SALT LAKE CITY — Kenneth Woodward covered religion for Newsweek for nearly 40 years, traveling the world to interview revolutionary Catholic priests, the Dalai Lama and Elder Boyd K. Packer of The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.
Sixteen years after his retirement, he still has stories — and unique insights —to share.
His most recent book, Getting Religion: Faith, Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama, published in 2016, analyzes religion's shifting role in public life. He observes that faith groups don't influence politics and culture without getting influenced right back.
For example, many religious leaders who spent the 1960s marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King concluded that faith without social activism was worthless. Moving forward, they put less energy into worship and ritual, focusing, instead, on serving people in need.
Woodward does not return to religious moments in the past to cast judgment. Instead, he seeks to explain how we arrived at today's faith-related crises. Research shows that only around one-quarter of Americans today put religion at the center of their life — the same percentage who consider themselves detached from any religious institution.
He doesn't have all the answers, but his approach adds context to confusing developments, such as why so many white evangelical Christians voted for President Donald Trump.
Woodward was born and raised Catholic, attending Catholic elementary and high schools, as well as the University of Notre Dame. He was taught to take his faith seriously, and he tried to bring the same approach to the religions he covered.
"I would try to write about every religion from the inside, as if it were my own," he noted in "Getting Religion."
Ahead of his May 14 guest lecture at Brigham Young University, Woodward spoke with the Deseret News about faith leaders' declining influence in public life and what it was like to cover religion during a period of political unrest and social transformation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How do people 'get religion' these days?
Kenneth Woodward: Most people have actually lost religion. I've become really depressed by the numbers.
There aren't any religious movements out there. There aren't new religious ideas out there.
Younger people who are religious still get their faith from their parents. That conclusion is based on the work of (sociologist) Christian Smith. He says the best indicator that a little Catholic or Presbyterian will become a big Catholic or Presbyterian is the religious commitment and energy of their parents.
The problem is that, in mainline Protestantism and now in Catholicism, we've had several generations of parents who were weakly or poorly formed in their religious faith and practice.
And young people get competing messages from the world around them. There is nowhere to run and hide. We all have these awful phones.
When I was growing up as a Catholic, my Catholic parents, Catholic school and church surrounded me like a membrane, filtering things in and out. There are no filters anymore.
DN: Since publishing your book, you've given several talks titled "Is the future of American religion already behind us?" Have any of your listeners pushed back against your pessimism?
KW: No, I mean many are asking the same thing. They have children and grandchildren. They see that faith is not being passed on. They'd like somebody to explain that to them.
I spoke at my own (Catholic) parish the other night and they asked me, 'Is there any hope?' I said that I'm a hopeful person and that I'm really quite astonished and depressed at what's taking place.
But you have to remember that my religious formation took place in an aberrant and extraordinary time: the 1950s. If I came of age during the 1930s, today would look more familiar.
DN: What motivated you to write "Getting Religion?" What were you trying to say about American life?
KW: I describe the book to myself, at any rate, as a social history. It is a social history that takes religion from the periphery — where most social historians put it — and puts it at the center of the narrative.
After my first few years at Newsweek, I learned that you can't separate religion from other dimensions of life. It would have been a pretty boring beat to cover if religion wasn't of great consequence in the years I covered it. It really was front-page news.
I also wanted to tell good stories and give an account of my career. I suppose, in a way, my ideal readers are my grandchildren.
DN: Was there resistance to covering religion when you started at Newsweek in the 1960s?
KW: People used to introduce me as the 'religious editor' at Newsweek. I'd say, 'No. I'm the religion editor. There are other editors who are religious.'
But, in point of fact, there weren't that many. I was hired because Newsweek was getting beat by Time (magazine) at covering Vatican Council II.
The editors wanted stories first about Catholics, second about Catholics, third about Catholics, fourth about evangelicals when they finally came onto the political scene, fifth about Catholics and sixth about everybody else.
But they were fascinated by reactions to my work and we ended up having religion on the cover a lot.
At one stretch in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we got more letters to the editor about the religion section than all the back-of-the-book departments — science, law, education and all of that — put together.
DN: What would you write about if you were still a religion editor today?
KW: I think I'd ask for another beat, as a matter of fact.
I'm not saying that religion has entirely disappeared from public life. But I am saying there isn't much out there.
I gave a talk in Los Angeles recently and someone who used to be a religion writer took issue with that thought. She said, 'Well, I don't know about national figures. But my local rabbi is terrific.'
But my point is that there are no national religious figures. You can't name anybody that almost all Americans would recognize.
When I was editor, it was different. Take a figure like Bishop (James) Pike. He was everywhere. He was on your television, on your radio. He came apart at the seams right in front of everybody.
If you weren't there, you don't realize how much is not happening today.
DN: Did being a committed Catholic help you cover religion?
KW: I'm so glad you asked that. My answer is a vehement, yes.10 comments on this story
I've found that the deeper someone's religious commitment is, the better they understand other people's faith.
Let me give you an example. It was very easy when I went out to Brooklyn to cover the Hasidic (Jewish) community, even though you almost needed a passport to get in there.
They had almost the equivalent of the Catholic sacramental system: Everything in life had symbolic meaning.
I felt like I had known those people forever. It would have been harder for someone who didn't have their own religious convictions.