How religion shaped American journalism

The first, the broader trend, is that American religious identity, which has always been more fragmented than some like to believe, is becoming even more so. That is, religion has always been important to Americans, but it used to be possible to pretend that the United States was a “Christian nation.” But, as Sharlet and Peter Manseau showed in their 2004 religious travelogue Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible—an excerpt of which appears in this collection —it is completely ridiculous to talk in singular terms about American religion.

The other trend perhaps has a narrower reach; it has to do with changes within journalism in the age of the Internet. Though a decade ago everyone seemed certain that the nature of reading news online would all but guarantee that reportage would become shorter and shallower, in many ways, the opposite has been true. Of course, there are plenty examples of the short and shallow, but we are also seeing a trend toward “long reads,” in-depth literary journalism-type pieces published online and read and shared far beyond the reach of the print magazines who used to be the only place to find such writing.

As was the case in the 1800s, it is precisely the changes in the medium through which journalism is delivered that contribute to these trends. In the 19th century, it was the proliferation of the penny press and today it has a lot to do with the ubiquity of mobile devices. But Sharlet takes us back to 1863 in a piece by Walt Whitman, who, along with Thoreau (the second author in the collection) Sharlet sees as forming the “hybrid creation of modern literary journalism.” These pieces are perfect examples of the kind of writing that follows throughout the book, writers spanning centuries from the late 1800s up through 2011—from Whitman writing about the Civil War to a short piece by Francine Prose about Occupy Wall Street. In Whitman’s story we read gruesome and raw reporting on the battle of Chancellorsville, interspersed with beautiful descriptions of nature, the kind you’d expect from Walt Whitman.

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