Hey reporter! Are you a believer?

Before he answered the Los Angeles Times' questions, the Rev. Oral Roberts wanted to ask some questions of his own.

The mid-1980s were turbulent times for televangelists and veteran religion writer Russell Chandler was probing the state of his ministry and finances. So Roberts wanted some details about the journalist's life and beliefs and he wouldn't settle for a summary of his academic and professional credentials.

"Are you a Christian?", he asked, as the tape rolled. "Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? ... I'm not playing games."

Chandler said that he didn't divorce his faith from his journalism. But, as a professional, he said he preferred to be judged on the quality of his work. Did Roberts need an answer before the interview could proceed?

"You bet I do! This is private property. We have freedom of religion just like you have freedom of the press," he said. "I've been beaten, kicked around a lot and my product is up there for you to see. So I'm waiting for your answer. ... We're either Christian brothers or we're not."

There was a long pause. Eventually, Roberts accepted Chandler's assurance that they could discuss their Christian convictions in an appropriate setting.

Every religion writer I know has faced this question or some variation on it. Once, when I was covering a fiery Pentecostal service, the preacher pointed down at my pew and bellowed: "Brother! Are you with us?" Holding up my notepad, I said: "I'm taking notes!" This was true, although it's hard to take notes when people are speaking in unknown tongues.

I have been grilled by New Agers, United Methodist bishops, legions of Episcopalians, every manner of rabbi, assorted Calvinists and Baptists, both northern and southern. A public relations pro in Salt Lake City once assumed I was a Mormon because I have a strange beard and kept waving away the waitress with the coffee pot.

The other day, the Tennessee Association of Churches informed me that it wants to salute me for my writing. Since my teaching schedule won't allow me to attend their Oct. 22 meeting, I thought I'd take this opportunity to say "thank you." But I also want to make the following comment, since I'm sure that some in this group had, yes, planned to ask where I worship.

I propose a moratorium on asking journalists the church question. Instead, any religious leader who wants to size up a reporter should ask: How long have you covered religion news?

There isn't a really good answer to the church question. In fact, one of the worst answers a reporter can give is: "Yes, as a matter if fact I go to YOUR church. Now, could you please tell me why OUR church wants to modernize the creed?" At this point, the reporter usually receives a sermon on why he or she shouldn't betray THEIR church. Few people love traitors.

It may not help to say you attend another church. Some people will then assume you're an apostate or that you'll be prejudiced against their church - or both. If you decline to answer, this also makes some people mad. This says, in effect, that the interviewee has to open up his or her soul, but interviewer does not. And it doesn't work to say that it doesn't matter which church you go to, or whether you believe anything at all, because you are a professional journalist and, thus, you'll be fair to everyone. This causes believers to roll their eyes, because the news media have a history of botching religion stories.

Plus, saying that it doesn't matter whether a reporter has any personal interest in religion at all comes very close to saying that centuries of doctrine and tradition don't matter. As a rule, apathy about eternal issues isn't a sign of intellectual interest in this subject -- the kind of interest that produces accurate reporting. Few editors hire sports reporters who don't care about sports.

So, how do I answer the big question?

For years I have used a response that goes like this: "Yes, I am an active churchman and I take my faith very seriously. Thus, I understand that you take your faith very seriously. That's why I want to do everything I can to report your words and viewpoints accurately. Now, can I get out my notebook?"