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Dogma if you do, damned if you don't.

THE CALLER'S HEART was in the right place. He was concerned about a local woman who had written a guest column for our paper the previous week. In that piece, the woman had very movingly poured out her grief and outrage at a justice system she felt had let off easy the murderer of her brother.

The caller had written a letter in response to that column. In it he advised the woman that she would only find relief from her anger and grief by accepting Jesus Christ as her personal lord and savior.

He asked if I would publish it.

As gently as I could, I rejected the letter.

It seems that lately such situations are arising more frequently in my job as editorial page editor of The York Dispatch/York Sunday News in York, Pa. More and more letters seem to be appeals for a return to that "old-time religion" or condemnations of this or that public policy on strictly religious grounds.

No doubt this is a response by the devout to what they believe is the accelerating destruction of the social fabric in our country and chaos elsewhere in the world. Random violence, teen pregnancy, lay-offs and plant closings, drug abuse, broken families, racial discord -- in the face of all these things, the believers cling ever tighter to their religion and see in it the only hope for the nation.

And since Christ commanded his disciples to carry his message to the world, it is only natural that they start with their local paper.

We certainly don't want to discourage those with a religious viewpoint from sharing it along with all the other viewpoints on our editorial and op-ed pages.

As many have pointed out, religiously motivated involvement in secular affairs has done much good in the world -- for example, in eliminating slavery, and later, in infusing the civil rights movement with spiritual strength and an aura of invincible righteousness.

At the same time, we are all conscious of the danger of having our pages turn into a forum for theological debate, with adherents of different religions arguing about whose religion is truer or better. Or worse yet, having our pages dominated by the adherents of one religion -- Christianity -- to the exclusion of all others.

We don't want to see letters and columns of diverse viewpoint, style, and wit driven out by mail-bags full of the familiar type in which every sentence ends with a scripture citation and whose "argument" consists of nothing more than an appeal to supernatural authority. "It's so because my god says it's so," thunders the Righteous Writer, "and anybody who doesn't agree is evil and will burn in hell! And so will the publisher and editorial page editor of this newspaper if they don't publish my letter!"

Such "arguments" are not arguments at all, but mere assertions. Worse yet, far from inviting debate, they seek to end it by preemptively demonizing anyone who might dare to disagree.

It is beyond the scope of the newspaper to settle spiritual matters, to decide which religious precepts are "right" or "misguided."

The old admonition says, "Never argue politics or religion." Newspapers have enough to worry about since they have chosen to ignore the first half of that advice. The last thing they need is to complicate their work by ignoring the other half.

The bottom line is that newspapers are institutions concerned primarily with earthly affairs, not divine.

Also, we live in a pluralistic democracy, one that must constantly adapt itself to serve the needs of people of diverse cultures and belief. In such a democracy, matters of public policy -- safety, health, economics, defense, general welfare -- must be debated and defined in terms that make sense to people regardless of their faith or culture.

A tree worshiper may read her scripture and find an injunction against government subsidies to agriculture. But that appeal to scripture is hardly going to, persuade a voter who is a sun worshiper and whose sacred writings contain no such injunction. Nor is it likely to sway the atheist, who rejects all scriptural authority.

If the tree worshiper wants to persuade the sun worshiper and the atheist to vote against agricultural subsidies, the sun worshiper must do so with secular arguments -- subsidies are unfair, too expensive, ineffective, or some such -- that do not rely on a particular religion to make them compelling.

And those are the terms in which newspapers must argue these matters, if they are to serve their proper role as the forum of democratic debate.

And that at root is why I declined to publish the caller's letter.

The column he wanted to answer raised important public policy issues regarding the criminal justice system. But his reply did not seek to address that issue at all. It sought instead to win a convert to his particular brand of Christianity by promising to ease the woman's grief and anger.

But dealing with her grief and anger is a private matter only she can decide. It is not the newspaper's business.

Debating what to do about the justice system that caused her such pain, however, definitely is.

NCEW member Glenn Sheller is editorial page editor for The York Dispatch in York, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:editorials as venues for religious or theological debate
Author:Sheller, Glenn
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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