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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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On the Spiritual Perils of Religion Writing: Q&A with Rod Dreher

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As a journalist, writing in the first person is still pretty new for me. But starting this site, blogging professionally and generally entering the Web 2.0 world is essential for my professional survival, and reading Romenesko, the blog-stlye round-up of media-industry news, reminds me of that fact daily. On the one hand, it’s freeing to write from the heart, share my opinions and borrow from my own life when I need an interesting lead. On the other hand, I have this feeling of creeping out onto a frozen pond, never quite sure when the ice will break, and I’ll fall through, suddenly finding every opinion I’ve admitted to online has now become a personal or professional liability.

Here’s the main danger: Market forces are pushing us journalists to write more personally. But do we know what the hell we’re getting ourselves into? I see colleagues who write about their children by name (I am sometimes guilty of that) and I know one editor blogged professionally about a thought that crossed her mind while having sex (I won’t even link to that because I’m embarassed for her.) Blogging about religion brings its own particular hazards. Do you share the ups and downs of your own faith life, or admit to not having one at all?

The truth is we journalists have always gathered material from our own lives, telling those stories by writing about others in the same situation: We call experts who will say in print what we think in private.  With blogging, we can’t hide behind the impersonal anymore, and it’s often an uncomfortable feeling. And our ambivalence often limits the power of our blogs — in a sense, we are blogging with one journalistic hand tied behind our backs.

Because all of us “straight” journalists are now, intentionally or not, becoming opinion journalists too, I wanted to get some perspective — dare I say wisdom? — from someone who has lived as an opinion journalist in religion for a long time: Rod Dreher. Author of the 2006 book Crunchy Cons, Dreher is an editorial writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and his blog, Crunchy Con, regularly generates heated discussion among commenters. I asked him about his decision to share his religious life with the world, and how that process has affected his family, his life and his role as a journalist.

Andrea Useem: Orthodoxy and Me,” your 5,700-word posting on how and why you converted from Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy, has been your most highly trafficked and most-commented-on post to date. Why did you decide to make that personal choice public on your blog almost two years ago now?

Rod Dreher: I felt that I owed it to my readers. I converted to Catholicism back in 1993, and since then I had made my Catholicism a central part of my journalism. When the sex-abuse scandal broke in 2002, I took a role front-and-center writing about it, advocating for reform and castigating the bishops. That role as a Catholic reformer came to define who I was for a lot of my readers. So when I lost my Catholic faith, and ended up moving to Eastern Orthodoxy, I felt I had a professional obligation to my readers to explain why. But I also wanted it to be a confession and a warning to others. I had been very prideful about my Catholic faith and had really thought that, as a Catholic, I was on the intellectual A-Team of Christianity in America. I depended on intellectuality, if that’s a word, to sustain me. Well, I was wrong about that. And I wanted to own up in public to my own responsibility for what happened to me, and not just blame the bishops and the bad priests. There were things that I did or failed to do that resulted in me losing my Catholic faith. If I had been a different kind of Catholic, I might have been able to withstand the time of testing and done what I believe is my duty as a journalist and as a Christian to defend the defenseless and speak out against injustice without blowing up my own faith.

Useem: Former L.A. Times religion-beat journalist William Lobdell wrote last year that he lost all religious feeling while reporting on religious scandals - I believe his account of that process was one his most widely read columns ever (and his book on the topic is due out in February, 2009.) Is your warning, then, to fellow journalists to steer clear of writing about your own faith?

Dreher: I’m not sure how to answer that. On the one hand, I don’t want journalists to shy away from asking necessary questions, but I do think journalists should be prepared for what they might see. At the beginning of this journey that ended up with me losing my Catholic faith, I’d gotten in touch with Father Tom Doyle, one very brave Catholic priest who pretty much destroyed his own career by speaking out on behalf of victims of clerical sex abuse. Father Doyle warned me, Knowing I was a very pious orthodox Catholic, Father Doyle warned me that if I continued on this path [of reporting on the sex-abuse scandal,] I was going find places darker than I realized existed. And, of course, that was catnip to a journalist. I thought I was prepared for it because I said my prayers and was a regular church goer. But in fact the degree of evil I encountered was not something I was prepared to face. I remember one archbishop, with whom I had been friendly, and asking me privately if I didn’t trust the bishops, why was I still a Catholic? It really shook me up. It undermined the picture I had of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, and who could be trusted. After I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I made a deliberate decision not to investigate the scandals in my own church. And there are scandals there. My family need me to be spiritually healthy. My family needs to have a church. And there’s nowhere left to go. So I can stand on the sidelines and watch journalists commenting about scandals in the Orthodox Church, and I can cheer them on to see justice done, but I cannot be involved in that. If that makes me a less of a journalist, then that’s something I have to live with, but at least now I know my weaknesses.

Useem: How does not reporting on problems in your own faith make you “less of a journalist?”

Dreher: Angry Catholics come at me, saying, “You were so quick to write about the Catholic Church’s problems. Why not the Orthodox Church’s problems?”  My answer is my faith is not strong enough to withstand going through that again, but that doesn’t satisfy them because they feel treated unfairly. Right now I’m chomping at the bit to write about the big financial scandal in the Orthodox Church in America, but I think, “Don’t go there. You’re not spiritually strong enough.”  That’s when I doubt myself as a journalist. To give another example, on the morning of September 11th, when the towers were burning, I was running from my home in Brooklyn to Manhattan to cover the story. While I was on the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw the south tower fall. I had a decision to make, because I knew in a few minutes they would close off the bridge. Do I continue to run toward the disaster? Or do I turn around and go back to Brooklyn and check on my wife and child? I made the decision to go back and look after my family. I filed the story about what I had seen that day on the bridge, and that was that. That decision haunted me professionally because I missed the story of my lifetime. But in that moment of testing, I realized that my family is more important to me than my job. And in that spirit, I have to be very careful when I write about faith, so I don’t damage myself spiritually in such a way that I’m a burden on my wife and children.

Useem:  As an opinion journalist, you make your private life public. Do you have any regrets about that?

Dreher: Yes, I do. Truman Capote was one of my early influences and favorite writers of journalism. But Capote ruined himself in the ‘70s when he wrote a short story for Esquire that was a thinly veiled account of high-society Manhattan gossip. He told some very scandalous stories out of school, and when it was published, he lost all of his close friends, because they believed he had betrayed them. He was shocked that this happened. He said in a subsequent interview, “Didn’t they know they were talking to a writer?” I think a lot about that. So many times, I’ll put something on my blog, and my wife will say, “I wish you hadn’t done that.”  I’ve gotten better about checking with people first, or even saying, “Maybe I just shouldn’t post this at all.”  But as writers, we tend to think everything is material. Just recently, I was my family down in Louisiana, and I noticed a couple of times, my mom or sister would say, “Now, don’t blog this!”  I was embarrassed because I realized maybe they had seen things on the blog they didn’t want public. As writers, we have to realize that we may choose to make our own lives public, but we don’t have the moral right to do that with those who are close to us. For a writer like me, where my family is such a big part of what I write about, I’m constantly having to negotiate those lines. One thing I have learned is I am never going to put any photos of my children on my blog. I’ve done that before, but right now the police are investigating someone who has been harassing my family with a malicious prank, and they brought my wife’s name into it. It’s unnerving to me because there are some crazy people in the world, and when you put information out there in public about your life and your family’s life, you don’t have control over what people do with it. My wife shouldn’t have to suffer because people hate my opinions.

Useem: How do you maintain your inner, religious life, when it is also fodder for your public life?

Dreher: My wife says to me, “You have no unblogged thoughts.” That’s not entirely true, but she has a point. But I work in the mainstream media, where there aren’t a lot of religious people, and as a man of faith, I like to see mainstream figures talk about their faith in a real way. I have blogged about supernatural things that have happened to me, because I know they happen to others too, but others are afraid to talk about them because they’re afraid people will laugh at them. I want to show people you can work in the mainstream media and be a person of faith, whatever your faith is, and not have to be ashamed of it. If that means I get a certain amount of ridicule, well, so be it. I’ve developed a really tough skin over the years.  And when I get a letter or email from someone saying, “That happened to me too. Thank you for being brave enough to speak out,” [I feel rewarded] for my role. At the same time, as I learned from reporting on the Catholic scandal, I have to be careful and not get carried away. In my passion for making things public, I leave myself open to attack, spiritual and otherwise, that could end up compromising my faith.

There Are 12 Responses So Far. »

  1. [...] Pope Benedict XVI was at it again this weekend, this time at an outdoor Mass in Paris where he condemned the world’s love of money and power. The Associated Press reported that the pope labeled the “unbridled ‘pagan’ passion for power, possessions and money as a modern-day plague.” Paraphrasing from the New Testament, Benedict decried “insatiable greed” and said “the love of money is the root of all evil.” [...]

  2. This is an interesting interview. It addresses some of the questions Rod refused to answer in the comments to a previous post on his blog (

    I’m not sure that I could make the same decision Rod did (I’m not sure that -to use Rod’s frequent promotion of his parish as an example- I could simply turn a blind eye to Fr. Fester’s involvement in extensive financial corruption, or +Dmitri’s tolerance of -and thus tacit support for- massive corruption among his friends), but I now at least understand where he’s coming from.

    I still have one question. In this interview Rod talked about how Roman Catholics were angry because he talked so much about scandals in the Catholic Church, and yet now he refuses to say anything about scandals in his own church. But the thing is, he STILL talks OFTEN about scandals in other churches (and particularly the Roman Catholic Church).

    Isn’t it one thing to essentially say, “I pointed out flaws in churches in the past, and I learned that I’m not strong enough and therefore don’t do it anymore,” and another thing to take Rod’s position of “I learned my lesson, alright: I no longer say anything about my church because I’m too weak to handle the fallout, but other churches better get ready for another blog post or column from Corporal Punishment!” The first position is an admission of limitations-Rod’s position seems to be rank hypocrisy.

    If Rod’s admittedly too weak to address problems in his own church, wouldn’t the path of integrity be to refrain from commenting on problems in other churches? But, if as a journalist he must comment on problems in other churches, shouldn’t he apply the same journalistic standard to the corruption roiling around the altar in his own parish?

    I really can understand, and truly sympathize with, Rod’s inability to write about problems in the Orthodox Church in America (and particularly Rod’s Diocese of the South). But I just can’t see how blatant hypocrisy is really the solution to his admitted spiritual weakness.

  3. Rod’s honesty is his strength as a person and as a seeker. Few journalists would admit publicly that they a) have a profound bias, and b) allow it to impact their professional behavior.

    But MS is correct in saying that the integrity of Rod’s writing is greatly diminished by his unwillingnes to acknowledge the human failings of members of his faith group while continuing to crticize the human failings of those associated with other groups.

    Are his employers aware of his double-standard? If so, are they accepting of it?

    We are all human, with all that implies. Were we more than human, organized religion would be unnecessary.

    As a long-time religion writer, observer of the religious scene and self-styled seeker myself, I find it helpful to always remember the importance of separating the message from the messenger. Near-perfect truth can and often is conveyed by wholly imperfect human messengers (journalists included).

    Like Rod, whose thinking on many (but not all) issues I’ve long admired, I also struggle with the faults of those in my religious/political/social community. I’m sure I also fail to be entirely honest at times because I, too, am imperfect.

    But I find it important to try for honesty’s brass ring for the sake of my self-respect and ability to understand the world as it is rather than how I’d like it to be - not to mention for keeping my eye on the core of my alleged spiritual growth.

    Thanks, Rod, for your willingness to shed light on your inner struggle. I imagine your speaking about it here reflects the degree to which it torments you. Here’s hoping you find the peace you deserve.

  4. very honest answers!!

  5. I find Rod Dreher’s article very authentic. It certainly speaks to his youth.
    I am in my 80th year on this planet and my husband [ of 57 yrs]& I have rejected Roman Catholisism since the year 2000.
    I was a convert also but at the age of 13. My husband was a cradle Catholic. I was a daily communicant, teacher of CCD, Eucharistic minister, RCIA, etc. etc. I was a great defender of the RC Faith.
    When we were enlightend by the Holy Spirit [plus the good sense that God had given us] to leave the RCC as fast as we could, we found our faith to be strong…..we had lived long enough for God to have brought us through all the tough times of life and the “institution of the RCC” had nothing to do with it.
    We found out that the RCC, was and always has been, an institution that was more interested in “self preservation” than in their sharing of the God of our universe.
    God loves and protects us but also disciplines us at times as a good Father always does, for the children He loves.
    The evil of Satan has taken over the RCC. Your own Faith cannot be taken over by the evil one, unless you continue to stay and be an assessory to the “evil crimes” they are commiting.
    “The Kingdom of God is Within you”. We recieved our marching orders , be strong and recieve yours. Let this institution go bankrupt. It already has spiritually gone bakrupt and has spiritually murdered so many of our young that were placed in their care. Let the evil end.

  6. Thank you, Rod for your openness and allowing yourself to be vulnerable on many levels. Your writing on the scandal in the Catholic church gave many people hope that honesty and integrity exist and also gave them the courage to come out of their denial of the truth of the decadence within the church. So for them, they in fact found faith, a much deeper, more mature faith, knowing it had nothing to do with the evil within the church, but rather with their private relationship with God. You may view it that you paid a high price personally, but perhaps your path to adulthood in your spirituality was truly born in that labor. You must choose to follow what you hear in your quiet alone time with your God. The tricky part is to be open, and in the silence, to recognize the gift. You gave the gift of truth to many. Some may have learned it nowhere else.

  7. This was a great article and outlines for all of us the problems of assigning your own church membership to your Christian Faith, your belief in the Messiah, your acceptance of Christian history and ethics in your life. They are not the same. If the church sex scandals have taught us anything it is this: the church age is over. It is finished. To put this in American slang, the era of the freelance Christian has sadly and profoundly arrived. Creeds and memberships and tribal allegiances to one of the almost 300 Christian sects throughout the world has now reached the point of the ridiculous. We must return to the beginning…to a simple Faith in Christ.

    Who then would be my mentor, my theologian, my ‘voice of the age” ? Considering how personal our Christ now must become since the Church Age is over, I would say that it must be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was a Jesuit priest, scientist, theological outcaste, the silenced priest and one who was forbidden to publish, teach theology or preach. He must now lead us all to a personal Christ in a scientific age. One good thing that can be said of the sex abuse crisis is that it killed our Faith in Churches.

    Thank God.

    Now let us proceed with a mature, personal and adult Faithing experience in Christ. De Chardin will show us the way.

  8. [...] fab woman writer/friend, Andrea, puts it like this in: On the Spiritual Perils of Religion Writing: Q&A with Rod Dreher : As a journalist, writing in the first person is still pretty new for me. But starting this site, [...]

  9. As St Peter Damien suggested, almost 1,000 years ago, to curb the unchecked, and excessive criminality, and sexual deviancy, of the clergy and curia. back then: “STOP DONATING LAITY”.

    It is clear in over 100 recently published empirical books at:, from such salient & cogent authors as: Roman Catholic Bishops Jeffery Robinson & Thomas Gumbleton, as well as Dr. Robert Grant, MD, Richard Sipe, Dr. Leon Podles, David Yallop, Attorney Marci Hamilton, Jason Berry, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, Fr./Dr. Howard Bliechner, SS and Fr./Dr./Canon Lawyer Thomas Doyle, OP, to name only a few, the unchecked, uncorrected, and unpunished EVIL the current Roman Catholic Curia has loosed upon the laity, would make The Devil Himself blush in envy.

    At is daily documented and verified domestic and global coverage of the ongoing Cardinal & Bishop CRIMES AGAINST GOD & HUMANITY, as well as the USCCB commission JJ Crimianl Justice Report, & the Philadephia Criminal Grand Jury Report.

    Recommended films:

    2006 US Academy Award BEST DOCUMENTARY nominated: ‘DELIVER US FROM EVIL’

    2007 Critically Acclaimed: ‘VOWS OF SILENCE’

    2008 ‘DOUBT’ Starring US Academy Award Winning BEST ACTRESS Meryl
    Streep & US Academy Award Winning Phillip Seymor Hoffman

    Edmund Burke reminds us all: “The only condition for the triumph of EVIL, is for good men (or women) to do nothing.”

  10. What I find most interesting about this article is the idea that blogging in the first person is “essential” for a journalist’s “professional survival”. It’s interesting because, as a web designer, I’ve been told the same thing. Do or die! Publish or perish! Get that Google page rank!

    The thing is, I don’t have a blog. I don’t have a professional website. I don’t even have an online portfolio. But I keep plenty busy, and I’m well paid. I’d like to think that it’s because I do pretty good work. That may seem like an awfully antiquated concept, but it’s hard to argue with a steady income.

    So I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion that blogging in the first person (shall we abbreviate it to “BITFP”?) is “essential” to a journalist’s career, especially if the blog consists of little more than opinions and personal anecdotes. It seems that the more time a journalist spends BITFP, the less time they spend being a journalist.

    I tend to avoid most personal blogs, especially those on Beliefnet. I’ve found many of their blog postings to be uninspired, uninspiring, self-absorbed, shallow, sloppy, poorly-researched, misleading and sometimes recklessly ignorant. It’s often the most recklessly ignorant postings that generate the most traffic. Good for them. But do any of these writers still care about facts? Checking sources? Their reputations as credible sources of information? Or is the echo chamber news enough for them?

    I don’t recall reading Rod Dreher before, but he seems to typify the banality of contemporary journalism. I mean, he does what he does, and he says what he says, and I’m not interested. Why is his denomination-hopping any more relevant than Britney’s kabbalah fixation? Am I supposed to be fascinated by the spectacle or something?

    On a more positive note, Andrea, I read ReligionWriter because your substance-to-navel-gazing ratio seems pretty high. I don’t mind the occasional glimpse into your personal life, but I hope you continue to focus what you do best: well-written stories about people and ideas. I’d like to think that a reputation for quality will sustain your career far better than BITFP. I sure hope so!

  11. Thanks Marcello. You make a good point in questioning whether blogging is essential for professional survival. I know a number of professionals like yourself who survive quite well without having any sort of online presence. I think that’s great. For me, one of the main professional reasons to write online is to learn about how the web operates. And I have learned an enormous amount through starting and running this site.

    Thanks too for your kind words on the site, and the encouragement to continue to write substantive articles. Much appreciated.

  12. [...] mushin published a blog post. ~C4Chaos: On the Spiritual Perils of Religion Writing: Q&A with Rod Dreher : … [...]

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