Reporting religiously, from nuns to ‘nones’

Reviewed By Melinda Henneberger
Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kenneth Woodward's new memoir, 'Getting Religion,' marches entertainingly through his nearly 40 years as Newsweek's religion editor. Mostly, that's because his observations on the various faith figures he covered make reading it feel like a tour narrated by Andy Rooney for the benefit of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who popularized the quip 'If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me.'

Even in the 1950s — a time the author defends as family-friendly, though admirably, he never papers over its racism — President Dwight Eisenhower didn't necessarily add 'under God' to the Pledge of Allegiance out of religious devotion. 'Eisenhower never bothered joining a church during his long military career,' Woodward writes. 'But he did so after meeting the pious millionaires who funded Republican politics and deciding to run for president.'

Woodward spends much of the book lamenting the changes that came later and disapproving of many who lived through them. 'Compared to the old Latin liturgy, I found the new Mass about as moving as a freight train. … Pamphlet-thin ‘missalettes' replaced the thick leather-covered missals' and the 'kiss of peace' had to be endured.

'I remember vividly the funeral of the great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed at St. Patrick's Cathedral - swinging round to shake hands with whoever was behind me, I found only a pair of hands holding a limp missalette at arm's length. One middle finger was extended. I shook the finger — there was nothing else to grab — and looked into the disdainful eyes of William F. Buckley Jr. ... I wanted to say, ‘I don't like this Rotary Club routine any more than you do.''

He does say it now, though, of course, and much of the book is in that vein.

We hear of important, under-appreciated chapters in modern American religious history, like Billy Graham's shameful efforts to keep JFK from being elected because he and others, including Norman Vincent Peale, 'deeply feared having a Catholic in the White House.'

But some finger-wagging seems pointless, as in his portrait of Episcopal bishop James Albert Pike's 1960s evolution as a publicity-seeking searcher who shed dogma and wives at regular intervals. Though these days, many news outlets no longer have full-time religion reporters, much of what Woodward wrote about, from the Second Vatican Council to the televangelist scandals of the 1980s and 1990s, made the cover of his magazine.

To his credit, Woodward is among those whose back-stage foibles are reported in the book - Reinhold Niebuhr once sent back word that he might get better interviews if he talked less and listened more. He also shows himself altering the view of reality that readers were let in on, as when he tells a Presbyterian minister who almost never dressed the part that, 'If you're going to be on the cover of Newsweek, you're going to have to show the collar.'

Once, he rationalized that he could write about religion for another publication because it was a '‘family' feature for a women's magazine and not news' – and wound up scooping himself under a fake name in an interview in which Billy Graham made national news by declaring, 'I used to play God. But I can't do that anymore.' Graham never gave him up as the author, so 'I owed him one.'

He also rationalizes that now that it no longer matters, he can reveal that when Bill Clinton was president, Hillary Clinton told him off-the-record that yes, as a matter of fact, she did think about becoming a Methodist minister - 'All the time,' she told him, in response to his question.

He does present a few figures in a positive light — his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey and Father Ted Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame, where Woodward went to school.

But he's dismissive of most women in the book, and evidently immune to their concerns. 'In the pyramidal structure of the Catholic Church, only males can be popes,'' he writes. 'But in the culture of Catholicism, saints vastly outweigh popes in symbolic power and influence. Over the last nine centuries only five popes have been canonized saints (the last two in 2014) — fewer than the number of women (mostly nuns) canonized annually in recent years. None of this should be surprising in light of the inversion of status that runs through the Gospels - ‘The last shall be first, the first last.'' All right, but that doesn't quite get at the concerns of many Catholics about the number of women who have decision-making roles in the church.

Woodward laments that college campuses have become little more than 'youth preserves … where students are comfortably fed and housed,' entertained and indulged and generally 'left to their own devices.'

'Date rape is just one of the consequences of treating adolescents as if they were adults,' he alleges. Victims of sexual assault on college campuses might offer another perspective, one that places more emphasis on, say, the diseased view of young men who think their female classmates are little more than objects for their own gratification — a point of view that existed well before colleges began coddling their students.

Woodward also argues that these adolescents should accept the responsibilities of adulthood much sooner, and, at the book's end, suggests that he's written it for the benefit of the young, in the hope that they will at some point 'overcome the limitations of their protracted coming of age.'

The picture he paints throughout 'Getting Religion' is of authority eroded, with uniformly terrible consequences. But the tone that permeates the book could contain some clues about how that might have happened.