Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."
But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.
"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''
"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.
"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."
It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.
Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.
Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.
Yes, there are problems. When I wrote my 1982 graduate project at the University of Illinois, I asked lots of editors why their newsrooms didn't do more to cover religion news. The most common responses were, "Religion is too boring and picky" and "Religion is too controversial."
Alas, the world is full of boring, controversial religion stories.
"Lots of journalists think that when religion is doing what it's supposed to be doing -- helping the poor, things like that -- it's just ordinary, everyday stuff. That isn't very exciting," said Stewart Hoover of the University of Colorado, author of "Religion in the News: Faith and Journalism in American Public Discourse."
Journalists get interested when religion crashes into business, sex, entertainment and, of course, politics. The question is whether editors will devote time, resources and personnel to quality coverage of the religion elements in those stories, said Hoover.
"They know millions of people really care about religion," he added. "That worries many journalists. … I think that they think that it isn't worth the effort to put up with all of that controversy. … It would be easier if religious faith stayed private and out of sight."
What are newsroom managers supposed to do? Graham gave the editors four pieces of advice that still ring true, even in today's embattled journalism marketplace.
(1) Increase local, national and global religion news coverage -- period. Look for "street level" religion and don't be afraid to put these stories on page one.
(2) Dig deeper than the "bare facts," probing the ethical and moral angles of issues in medicine, science, business, academia and law.
(3) "Build bridges" to religious leaders through face-to-face contacts, just like media leaders do with business people and politicians. Also, help religious leaders understand the realities of the news business.
(4) There's no way around it: Hire experienced religion reporters who have demonstrated excellence on this beat. Isn't that, Graham said, the way you hire sports reporters?
Graham stressed his respect for the crucial role journalism plays in public life. He also said he understood that "religion is such a vast subject that it must almost seem incomprehensible to those on the outside. Some of you may be afraid of offending some readers in our pluralistic society by dealing with religious topics and you find it easier to avoid them altogether."
But one truth cannot be denied.
"Religion often sways whole societies," Graham said, "and can even change the course of history."