But yes, the approach is already changing, as my eldest daughter reads and my second daughter is starting to read. They even have a vague notion that all knowledge can be found on "Google." I would add that having written a memoir about my own childhood, I know that the young child I write about in that book doesn't seem like me, but rather a different person altogether. So I trust that the young children in my fatherhood essays won't embarrass my grown-up daughters too badly, someday. But yes, I err on the side of discretion and privacy.

You dabble in book reviews. Anything in particular that we ought to be reading?

Dave Hickey, the genius art critic and essayist who wrote Air Guitar, one of the great essay collections ever, has a new book out, published in England, called Pirates and Farmers. Try to find it. My wife, who reads much more than I do, loved Boris Fishman's new novel.

Your book Wisenheimer recounts your years doing high school debate, which more than qualifies you to tackle this hypothetical. Imagine that every American is going to watch two people square off on live TV. You get to pick the subject, the participants, and the moderator. What would we be watching?

Oooh, that's a toughie. I'm actually not that interested in debates any more. But I am still turning over in my head the experience of reading Peter Gray's book Free to Learn, about the unstructured Sudbury Valley School, which I went to visit after reading the book. It totally upends one's perception of why we need a canon, or "rigor," or even a curriculum. I'd love to see Diane Ravitch moderate a debate between Gray and some curriculum ideologue, like whoever is helping the Ivies or Stanford get online with Coursera or EdX or whatever. Because even though those computer models are supposed to be revolutionary, I think they assume the basic parameters of most schooling, which is that we need to cram Important Subject Matter into our heads.

And that's what Gray contests.